For the folks who produce violent and ripped-from-the-headlines television shows, recent events have made life tougher than usual.
USA Network, for example, announced that it was delaying the premiere of a new show starring Ryan Phillipe. “In light of recent tragic events and out of respect for the victims, their families and our viewers, we have decided to postpone the premiere date for the upcoming USA Network series Shooter,” the network said in a statement, referring to the recent Dallas shooting.
The show is based on a movie of the same name and the book Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter, which tells the fictional story of Bob Lee Swagger, a Vietnam veteran and expert marksman, who is wrongfully accused of a crime and spends his time trying to clear his name.
The network considered how much “respect for the victims, their families” and the viewers was worth and decided that one week was sufficient time for mourning. Yes—seven days to get over the pain and suffering of the brutal and intentional murder of five police officers in Dallas. Today we mourn, tomorrow let’s watch!
USA Network has done this before. In August, the finale of a show called Mr. Robot was postponed for one week because network executives decided that the content of the show was too similar to the real-life on-camera murder of two Virginia journalists. The statement they issued will sound familiar: “The previously filmed season finale of Mr. Robot contains a graphic scene similar in nature to today’s tragic events in Virginia,” the network declared last year. “Out of respect to the victims, their families and colleagues, and our viewers, we are postponing tonight’s episode. Our thoughts go out to all those affected during this difficult time.”
There are other networks with such sensitivities. TNT postponed the Season 3 premiere of something called The Last Ship because hours before the scheduled broadcast, Omar Mateen entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and opened fire, murdering 49 people and wounding 53 others.
Does it really matter if entertainment programs delay broadcasting “difficult” or “graphic” material by a week or a few hours? And if these programming delays are merely a symbolic gesture, should we instead be asking the value of this type of programming in the first place and the impact such content can have on the viewing public? It certainly doesn’t seem as if the writers, producers, and executives behind these shows are considering these questions ahead of time.
In past decades, concerned citizens have criticized violent music and violent video games for promoting real violence out in the real world. Remember the speculation that the game Doom that might have influenced the Columbine school shooters in 1999? Or the raft of big-haired, concerned women like Tipper Gore, who went before Congress in the 1980s to denounce rap and heavy metal?
There’s never been definitive proof of a direct, scientific link that shows that consuming violence-oriented popular culture leads to committing real acts of violence. And even if there were, it isn’t in keeping with our values as a free society to think there should be some legislative effort to censor content. Given the already notorious abuses of government power (IRS targeting anyone?), I’m firmly in the camp that opposes granting power to the government to act as a kind of culture police.
That leaves us with a problem, however. Networks that delay programming because of one tragedy or another should still be called out for such empty efforts to assuage our sensitivities.
The solution may be to look at previous examples of how television producers have reacted when current events imposed on their storylines. Take the case of Dick Wolf’s Law and Order before and after 9/11. Pre-terror attacks, the show dealt with police brutality, police bias, and police bigotry. Post-9/11 the show spent a lot of time dramatizing the toll the devastation took on first responders and security personnel; suddenly there were episodes in which the police were depicted as significantly more heroic and brave than in seasons’ past. Instead of P.R. stunts, perhaps today’s network executives should take a cue from the past when it comes to how to react to the tragedies that will undoubtedly unfold in the future.