Usually, a major American tragedy isn’t a major American tragedy until the entertainment industry overreacts to it. After the Littleton school shootings, TV executives pulled scenes of violence; after 9/11, movies and TV shows featuring terrorism and spectacular explosions were held until it was deemed safe (and profitable) to scare America again. But watching The Amazing Race yesterday, it occurred to me that for all the media attention, the Katrina disaster never really received a proper overreaction.
There was the episode of TAR itself, the second of two in which family teams chased across New Orleans (the show was taped before the storm). It had the requisite preface by host Phil Keoghan expressing solidarity with the people of the city, but it’s hard to imagine, in fall 2001, a network showing contestants barreling through lower Manhattan for a million-dollar prize. The kicker, though, came in the commercials for CBS’ upcoming sweeps disaster flick, Category 7: The End of the World, in which a colossal superstorm collapses the Eiffel Tower and rips George Washington’s face off Mount Rushmore.
Mind you, I’m glad that this time showbiz is not going the mindless pandering route. (ABC’s Invasion, a sci-fi series that deals with the aftermath of a hurricane, likewise aired undelayed and unexpurgated.) But I can’t help wondering why the reaction is different now. There are plenty of possibilities: for starters, intentional violence does more to unsettle people’s sense of security than acts of nature. And I’d like to think that we’ve realized that a few knee-jerk, nervous gestures did not bring a single Colorado schoolchild or Pentagon worker back to life. And yet I also wonder, had Katrina taken the same toll on New York or Los Angelesâ€”that is, a city more central to the media businessâ€”if the sensitivities wouldn’t be higher, and their effects longer lasting.
I guess it’s good enough to see TV make the right decision, even if for the wrong reason. But it’s still odd, if nothing else, to see a cheesy hurricane flick being flogged on a day in which millions of people are still reported to be out of power in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma. Then again, if there’s one thing a network programmer knows, it’s that people who don’t have electricity can’t watch TV to begin with.