Saturday morning, I was in the middle of a conference when we were alerted to the news of the tragedy which took the lives of the seven astronauts aboard space shuttle Columbia. Immediately, my thoughts raced back to a day 17 years earlier in a different venue-a day which did not bring out the best in television viewers in my market.
At the time, I was news director of WWAY-TV in Wilmington, N.C. Part of my daily routine was to co-anchor our midday newscast, “The Carolinas at Noon,” which had just launched four weeks earlier.
Around 11:45, I was on the set reading over my copy with Stella Shelton, my co-anchor. I glanced up at the monitor which ordinarily carried a lame effort: “The New Love American Style”-one of ABC’s dozens of inept efforts to compete with “The Price is Right.”
Suddenly, the network “Special Report” graphic appeared, and what would become a memory of horrendous proportions hit the screen. The picture was not live. Yet the details were clear: the space shuttle Challenger had exploded only a couple of moments after liftoff and disintegrated. I looked at my co-anchor and said: “We won’t be doing a noon newscast today.” We didn’t.
What happened later that day would teach me much about human nature and the sometimes darker side of television viewers. NASA, obviously hoping against hope for a miracle survival, was delaying a declaration that death had come to the seven Challenger astronauts. With only CNN (which, at the time, was still not available in nearly 70 percent of the United States) available as an all-news network, the broadcast networks went into wall-to-wall coverage mode.
Once 1 p.m. came and “All My Children” did not appear, the telephones began to ring … and ring … and ring. They continued nonstop into the usual time slots of “One Life to Live” and “General Hospital.” The callers were not expressing sympathy or sadness over the Challenger tragedy. Of more than 600 calls, 98 percent of them were from viewers expressing anger over their beloved and precious soap operas not being available that afternoon.
My staff and I did everything humanly possible to do two things: (1) Explain that even if we had desired not to carry the ABC News coverage, we could not show the soaps because they were not available to us. You guessed it: That made people even madder, some to the point of accusing us of lying. And (2) try to gently express that at a time of national tragedy, the least we could do for the day is to be patient because of the massive loss of life.
I was astounded at how vitriolic and even profane some of the callers were-and some of them were elderly ladies expressing such sentiments. My usually unflappable and even-tempered assignment editor Barbara White had been nearly reduced to tears by one woman who called Barbara every unprintable name in the book because “General Hospital” was not airing. Another (this one an apparently elderly female who identified herself as from Southport, N.C.) told my weathercaster Shirley Gilbert, one of the most kindhearted people in the world, to “stick all that space stuff up your … .” Well, you get the picture. The verbal wrath continued until 5 p.m., when NASA finally held a news conference.
Years later some of that same behavior continues. I now oversee TVgameshows.net, a Web site that covers the game show genre as a journalistic enterprise. When the tragedy of Sept. 11 changed our lives, I received an astounding number of e-mails from game show fans who were angry because CBS was pre-empting “The Price Is Right” and local affiliates were not carrying syndicated games. Already, I am hearing from people concerned that if we go to war with Iraq, they will be deprived of their daily fix of game shows. Never mind that we may be sending young men and women into harm’s way and some may not return.
How we behave in a crisis is often more telling about who we are than at any other time in life. When the news of Saturday morning broke, my first thought was of utter shock and sadness for those seven families who have lost someone dear to their lives. My second was an instant return to that day in 1986 when, for five hours, I listened to some of the worst in human behavior from adults. If some of those callers to the WWAY newsroom that day are still around, maybe they have matured a bit. I hope so.
If not, their reaction to the Columbia tragedy was probably one of misguided thankfulness that it occurred on a Saturday morning. That created less inconvenience to their television viewing habits.
Steve Beverly is a professor of broadcasting at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He is a former news director for WSAV-TV, Savannah, Ga., WWAY-TV, Wilmington, N.C., and WBBJ-TV, Jackson, Tenn.