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Commentary

In Terms of New TV Series, It's as if Sept. 11 Never Happened

January 21, 2002|STEVE JOHNSON | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Sept. 11, as we all know by now, changed everything, slapping us out of our superficial, xenophobic stupor and bringing in a new era of sobriety and wisdom.

Then again, Sept. 11 really hasn't altered anything, and we're the same old society of callow satyrs and unquestioning slaves to celebrity we used to be.

With the news camp leaning to the former side and the entertainment camp to the latter, the country's highest-ranking television executives took turns offering those seemingly conflicting views in appearances before reporters at the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton Hotel the past two weeks.

It was a dichotomy perhaps reflective of a nation yearning for benumbed normalcy but recognizing that something in the body public still throbs. Or maybe it only meant that TV is, like most of us, a little befuddled.

The news folk, of course, are hopeful that they'll be able to maintain their inflated budgets, enlarged and younger audiences, and renewed importance within their organizations and the country, Geraldo Rivera and female anchors promoted as "sexy" notwithstanding.

In the hotel ballroom that was the nexus of this oddball event, officially known as the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour, network news leaders ranging from ABC's Barbara Walters to CBS News President Andrew Heyward recounted their own Sept. 11 experiences as if they were still fresh.

At the same time, however, Walters said she'll be doing her first celebrity interview since September (Celine Dion), and such executives as MSNBC news chief Erik Sorenson dared speak of demographics in news ratings, which raises the troubling specter of judgments being made only after calling a consultant to see which story speaks loudest to baby boomers.

Suits from the entertainment side of the business, not eager to have to think all of a sudden of new ways of imagining and making television series, said that after the initial shock and aftershocks, they have not seen a profound Sept. 11 impact on programming. As if to prove it, they served up panels of actors and writers from one traditionally insipid new show after another.

Even a seemingly high-minded series on preview in Pasadena, the CBS Supreme Court drama "First Monday," managed to trivialize the doings of the high court by injecting sports metaphors, bodily function "humor" and randy young clerks.

CBS, with a movie script about United Airlines Flight 93--the plane seized by terrorists that crashed in rural Pennsylvania--in the works, and Fox were the only networks to acknowledge overt Sept. 11-related content in their non-news programming.

Fox retooled its March show "The American Embassy" because the already-shot pilot ended with a bomb exploding at said building in London. So the former "Emma Brody," the story of a young woman's self-discovery, gets a new name and becomes the larger tale of the place in the world of America, its embassies and, yes, the young woman.

The more telling measure is in the series being developed for next season, because most of those are post-Sept. 11 products. And the shows coming through the door, said one head programmer after another, are not essentially different in tenor from the ones that came through last year.

That kind of news might be soothing but is not necessarily encouraging. At a session this week for a stultifying future WB show called "The Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star," the bewilderingly self-satisfied cast seemed intent on making the room understand that there is a connection between rock and sex.

It might have been, as one critic leaned over to whisper, 1971. It certainly could have been Sept. 10, 2001.

*

Steve Johnson is media critic for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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