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Terrorist Attacks Change US Television

Despite increasing time spent working on home computers as well as viewing video tapes and DVD discs, watching television continues to be a favorite pastime for millions of Americans.

As with so many other aspects of the American arts and culture scene this year, the attacks on September 11 had a major effect on television.

Entertainment reporter and reviewer Chuck Rich of Westwood One broadcasting explains how 9-11 affected TV programming: "We can't quite say that '9-11' changed everything," he says. "But the acts of terrorism, the violence, the deaths sobered up a lot of television. Some of the shows sprang into action pretty quickly, with special episodes related to the terrorism - or were inspired by the issues they raised. Other shows have introduced peripheral references to them, such as the series set in New York City, 'Law and Order.'"

Besides the legal drama, "Law and Order," other shows incorporating references to the September 11 attacks include the cop drama "N.Y.P.D. Blue" and "Third Watch," which features fictional New York firefighters, paramedics and police officers who work the "third time watch" of 3 to 11 p.m. Another series about a fictional White House president and staff -"The West Wing" received its highest rating of the season, so far, for an episode related to the September attacks

In that special episode written by series creator Aaron Sorkin and produced in just over a week's time- "The West Wing" staff discuss terrorism with a group of school children and become suspicious of an Arab-American member of the White House staff.

Critic Chuck Rich adds that late-night variety programming was also affected by the attacks on America. "Those shows are predominantly light entertainment in most cases: 'Late Night with David Letterman,' 'The Tonight Show starring Jay Leno,' and a program on the Comedy Central cable network, 'The Daily Show.' They're very comedy-oriented, so after the events of September 11, they weren't on for a little while," he says. "But when they came back [the content] was very serious, in some cases with more of an interest in hard news and serious interviews, an interest that hasn't completely ended. It was an evolution and maturity that a lot of these shows needed."

David Letterman's emotional monologue on September 17 was singled-out by critics as an especially sincere and heartfelt reflection of the tragedies that occurred days earlier. Although the American networks carried non-stop news coverage of the attacks in the days following September 11, when American TV viewers were finally ready for a laugh, Mr. Rich says they eagerly returned to watching their favorite comedy series. "Shows like ' Friends,' light comedies, and family comedies like 'Everyone Loves Raymond.' These shows have a strong following and have always had something of a strong following, which in some cases has grown," he says. "Whether that's [because of] time, circumstances, improvement in the shows, or a reaction to the terrible events of September, no one can be sure."

But one type of television program declined in popularity following the September attacks. "The so-called 'reality shows' which may be a euphemism for cheaply-produced shows- such as 'Survivor'- seem to have lost viewer-ship," says Mr. Rich. "Maybe people weren't in the mood for them and [prefer] 'real' reality which sounds redundant."

"Survivor" in its third run with contestants currently based in Africa - continues to attract a modest audience. But other "reality series," such as "Lost," "The Mole," "The Amazing Race," "Fear Factor," and "Temptation Island" have been disappointing to critics or viewers. [OPT] Another form of non-scripted or "reality" programming, quiz shows such as "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" and "Weakest Link," have also experienced fading viewer interest.

In other television trends this past year, American minority groups continued to urge television executives and producers for their greater inclusion both in front of, and behind, the camera. At a symposium earlier this year, Felix Sanchez, president of the Washington-based National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, described the state of Latino participation in television. "Almost less than one per cent of the roles on TV - in prime time network television - are really valuable roles that teach us something about Latinos, and are real character portrayals from this community," he said.

This season, several actors starring in popular shows, past and present, have shown up in new series. Kim Delaney, who formerly played a detective in the long-running drama "N.Y.P.D. Blue" has traded in her police badge for a defense attorney briefcase in the legal series "Philly." As the title suggests, the show takes place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania a city not often used as a location in American television. Ms. Delaney's co-star in "Philly," Kyle Secor, starred in the critically-acclaimed 1990s cop show "Homicide," which took place in another city rarely seen on television, Baltimore, Maryland.

Other popular actors from several years ago who have returned to television this year, include Jill Hennessy, starring as a medical examiner in the series "Crossing Jordan," and Sherry Stringfield, who plays a doctor on the popular medical drama "E.R.", [emergency room]. Now in its second season as one of the top three series on TV, C.S.I. which stands for Crime Scene Investigation- stars acclaimed actress Marg Helgenberger, who was featured in the Vietnam war-era drama "China Beach."

The return or continuation of actors in television parallels a similar attraction the medium has for film actors, as Westwood One's Chuck Rich explains. "I think that overall, television series have more respect than they used to. So you'll have people like [film actor] Brad Pitt playing a guest role on 'Friends.' On the other hand his wife, Jennifer Anniston, is in the cast," he says. "You have other [film] stars, such as Bruce Willis, appearing on that particular show. Musical and movie stars … Elton John, for example has appeared on [the comedy series] 'Ally McBeal.' Series television now has a respect that it may not have had before; it's not considered a 'curse' on a career."

In its review of the past year's television season, the New York Times praised two "docu-dramas" produced by the ABC network: "Life With [actress] Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows," starring Judy Davis; the other, about World War II victim Anne Frank, given a brilliant performance by young actress Hannah Taylor Gordon.

The Times newspaper also singled-out for praise documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 17-plus-hours miniseries "Jazz" aired on public television at the beginning of 2001. While in Washington, Mr. Burns who has also made TV films about the American Civil War and baseball- told VOA why he chose the subject of jazz music. "I'm interested in what makes our country 'tick.' I sort of lift up the hood and tinker with who we are. The Civil War tells us something," he said. "If you think it's important to know about what happened on the third day of [the battle of] 'Gettysburg,' I think it's equally important to understand what happens in this music this only art form that Americans have invented- called jazz."

Filmmaker Ken Burns talking about his television documentary "Jazz." It's one of the programming highlights, along with some of the trends, we've looked at in this review of the past year in television.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001