Beginning at dawn on the first anniversary of Sept. 11, the broadcast networks and cable news channels will go nearly wall-to-wall with commemorative coverage.
No surprise. Millions of viewers likely will not want to relive the experience, but news executives still feel a responsibility to offer it. "It is far better to err on the side of giving too much coverage," CBS President Leslie Moonves told TV critics in Pasadena last month.
For sure, no one can fault the logic, but other networks also believe that many millions of Americans would like to get through Sept. 11, 2002 without lingering too long on Sept. 11, 2001.
Those viewers craving normalcy will seek refuge on cable. The ESPN crowd still wants sports, and MTV devotees want videos. "They don't want the world to stop because it brings back painful memories," said TV historian and Lifetime Television research chief Tim Brooks. (Though on MTV they'll get both. Starting Sept. 10, for 31 hours MTV will show videos interspersed with rock artists' reflections on the World Trade Center and Pentagon horrors.)
Unlike the painful breaking news of last Sept. 11, the first anniversary is largely a staged event. (See page 6.) CBS's coverage is headlined by Scott Pelley's exclusive interview with President George W. Bush on 60 Minutes II
at 8 p.m. ABC also will go all day with news, filling prime time with stories that closely examine the attacks, as well as what happened inside the World Trade Center towers. NBC will ease off its news coverage in prime time, making way for one entertainment show, likely West Wing. It then will air a taped memorial concert from Washington, D.C., hosted by anchor Tom Brokaw.
Fox News is lending two of its prime time anchors, Brit Hume and Shepard Smith, to Fox for a two-hour, commercial-free special.
After a five-week road trip across the country, MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield will return to the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11, where her reporting turned her into a star. As part of its coverage, CNN will air 30 in-depth reports that try to look forward. "We are looking at the specific questions that you need to have answered now, a year later," CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson said.
Still, there's a balancing act between too much 9/11 and not enough, between lightening up and getting too light. Says Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of CBS news coverage, "It will be the kind of coverage that you can take in doses if you want. But I think it is a day when it would be odd to be playing game shows."
In New York City and Washington, D.C., the anniversary is also a local story. Stations in both cities will preempt much of their regular schedules for a combination of network and local programming.
Local news outlets lacking a major-network news affiliation, like WPIX(TV) New York and cable net New York One, will carry their own live coverage and packages. New York One will skip commercials on both Sept. 10 and 11.
On cable, only Fox News Channel is opting to go commercial-free on Sept. 11. Other news nets will scale back commercials. CNN is seeking three or four exclusive advertisers, said EVP of Sales Greg D'Alba. Fox aside, the broadcast nets are taking ads, but trying to persuade advertisers to air tasteful spots. It's not an easy sell, though; some advertisers are shying away from the day altogether.
At some networks, ideas have been batted around for almost a year. "I just hope networks do what's right for their audiences and don't get exploitative," said Abbe Raven, the History Channel's EVP and GM.
Similar concerns are prompting entertainment channels like USA, TNT, TBS, FX and Lifetime to stick to standard fare, as will kids nets Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.
Execs say they've painstakingly selected counter-programming for Sept. 11. Programmers are combing through shows, on guard for sensitive content. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, Lifetime went so far as to scrutinize Golden Girls
episodes for inappropriate material. This year, no doubt, everybody's just as cautious.
TBS Superstation is trading its Wednesday-night originals, Ripley's Believe It or Not
and Worst Case Scenario, for mindless movies The Wedding Singer
and Look Who's Talking Now. Sister net TNT opened up prime to re-air its miniseries Mists of Avalon.
Nostalgic themes will run through some channels. Turner Classic Movies pulled together 13 Manhattan-themed movies, from 42nd Street
to King Kong
to Manhattan, and CMT: Country Music Television will offer up patriotic videos and a Toby Keith special.
National Geographic, the History Channel, A&E, Oxygen, ABC Family, Discovery, TLC, MTV and HBO are among networks with specials planned for Sept. 11 or the days leading up to it.
After previewing its lineup, Comedy Central slated two Saturday Night Live
and South Park
episodes for Sept. 11, but decided to shelve The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
(as it did after the attack itself). "It's Comedy Central, not Somber Central," says SVP of programming Kathryn Mitchell.
But for all networks, large and small, it will be a job of drawing a line between stirring up too much grief and, on the other hand, seeming not to care enough. The fact is the whole world will be watching. Much of it will be crying and others will be trying to forget. For programmers, it's a day no one wants to make a mistake.
—Paige Albiniak and Dan Trigoboff contributed to this story.