TV UK, 21 September

After a week of relentless crashing, TV seems to be getting back to normality. But is it?

Dolan Cummings

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After a week of relentless crashing, on Wednesday networks on both sides of the Atlantic decided to stop showing the footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Center, except where it seems especially appropriate.

The worry is that people will become desensitised to the image through overexposure. It is an odd worry, considering that it has been widely observed (not least in this column) that the pictures had an unreal quality even the first time. But the decision reflects a broader recognition that the attack on America is no longer news. The focus is now on the ongoing consequences and the attempt to return to normality.

In the week following the attack though, with the footage running seemingly nonstop, it was everything else that was dropped. In particular, anything considered too close to the bone was taken off: disaster movies were a no-no; The West Wing, with its plot about CIA bungling and a military stand-off was given the heave-ho. TV generally played safe; Daylight was replaced with The Three Musketeers. But in the confusion some strange decisions were made. On Saturday night (15 September), BBC2 replaced Strange Days, a science fiction film which partly deals with political violence, with the apparently more wholesome Pulp Fiction.

Of course, this over-anxiety not to offend only reminds us of what happened. A list of songs blacklisted by US radio reads like a catalogue of gallows humour. Great Balls of Fire and Another One Bites the Dust are obvious contenders. As for It’s Raining Men – it’s not an association I made before I read the list, but it’s there forever now. Obli Di Obli Da is less obvious, but understandable. ‘La, la, la, la, life goes on’, is probably not what the bereaved want to hear.

As infuriatingly banal as the sentiment is though, it looks as if TV executives could be beginning to acknowledge its truth.

Baseball took last weekend off, but Channel 5’s baseball programme did not (Sunday 16). Instead, Jonathan Gould introduced clips of ball players talking about the disaster and what it meant to them. Here is another part of American life transformed, however temporarily, by what happened. It wasn’t just the New York teams that were affected, though the Mets’ Shea Stadium was actually used to accommodate and feed the emergency services. Other teams found themselves stranded away from home, with all flights cancelled. Inevitably though, the home teams felt it most.

Paul O’Neill of theYankees described the team’s return to New York by bus after the catastrophe. The sight of Manhattan’s diminished skyline was met by the Yankees with several minutes of silence, not because somebody suggested it, but simply because everybody was shocked all over again. If European footballers felt awkward about playing in the wake of events across the Atlantic, it is not surprising that the men who play baseball in New York itself abandoned thoughts of the pendant for a while.

Still, baseball is back now and there is a determination to return to normality, as ball players realise that it is their purpose in life to distract people from their troubles, and generally to enrich their lives. TV has a similar purpose.

Many readers will have seen the clip of CBS anchorman Dan Rather breaking down on The Late Show and grabbing Dave Letterman’s hand. Letterman (based in New York) also took a break after the disaster, but has now returned to the air. (The show can be seen nightly a day late in the UK on ITV2.) After a couple of awkward shows like the one with Dan Rather, Letterman has returned almost to normality, with the goofy Top Ten list and the actually-quite-funny Biff’s America segment, albeit re-runs. But the disaster still remains in the background – it isn’t going away.

On Tuesday 18 September, the comedian Denis Leary was on the show talking about his work with fire fighters. His cousin was killed in action in 1999, and now he raises funds to support the service and the families of the men who are killed. Leary also makes a TV programme called The Job, in which he uses real fire fighters. The men came down to the set even in the days following the disaster, keen to take their minds off the gruelling recovery work for a while. Apparently though, the service is so starved of funds and equipment that they begged Leary for the props after filming. He obliged.

Lately BBC2 has been repeating last summer’s winning combination of Seinfeld and 48 Preludes and Fugues. These are shown late most evenings, but this being BBC2 times vary, and often at least one of them isn’t on. Never mind. Apparently some musicians like to listen to Bach every morning to remind themselves what music is, what their purpose in life is.

Following a good episode of Seinfeld, 15 minutes of Bach seems to do a similar job to baseball, and remind us that life is worth living after all. It certainly beats silence.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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