Webs grapple with current events

Disasters force nets to re-examine content

This year’s rash of tragedies — man-made or the work of Mother Nature — continues to keep network programmers on their toes.

Events like hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, the Pakistan earthquake and the London bombings forced webheads to comb through their programming to make sure nothing might offend viewers. In some cases, the nets had to pull promos, add disclaimers or delay programming altogether.

“The sensitivities of world events are colliding with entertainment more frequently,” notes CBS communications senior VP Chris Ender.

At the Eye, just in the past few weeks, network execs had to ponder several changes to various shows. “Survivor: Guatemala — The Maya Empire” added a tag to one episode after mudslides caused death and destruction in that show’s host country.

This month, two episodes of “The Amazing Race: Family Edition” took place in New Orleans, having been shot prior to Katrina. Blurbs featuring host Phil Keoghan were inserted later explaining the unfortunate timing and urging viewers to help in relief efforts.

The same thing happened with “Race” last winter, when it showcased Sri Lanka in the weeks following the tsunami that destroyed much of the region.

“As long as it’s not perceived that the networks are exploiting a tragedy, audiences are accepting of the unfortunate parallels,” Ender says.

At ABC, the net temporarily pulled promos for frosh drama “Invasion” in the wake of Katrina. Show kicked off by revolving around strange occurrences in a small Florida town following a devastating hurricane; later promos de-emphasized the storm.

Alphabet web also had to shelve a screening of the theatrical “Reign of Fire” in July after the London subway bombings.

Indeed, net execs say they must now frequently discuss current events to gauge how they might impact their schedule.

That’s nothing new, but it’s become more of an issue as both scripted and nonscripted series become more reality-driven. When TV reflects reality, unforeseen tragedies can make that reality feel a little too close for comfort.

In the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example, it wasn’t clear if viewers would be ready for “24’s” terrorist-themed plotline.

“Clearly you want to be sensitive to tragedy,” says 20th Century Fox TV prexy Gary Newman. “When TV can be entertaining but also be relevant to people, you’re incredibly lucky. But it’s important that it not feel exploitative.”

Network execs also have to be vigilant in reading the mood of viewers and assessing their content in determining how to handle programs that cut a little too close to real life.

In deciding to air the disaster pic “Category 7: The End of the World” (a continuation of last year’s “Category 6”) during the November sweeps, the Eye decided that the telepic’s overexaggerated storm wouldn’t be confused with this hurricane season’s devastation.

“It’s a sequel, so critics and viewers will know what to expect,” Ender says. “And they know it’s a film of heightened reality, it’s over the top. It’s a popcorn adventure, so no one will mistake for the tragedies that happened in the Gulf Coast.”

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