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How the war is affecting (or NOT affecting) TV

How the war is affecting (or NOT affecting) TV — With 24-hour news channels and other outlets providing Americans with crisis updates, the nets are sticking by their popular shows

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CNN, Wolf Blitzer, ...
Friends and CNN Illustration by Joe Zeff

”We interrupt tonight’s regularly scheduled war to bring you a rerun of ‘Friends’…” Well, no, it wasn’t that bad — but it was a bit jarring.

On March 17, after the four major networks bumped regular programming to broadcast President Bush’s 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, it took all of one commercial break to snap most of them back to entertainment as usual. NBC blithely returned to its already-in-progress episode of ”Fear Factor,” while CBS resumed a repeat of ”The King of Queens.” The President of the United States had just brought the nation to the brink of war, announcing a looming battle with a ”terrorist” state that presumably possesses weapons of mass destruction, and the Fox network was airing ”Married by America.”

Welcome to war, version 2003. On the ground in Iraq — and all over the globe, for that matter — the stakes are incredibly high. But on TV, in this brave new world of broadband cable and instantaneous news feeds, armed conflict seems to be playing out as just another entertainment option. Last week, you could watch an episode of ”Friends” or observe a tank patrol under fire in real time on a desert plain some 8,000 miles away. You could watch ”American Idol” or American troops, or flip between both at your leisure. If Vietnam was ”the living room war,” this one seems custom-crafted for TiVo.

In crises past, television has stitched the nation together by broadcasting with one voice, burning the same images — the doomed Kennedy motorcade, the blazing oil fields of the first Gulf War, the crumbling of the Twin Towers — into the country’s collective consciousness. This time, TV is speaking in a hundred voices (more if you have a satellite dish) and it isn’t always easy to keep them separate. While mug shots of real terrorists are flashing across the screen on CNN, fake ones in snappier outfits and better haircuts are targeting innocents on ABC’s ”Alias” and Fox’s ”24” (the latter of which features an all-too-real-seeming plotline about a fugitive Middle Eastern terrorist attempting to nuke Los Angeles).

What’s changed here is, in part, technology. During the first Gulf War, cable TV was just a niche market; today, more than three quarters of America’s homes are wired up to it. With round-the-clock news now so widely available elsewhere, the broadcast networks no longer feel obligated to blanket their airwaves with crisis coverage. Indeed, they’re finding it a lot more profitable not to. ”That ‘Fear Factor’ rerun did remarkably well,” gushes NBC Entertainment’s senior VP of programming Mitch Metcalf, referring to the episode that aired after Bush’s March 17 speech. ”The repeat performed like an original.”

”By now the American public knows we’re here 24/7,” says Bill Shine, an executive producer for the Fox News Channel, which, like all the other cable news outlets, followed up the presidential address with hours of talking-head analysis. ”And the broadcast networks aren’t set up for 24/7. They’re used to a half hour a night.”

Something else is different about this war, however — or at least different in the way it’s being shown on TV. Unlike the 9/11 tragedy, this unfolding moment of history seems much more slickly packaged, almost surreally staged, as if it really were just another TV show. ”We knew this war was coming,” explains Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. ”This wasn’t a shock like September 11. They had a 48-hour clock going on MSNBC. It was as if we could almost look at the TV Guide schedule and see ‘Nine o’clock, commence firing.”’ Even the TV show itself has become part of the war story: Witness the debate over whether the televised images of POWs violated the Geneva Convention.

Perhaps because the war has been so long anticipated, with hours of ”Showdown With Iraq” coverage clogging the cable channels, it somehow feels less urgent now that it’s finally unspooling on TV. (That’s not true, of course, for the families of the men and women doing the fighting.) All that could change dramatically if the conflict ends up taking a horrific turn — or even just a more telegenic one. ”Despite all the embedded reporters, there’s no big battle to show right now,” says NBC’s Metcalf. ”B-52s carpet bombing a city with tons of dumb bombs would be more telegenic, but, alas, that is not the Pentagon’s priority. They’re surgically bombing to avoid casualties. Little bits of information have been streaming in. It’s all much better suited to cable networks. But when we finally clash with entrenched troops in Baghdad, it will have more focus. There will be the possibility of chemical or biological weapons and fierce bombing and God knows what else….”

Sadly, that may be what it takes to finally preempt ”Fear Factor.” (With reporting by Lynette Rice)