An insecure TV season

Feb 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The prospect of war is always unsettling. Whether or not an American-led coalition ever actually sets foot in Iraq, as seems likely at this time, the very prospect is already raising the national tension level and causing many to prepare for the worst. The situation is particularly difficult because it is far from clear whether a war against Iraq will last two weeks or two years, and its potential to disrupt all aspects of American life is obvious. And, as always, television will be at the center of it all.
In a time of war, the activities of the entertainment business, the coming and going of celebrities and even some forms of programming can suddenly seem trivial. With the lives of American men and women at risk on the battlefield it becomes harder to see the appeal of a high-speed chase or the charm of a bachelor seeking a mate, or to appreciate the finer points of eating bugs on “Fear Factor.”
But the entertainment business has always managed to thrive in difficult times and has usually found itself playing a vital role-from providing escapist entertainment at the movie theater during the Depression to helping to focus sentiment against the Vietnam War by bringing its televised images into America’s living rooms.
With Desert Storm and Afghanistan already under their belts, TV news operations are well prepared to cover an invasion of Iraq. It now appears likely journalists will be beaming back to the United States more news and more details than ever before in history. The safety of the correspondents will be a primary concern, but at least their mission is clear: Bring the story of the war to the viewers back home.
The mission of entertainment departments is less clear. Should they carry on with the bug-eating contests as though nothing unusual is happening or should they get real about so-called reality and cut back on the nonsense in favor of more mature and responsible programming-whatever that is. For months after the Sept. 11 attack on America, viewers turned to tried-and-familiar shows, from “Friends” to “Frasier,” happy to escape for a short time from the harsh reality of news reports and tragedy. Some called it “Comfort TV,” and associated the tried-and-true with the red, white and blue.
This time around the situation is even more difficult to predict. There is no way to know whether regular programming and advertising will be disrupted, or for how long. Any disruption could dampen an already difficult economy, which in turn could spin the business into a long period of sluggishness.
Nevertheless, with war imminent, TV must be prepared to change and adapt more quickly than usual. And it must prove itself yet again to be a responsible partner in American society.