Television has historically operated by its own peculiar calendar: The seasonal September kickoff timed to new car models, “very special” sweeps stunts, and a summer siesta in May.
But now, courtesy primarily of cable networks and their yawning demand for programming, we have a new wrinkle: the tragedy re-visitation calendar.
Hungry for promotable hooks, execs and producers have reached a point where every historic event — and let’s face it, few of those are happy occasions — is commemorated with a slew of recaps and remembrances. In the same way Discovery has created an annual event around “Shark Week” by reliably ringing the dinner bell every summer, networks keep dredging up greatest hits from the past.
Michael Jackson’s death was undoubtedly news, but the current summer began with a mad crush of specials on ABC, CNN, MTV, E!, Fuse, TV Guide Channel devoted to its one-year anniversary.
The run-up to fall has become especially crowded in this regard. Multiple programs are timed to the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, as the network news divisions descend on New Orleans. There will be a “Dateline” special, while big names like Brian Williams and Matt Lauer broadcast from the Big Easy. ABC will spread “Katrina: Where Things Stand” across various platforms, including “World News,” “Nightline” and “Good Morning America.”
But at the risk of mixing tragedies, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The documentary specials are highlighted by Spike Lee’s four-hour requiem “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise” for HBO. In addition to the broadcast brigade, cable news and “Frontline,” a dial-spanning sampling includes National Geographic’s “Witness: Katrina,” “Hurricane Week” on the Weather Channel, and the feature-length “A Bridge Life: Finding Our Way Home” on Documentary Channel.
Finally — and most incongruously — there’s “The Gulf Is Back,” a CW concert hosted by David Hasselhoff. As if the region hasn’t suffered enough.
From Katrina, the calendar shifts to Sept. 11, which has become its own annual occasion for televised reflection — and should receive even more attention this year, given the ginned-up controversy over building an Islamic community center near the site of Ground Zero.
Getting a jump on the pack, Investigation Discovery — which has a way with titles — has already announced “Why Is Bin Laden Alive?” for Sept. 12.
It’s human nature to reflect on milestones, perhaps, but arbitrarily transforming such dates into an excuse for a made-for-TV deluge appears more pragmatic and cynical. Everyone old enough remembers where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, and since that just happens to coincide with sweeps. …
The tragedy calendar is well stocked with benchmarks throughout the year.
The next few weeks encompass Katrina, the death of Princess Diana in a 1997 car crash and Sept. 11, before the fourth quarter brings the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s murder and the Indonesian tsunami.
January will mark a year since the devastating Haitian earthquake. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Black History Month in February have assumed new significance since President Obama’s inauguration (last year’s specs included “Stealing Lincoln’s Body”), with the assassinations of Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. in April.
April 2009 inspired retrospectives a decade after the Columbine High School shootings, while the 2011 spotlight will inevitably note the passage of a year since the BP oil spill; and the next year, almost certainly, the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage.
It’s now accepted practice to commemorate Memorial Day with sobering documentaries (HBO has produced several laudable ones devoted to Iraq), especially with the U.S. at war.
In addition to Jackson’s death, June includes the Simpson-Goldman murders, O.J. Simpson’s subsequent White Bronco chase and Robert Kennedy’s assassination. And with the more uplifting moon landing in July, we’re pretty much back to where we started.
About the only disaster TV has overlooked is “Ishtar’s” release in May 1987. Maybe for its silver anniversary in 2012.
This is not intended to diminish or trivialize these events, and in the spirit of generosity, let’s resist the temptation to suggest networks have. Yet the practice does invite a simple question: Does it make sense, even from a programming standpoint, for all this commemorative fare to arrive in an unruly, simultaneous burst? And wouldn’t it be more logical for such programs to arise when there’s something new to say, as opposed to merely because another 12 months have elapsed?
Then again, maybe all this will look different next August. After all, time has way of changing one’s perspective, and by then, we’ll be ready to celebrate this column’s first anniversary.