Post 9/11: Prime-Time Programs Focus On Peril

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, continue to impact network programming. From government conspiracies, to terrorist attacks, to bank robberies and abductions, a handful of fall dramas reflect a fictional world in peril—not unlike the real world that viewers see on the news every day.

In ABC’s The Nine, the lives of a group of strangers become intertwined when they wind up as hostages during a bank robbery. In the CW’s Runaway, a man and his family hide from the law, after he is wrongly accused of murder. Fox’s Vanished and NBC’s Kidnapped both revolve around wealthy families whose lives implode when someone from each family goes missing. On CBS’ Jericho, a Midwestern town may be the only community spared from a series of nukes that have hit the U.S.

As violence continues to spread, not only through the Middle East, but Asia and Europe as well, many advertisers aren’t surprised that the unstable worlds portrayed in these new dramas parallel that of a global arena that has become increasingly terrifying. “The world is a much more dangerous place than it was 10 years ago,” said John Rash, Campbell Mithun’s chief broadcast negotiator. “And that sense of danger is reflected in what viewers see on the screen.”

K.J. Steinberg, who, with her brother Hank Steinberg (Without a Trace), created The Nine, said the idea for the show came from the personal experience of a friend of hers who, along with his date, was held up at gunpoint. (Suggesting that trauma brings people closer together, the two will marry, she told reporters at last week’s Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif.) Steinberg also said the idea was very current, “since the world as we know it, is fragile. And that fragility is coming closer to home.”

Actor Tim Daly, a member of The Nine’s ensemble, directly cited Sept. 11 as a reference point. “This horrible thing happens, and suddenly, your view of the world, and the way you look at your kids, and the way you look at time, and your life, is just different,” he said during a TCA panel discussion.

Not only global events are impacting programming—so are domestic affairs. In the wake of 9/11, and what many see as the erosion of civil rights here, Runaway’s executive producer, Darren Star, acknowledged a sense of nationwide unease. “There is a fear that somebody can arrest you for something you didn’t do, and you’re powerless,” he told Adweek sister publication Mediaweek, at the CW’s press party last week. “This is a show about a family that has to live in a state of paranoia, and I think we’re all feeling paranoia right now, so it does tap into that.”

Not all writers—or executives, for that matter—see a direct correlation between fall programming and current affairs. “You’d be kidding yourself if you said that post-9/11 trauma doesn’t affect what artists bring to the network, but I think that’s too narrow a statement,” said Ted Gold, svp of drama development at Fox. He added that Vanished, its fall drama about a senator’s wife who goes missing, is “substantively deeper than a reflection of world events.”

CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler echoed those thoughts, saying although her network’s apocalyptic drama Jericho may begin with a devastating event, it really is about a “spirit of hope, community and resourcefulness.” But Tassler added that if there is a common thread running through many of the new dramas this fall, then it is that “people are struggling to make sense of things.”

Stephen Chbosky, who wrote Jericho’s pilot, also played down a direct link. But he added that having been in New York during the attacks on the World Trade Center, “it’s definitely something I drew from.”

Campbell Mithun’s Rash cautioned that tapping into any so-called zeitgeist or national consciousness isn’t enough to make a show a hit. “The fundamentals still apply,” he noted. “A good story, well told, with a solid lead-in will still have the most bearing on whether or not a show will succeed.”