Ken Tucker wonders when it's appropriate for the major networks to return to their normal programming
Dan Rather
Credit: Dan Rather: CBS

TV shifts back to entertainment coverage

Much of the horror of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks played out on live television. Across the majority of TV channels, the tragedy became the sole programming, to an unprecedented degree. Not only did usually competing networks share their news footage, but for the first time in a national calamity we saw the outreach of conglomerate media, as, for example, channels owned by Viacom, including MTV and VH1, were able to suspend their entertainment programming to air news reports from Viacom’s flagship network, CBS. Thus for a short time, Dan Rather took Carson Daly’s place in the cable universe, and I say that without levity or disrespect to either man.

Unlike newspapers, which in times of crisis exist primarily to gather and report the news, TV has always performed multiple functions, some of them contradictory. As we’ve seen over the past few days, television has served as an information source, but also as a site where nearly-unedited footage of the attacks were broadcast. TV, usually so careful not to offend or frighten, needed to present the offensive crimes that had been committed against America, and those images were, of necessity, scary and disturbing.

TV is also a natural comforter in a way the print medium is not: Televised images of calm anchors and broadcasters, and the immediate way TV imposes a structure, a narrative, on anything that occurs in the world, are elements of order, and people find order in chaotic times a reassurance.

As with any major event, TV describes an arc of activity: The indescribable occurs, we absorb it, and TV eventually finds a way to fit that experience into its process. Thus, over the past few days, the terrorist attacks still dominate all the major channels, but the business of television is also beginning to proceed. Entertainment programming is slowly moving back onto various networks, and soon we’ll be debating whether it’s thoughtful or crass that, say, the ”M” in the MTV logo has been turned into an American flag. Again, I say this not with sarcasm or condemnation, but as an observation: How and when is it all right to admit that, as time passes, there’s nothing wrong with letting America take solace, comfort, and, yes, pleasure in entertainment again?

Each of us will have our own set of standards for this. I felt a little nauseous over the weekend when I saw a promo for the season premiere of ABC’s ”Drew Carey Show” that talked about the laughs to be had from a gag involving Drew’s ”combustible crotch.” But maybe that genially vulgar commercial gave someone else in profound pain a momentary smile. I don’t know.

I guess that’s my point: We don’t know anything about what is ”appropriate” on television anymore. Like so many larger issues that these attacks have provoked in America, TV’s role in its aftermath is uncharted territory — something to be watched more closely than we ever have before.