Guest Commentary: A call for a humane handling of Sept. 11

Aug 19, 2002  •  Post A Comment

One day last week, I was busy tapping some upcoming meetings into my PDA when it dawned on me that Sept. 11 was just about a month away. It gave me pause for a few moments and then I turned to my e-mail box.
And there it was.
A query from a colleague: “What are we doing on-air to commemorate Sept. 11 on The Newborn Channel?”
Now The Newborn Channel, a DBS service that is beamed directly to some 1,200 hospitals across the USA, has relied on programming consisting of news and information for parents. So the question really is: Should we be doing anything on-air for Sept. 11?
“It is far better to err on the side of giving too much coverage,” CBS President Leslie Moonves recently told TV critics at the Television Critics Association tour. Now I believe when the history of modern television programming is written, Brandon Tartikoff and Leslie Moonves will go down in history as the two most innovative, creative and savvy executives of all time. Are Les’ programming instincts on target once again? Maybe for CBS and the other broadcast networks, but for the rest of us the path is unclear.
On the eve of the anniversary, ESPN is airing a program, “Blood Brothers,” about the New York Fire Department’s football team, which lost 22 members to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. This sounds like a poignant program. But is it any less poignant on Oct. 10 or Feb. 10?
Oxygen has a 30-minute special, “The Women of Rockaway Beach,” about the Queens community where many members of the NYFD had homes. Will the Oxygen audience tune in that day seeking programming to take their minds off this tragic anniversary or will they tune in expecting a different take?
I think what happens on such extraordinary days is that the natural order of programming takes over. The broadcast networks will be the places where most people will turn. It is for situations such as these that Katie Couric, Dan Rather and Ted Koppel are paid the big bucks. They are familiar guides to chart us through troubled waters.
Next the “news junkies” will turn to CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Elsewhere on cable, loyal viewers of brands that offer reality programs on a regular basis will get some sampling for their efforts, depending on the amount of promotion and press attention these specials receive. There lies the rub. How do you promote Sept. 11 programs without making it appear crass and exploitative? The promotion of these shows cannot be treated as if it were the November sweeps.
Then there are the viewers who would prefer to get away from the pain of the memory of this tragic event. There is no doubt there are Comedy Central viewers who will be thankful to see repeats of “Saturday Night Live” or viewers of TBS who will thirst for the mindlessness of “The Wedding Singer.”
And if some networks choose to treat Sept. 11 at just another day-which of course it will never, ever be-so too should the TV critics. Ripping apart any network’s coverage of Sept. 11 serves no purpose. Nor does praising it. It is the one day of the year where such words do not matter.
On Sept. 12, network PR departments should restrain themselves from touting ratings to the press. This even serves less of a purpose. If there has to be some kind of scoreboard for Sept. 11, it should be a cume audience, including the broadcast networks and any cable networks that aired any related programming. Maybe it will take a few more days to tally that information. So be it. Television on this day should not be about winners and losers. How could there be any winning in a day where there is still so much loss?
One of the big stories from last September was the loss of commerce. It was estimated that networks that aired commercial-free in the aftermath of the attack lost some $200 million in advertising revenues.
Paul Rittenberg, who is in charge of ad sales for the Fox News Channel told the Associated Press recently, “The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was not the right thing to do to solicit advertising.” But maybe moves such as these have a hint of being pre-emptive measures as advertisers are backing away from the day. “I don’t think you’ll see any of our clients advertising during the special 9/11 coverage,” one media buyer told The Wall Street Journal.
I can’t help but keep thinking about the line that was echoed last fall about “not letting the terrorists win.” The World Trade Center attack was an assault on our people, our society and our economy. Al Qaeda would like nothing better than to see the defeat of the infidels’ capitalistic system. By not supporting the networks that are providing coverage it seems like the terrorists do win again.
CBS’s “9/11” special last spring serves as sort of a benchmark for what we should see next month. Not only was it a well-produced program but also it was “presented by Nextel” and done so in a very tasteful and proper manner. Aren’t there other advertisers and agencies up to the challenge that Nextel embraced?
When all is said and done, everyone in the TV business-programmers, producers, writers, advertisers, critics-will do what they think is best. As for The Newborn Channel, it will too.
When I thought about the more than 15,000 births that occurred last Sept. 11, those children and their parents entered a totally different world than the one the parents had planned. So in an attempt to look forward, we will produce some vignettes and talk to some of those parents as they hold their children, and we will get their thoughts on what the future holds. Like other programmers we hope our audience will think we made the right decision.
Brian Donlon is VP and general manager of iVillage Television, owner of The Newborn Channel. He has worked for CNBC, Lifetime and CBS News and is a former TV writer at USA Today.