TV's Changing Landscape

By , Television critic of The Christian Science Monitor

'Patriotism is definitely in ... trash TV is out," says Gary Edgerton, who sees a discernable shift in what's on television since the tragedies of Sept. 11.

The changes may not last, he and other experts say, but for the moment, "audiences are gravitating toward the familiar and comfortable.... Everybody is loving 'Raymond' or loving 'Friends,' " says Professor Edgerton, chairman of the Communications and Theater Arts Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

Though "Friends" depicts an impossible dream of intimacy among a small group of young adults who keep changing sexual partners among themselves, the kindliness of their friendships seems more pleasant than ever.

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And the two biggest hits of the fall season were two servings of TV comfort food: a nostalgic Carol Burnett comedy special and the last game of the World Series.

"Audiences are going back to the tried and true," Edgerton says. "[They want] less spiteful programs." But he also cautions that this may be only a short-term effect. No one can predict how responsive television will remain to the Sept. 11 tragedies - or for how long.

Of course, ABC's "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" special (or was it a commercial?) in November proves that trash TV still lives in prime time.

"But in terms of the TV landscape, nastiness seemed to abate a bit," Edgerton says. Irony has always been a mainstay of humor and has helped debunk all kinds of nonsense, but on TV it had descended into simple-minded cheap shots. That seems to have moderated. Even the "queen of mean," Anne Robinson of the prime-time NBC game show "Weakest Link," has toned down somewhat, Edgerton says.

'Self-indulgent' TV seems out of place

After the televised events of Sept. 11, "reality TV" doesn't look so real anymore.

"This is the genre that was specifically negatively affected," says John Rash, senior vice president and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Withun, an advertising agency in Minneapolis. His job is to know which shows are hot - or not - and why.

Reality shows, he says, represent "a kind of reverse escapism - fleeing the good life for one that is harder. That began to look remarkably self-indulgent [after Sept. 11]. People were not coming together in a crisis, but driving each other apart."

Reality TV is a reflection of Americans' insular naiveté, Mr. Rash says, and America was suddenly jolted into a new global awareness on Sept. 11. Americans may have realized that some elements of American culture are beacons to the rest of the world, he says, but other elements advertise decadence. They may have seen the folly of looking like a bickering, self-indulgent, money-grubbing people - an image they may not want to project to the rest of the world, he says.

True reality "is what happened on Sept. 11," says Marc Berman, senior television writer at Mediaweek.com, which keeps tabs on ratings and trends. " 'Reality' [TV] took a major hit. 'Survivor' is still doing well, but it was the best one of the staged games. 'The Mole,' 'Temptation Island,' and 'Pop Stars' were D.O.A...."

The aftermath of Sept. 11, Mr. Berman points out, pushed back the new fall TV season a week or more. Some films were pulled from cable channels. The Emmy Awards show was postponed twice before it finally aired. ABC canceled the reality game show "The Runner" and pushed back the season première of the caustic, though hilarious, "The Job," in which Denis Leary played a hard-drinking, womanizing, rule-breaking New York cop.

CBS could not air the pilot episode of its new drama "The Agency" because its story line involved terrorism. That meant the show got off to a slow start because the first episode established the premise and the characters, Berman says.

Before Fox's innovative drama "24" premièred in November, a scene of a plane exploding in midair was cut. NBC dumped plans for a "Law & Order" miniseries about a terrorist attack on New York that would have featured the casts of all three of its popular series: "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit," and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

Sept. 11 is 'part of our culture now'

Still, NBC chief Jeff Zucker insists that NBC is not planning its programming with any special attention to Sept. 11. Of course, his network did air a special episode of "West Wing" - a smart, helpful civics lesson about America's relationship to the Middle East, told with a good deal of passion and a splash of condescension. And two weeks ago, the show's President Bartlet found himself confronting a mad-cow-disease crisis that could just as easily have been anthrax. And there was a special installment of "Third Watch," in which New York firemen told their own stories.

Writers on shows that take place in current times and want to be seen as realistic, if not exactly real, have felt the need to reflect the changes the tragedies have wrought in American society.

In a coming episode of CBS's "The Guardian" (Dec. 11), a Middle-Eastern restaurant owner uses a baseball bat to defend himself, his daughter, and his property from an intruder. The teenage vandal has sprayed a racial epithet on the door. The teenager's parents try to sue the Muslim man for breaking the boy's arm, claiming irreparable damage. But writer-producer David Hollander resolves the problem creatively - and the surprising ending carries a significance it would never have had before now.

"Sept. 11 is an undeniable part of our culture now," Mr. Hollander explains. "People are caught up in fear and speculation and mistrust right now. No artist is immune to [his] culture. Part of our job is to reflect it.... I write what I feel. I write every day in this world, so the [tragedy] is in the 'white noise' around the characters ... but we are all trying actively not to make it part of programming...."

In less-realistic shows, from situation comedies to espionage thrillers, shows that do not depend on the real world for verisimilitude, writers are avoiding references to Sept. 11.

J.J. Abrams produces and writes for both WB's "Felicity" and ABC's "Alias." "The effect it's had on all of us is yet to be determined," he says. "It's evident that people are looking for more life-affirming entertainment. I'm aware of the importance of bringing people shows that are compelling and still have a romantic and respectful quality to them."

"Alias," he says, is hyper-real, larger than life. But what it is really about (besides entertaining people) is the age-old reconciliation of father and daughter. "In the wake of 9/11, I see that as especially poignant." But he says he does not intend ever to refer to the events of that day because for him to do so in the context of his shows would be to trivialize those events.

If these are times that try men's (and women's) souls, we're watching the trial on TV: More people than ever are watching television. Cable news channels have rushed to complete or re-air documentaries about the Middle East, Osama bin Laden, and the problems of Muslim women living "beneath the veil."

National Geographic has been investigating the cultures of Afghanistan since 1902, and National Geographic Explorer on MSNBC, in the tradition of its parent magazine, saw the need to send a reporter to interview anti-Taliban Gen. Ahmad Shah Masoud (later assassinated), long before any of the network news organizations did.

Even A&E, the arts and entertainment network, has tried to inform the public on timely issues through its outstanding "Biography" series, profiling important figures such as New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush, and Osama bin Laden.

News traditionally is cheaper to air than dramas and comedies. But the cost of producing the news since 9/11 has increased dramatically. Round-the-clock news coverage immediately after Sept. 11, without benefit of advertising dollars, was extremely costly.

Tough times let flops hang on

The recession and the scarcity of advertising dollars, in tandem with Sept. 11, may have caused a strange phenomenon. Over the last three months, entertainment shows that would ordinarily have been pulled for poor ratings are staying on the air, such as NBC's "Emeril," "UC Undercover," and "Inside Schwartz," and CBS's "The Ellen Show" and "The Agency."

Fox's critically acclaimed "24" has not been the hit the network had hoped for. But Fox recently committed to running all 24 one-hour episodes of the real-time thriller about a terrorist assassination attempt on the life of an African-American presidential candidate. "24" is having trouble picking up new viewers because the story arc is so tight and late-comers get lost: It's a true serialized cliffhanger, TV analyst Rash points out. "It's also in a challenging time slot, across from 'Frasier' [NBC] and 'Smallville' [WB]."

What is the most distressing trend, post-Sept. 11? How about the exploitation of patriotism in ads? This isn't an impulse to show solidarity, such as the placing of an American flag in the corner of the screen might represent. It's nothing more than crass commercialism: Why is that Jeep driving up the face of the Statue of Liberty? And is Chevy really just trying to "keep America rolling?"

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