How MuchMusic upstaged Dan Rather
By JOHN DOYLE, The Globe and Mail
Friday, September 14, 2001
Right now, most people are watching the main TV networks and the all-news channels, and they're waiting. Numbed already by the searing power of the pictures of destruction, people are waiting for some significant news, perhaps for news of revenge. Certainly, they're getting very little substantial context for what has happened.
This is the point where the weaknesses of television become glaring. At first, television pictures are paramount and we are all drawn to them. Then, the limitations of TV reporting and commentary become obvious.
After a day or so of TV, people want newspapers to read thousands of words of reporting, commentary and explanation. Meanwhile, TV is reduced to speculation, coverage of press conferences and any expert or commentator who can be brought to a studio. Newspapers and radio stations don't need to get people into studios. Reporters can dig for information and context by phone or by walking the streets and talking to people.
Viewers here who have access to digital TV have been able to see the BBC World channel giving constant coverage. The much-admired BBC skill in clear, objective reporting has been in evidence, as senior politicians from the Middle East have appeared regularly, giving an authority to the coverage that is often missing from the major American networks or CNN.
However, even the BBC is sometimes challenged by the situation. There isn't any inherent substance to having the Muslim chaplin at Cambridge University sit for a few minutes and speculate about how Muslims are feeling. Even the BBC resorts to TV clichés and has begun to close each hour of coverage with compilation footage of the destruction in New York, accompanied by music that is gratingly ominous.
The strangest things have happened as various TV channels try to cover the situation appropriately. Apart from the main American and Canadian networks, many TV channels are specifically aimed at a niche audience. They're not capable of communicating anything that transcends that narrow focus. However, on Tuesday and Wednesday, MuchMusic did an extraordinary job. A channel that would normally be dismissed as utterly irrelevant in this context managed to communicate something profound -- a sense of shared horror and dread.
The VJs, hired to introduce videos and interview pop stars, were suddenly asked to deal with horror. In a way, the challenge for them was greater than that presented to Peter Mansbridge or Dan Rather. There was little music, and the VJs just kept talking to their young viewers, taking phone calls and e-mails. They interviewed trauma experts and psychologists with an honesty and directness that we could all share. A young VJ might say, "Let me rap on this final question," as he talked to some psychologist, but we all knew he was doing his honest best. Popular culture -- music videos, TV dramas and comedies -- takes on a disorienting role in these strange days of horror and anger.
The Emmy Awards won't take place on Sunday night. What will happen to the new fall season shows on all the networks remains in doubt.
Many were due to start airing next week, but NBC has postponed the start of its new series and other networks will certainly follow as the American public demands news coverage, not police, doctor and lawyer dramas.
There's an unsettling irony in the fact that the start of the new TV season has been undone by real terrorists and the need for Americans to know, through non-stop news coverage, that their government agencies, spies and soldiers are looking for information and planning revenge. A good deal of this 2001/2002 TV season, the first since George W. Bush became president, is actually about spies, espionage and a fear that America is under attack.
Sometimes, seeking cultural clues and political themes in mainstream American TV entertainment seems foolish -- there appears to be so little to absorb and ponder. Still, although American television rarely acts as critique of society, it's often a mirror that reflects fears and agitations. In the new TV season that will eventually start, there's a lot of agitation about the need for strong, clever secret agents and suspicion of foreign fanatics.
In the ABC drama Alias, the Fox drama 24 and the CBS drama The Agency, secret agents are the heroes. This is a return to something that had almost vanished on American primetime. If you watched The X-Files, you knew that there was a deep skepticism about secret agencies and that only the non-conformist, cynical agents were the true heroes. But Alias offers us an ardent, earnest young woman who is student by day and CIA agent by night. She jets off around the globe, gives those weird, foreign no-goodniks a good kicking and helps keep America safe.
The show 24 is the most scarily prescient of the new crop of spy dramas. It's about a group of CIA agents (led by a family man played by Kiefer Sutherland) and opens with a warning that an unnamed foreign group is going to assassinate a presidential candidate. They have 24 hours to stop it. A plane is blown up in the action leading to the arrival of the assassin. The Agency is a leaden drama that fetishizes the work of CIA agents and the ideals they work by. It's striking in its depiction of foreigners, especially anyone from an Arab country, as people dedicated to harming America.
Watching these shows long before this week's terrorist attack, I thought I could see American confidence and geniality ebbing away. There's a paranoia about foreigners, drug dealers and anyone who deviates from a very old-fashioned American patriotism. The fact that there are so many shows about the CIA and FBI cannot be a coincidence -- it's a cultural marker, a signifier of some deep doubt. There's a fear and uncertainty about possible assaults from a hostile, outside world. The thing is, until Tuesday of this week, the matter of whether that hostile world was real or imaginary was open to interpretation and debate.
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