In the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the TV industry did something extraordinary. Networks set aside traditional competitive concerns and acted in unison, orchestrating a major benefit concert under a united front.
A decade later, building toward the 9/11 anniversary, TV is not only back to its old ways but engaging in a whole new level of chaos.
So many networks have scheduled specials, movies, even entire themed weeks centered on Sept. 11 that they risk trivializing the event, making it equivalent to the way primetime series air a slew of Halloween or Christmas episodes. By dissecting the day from every conceivable angle — CNN alone has scheduled four documentaries; National Geographic Channel will devote a full week to it — the resulting din has become a noise-cancelling exercise.
There’s no shortage of stories to tell. Roughly 40 Sept. 11-related telecasts are already slated, with more to come. Topics range from the stories of ordinary people to top political figures, uplifting to sobering, a tick-tock of the day’s events to its aftermath and future. There’s even six hours from Discovery and sibling Science Channel (produced by Steven Spielberg, no less) on efforts to restore the destroyed site, “Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero.”
In addition to the usual suspects — cable news, broadcast networks, Discovery, History, NatGeo, Smithsonian Channel — others are piling on. They include, but are not limited to, OWN, A&E, Animal Planet, USA, TLC and Showtime.
Having them arrive all in close proximity to the anniversary signals a future for Sept. 11 akin to the Kennedy assassination or moon landing. Each time the chronological interval can be divided by five or 10, expect a new deluge of “specials.”
As a critic, about all you can do in the face of such a dizzying onslaught is throw your hands up and surrender. More casual viewers can afford to be selective, although how they are to discern which projects merit their time and attention is anybody’s guess.
Of the additional channels weighing in, the only one that really makes sense is perhaps the least obvious: Nickelodeon. Linda Ellerbee will host one of her trademark current-affairs specials for children, “What Happened? The Story of September 11, 2001,” recounting the day for a demographic that was too young to have experienced its horrors first-hand, including interviews with young adults who were still children themselves when the towers fell.
“The noise around the 9/11 anniversary is going to be too loud for kids to ignore,” Ellerbee explained in a letter to critics, answering her own question, “Wouldn’t a little ignorance be blissful here?”
To be fair, the intentions of all these programs seem admirable enough, and many networks are endeavoring to be sensitive by airing them commercial-free. The scope of the event also places networks in a difficult bind. After all, who could ignore Sept. 11’s 10th anniversary, especially when its ramifications remain with us every time we go to an airport or sporting event?
The coordination witnessed in the wake of the attacks, however, would have gone a long way to bring order to the current mess. Rather than dozens of different specials, what about a handful, cross-promoted and simulcast by media congloms?
Barring that, some of the entertainment channels could easily have passed the buck to their news divisions without anyone raising an eyebrow. No one will think less of A&E or Animal Planet for sitting out the Sept. 11 anniversary. Instead, networks with no logical connection to the story have piled on, defensively or opportunistically. Either way, it’s unnecessary.
Three dozen networks simulcast the original post-Sept. 11 benefit concert “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” televised 10 days after the attacks. The goal then was to convey the message that assorted media, personalities and indeed the nation could speak with one voice, articulating the pain of the moment as well as the resiliency of the American spirit.
Ten years later, the image and memory of the twin towers coming down remains fresh for all except perhaps Nickelodeon’s demographic. Yet TV’s immersive approach to marking the anniversary unwittingly seems more reminiscent of another tower — the biblical one in Babel.
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