Iraq War at 4: Still not ready for primetime

THIS WEEK’S PROGRAMMING BARRAGE marking the fourth anniversary of the U.S. adventure in Iraq provides an inadvertent referendum on broadcast news, reflecting what has become the “not ready for primetime” war.

ABC News’ multipart examination of the conflict, “Iraq: Where Things Stand,” spans “Good Morning America,” “World News” and “Nightline,” but leaves a big doughnut hole where “20/20” resides. Ditto for NBC News, which is excited about Richard Engel’s special detailing his experiences as a correspondent, “War Zone Diary” — though not excited enough to clear an hour on its flagship network, instead playing it Wednesday, March 21, on less-seen cable network MSNBC.

President Bush has said Americans pay a price for the war “when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night,” but the truth is such images are easily avoided by anybody tuning in after 7 p.m. Indeed, many wouldn’t see them unless they were emblazoned on Simon Cowell’s forehead.

Engel’s project is instructive in that it displays the kind of war reporting that can find a toehold in primetime. Like ABC’s recent hour devoted to anchor Bob Woodruff’s devastating injury and painstaking recovery, there is a personal, network-centric element to his “Diary,” which touches upon the dissolution of the reporter’s marriage and how the ordeal personally affected him. It’s as if the audience can’t be expected to watch such fare without injecting human-interest flourishes viewers can readily equate with primetime soaps.

GRANTED, THE MAJOR NETWORKS are to be commended for devoting resources to Iraq and the context some of this week’s reports offer. Yet they also send a tacit message about the war’s ongoing importance and their priorities in the way the coverage fastidiously skips over primetime — the most-watched, most-profitable and most prestigious three-hour block within the long TV day.

This strategy speaks to an assumption that depressing realities of the war’s prosecution will be ratings poison, no match for sexual predators, teenage love triangles or hidden-camera scams — news “stories” that steadfastly adhere to the language of primetime drama and reality TV.

As for the “images of violence” that war footage contains, that, too, says something about the screwy, misguided state of what Americans are perceived to find objectionable or unsettling. Then again, even some critics have lost the ability to distinguish violence’s shades of gray based on reaction to the movie “300,” comparing its heavily stylized and choreographed battles — which practically lift graphic novel panels directly off the page — to more intense, sadistic and realistic gore.

Televising the ravages of war has the down side of being real, unlike the bodies inside a chalk outline on “CSI” and its progeny. Primetime, however, is home now to plenty of “real” violence — albeit the sort that’s carefully staged for our amusement.

HAVING FAILED TO CAUSE MUCH STEAM with breathy telenovelas, News Corp.’s flailing MyNetworkTV has desperately turned to “IFL Battleground,” a weekly program showcasing the “mixed martial arts” of the Intl. Fight League. In essence, “IFL” takes boxing a few nauseating steps down the evolutionary ladder, allowing the combatants to kick, knee, “guillotine choke” and pummel prone opponents about the head — the perfect Monday-night alternative to “Dancing With the Stars.”

This represents a logical progression for reality TV, which must constantly up the ante to stay titillating. An elimination game showcasing this iteration of sports as alley fight, Spike’s “Ultimate Fighters,” also returns in April — just another bloody diversion to keep the horrors of reality minus quotation marks at bay.

As for the broadcast nets, they have conceded primetime exposure of Iraq to channels like HBO, Discovery (which recently aired Ted Koppel’s enlightening documentary “Our Children’s Children’s War”) and PBS, whose four-part series “News War” — containing a segment where investment banker Charles Bobrinskoy counsels newspapers to stress localism and leave international coverage to the New York Times and Washington Post — shed considerable light on the bottom-line mentality mitigating against journalism and toward infotainment.

So in recognizing the war’s latest milestone — four years after “embedded” became a term of journalistic innovation, then one of frequent derision — we’ve been presented with a sobering reminder: Not only where things stand in Iraq, but also of the shifting sands upon which news divisions stand.

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