You could have knocked me over with a feather when Disney's Anne Sweeney leaned over the table at lunch last week and asked, "What is Multichannel News
doing about Sept. 11?"
Sweeney, president of ABC Cable Networks Group and Disney Channel Worldwide, still hasn't decided what would be appropriate for her audience — viewers who are largely families with children that view Disney Channel, in particular, as a safe harbor.
Thinking back to our gripping cover from that week — a horrific, full-page photo of the World Trade Center on fire and collapsing, and its one-word headline, "Gone" — I was taken back to a very uncomfortable place.
And so are just about all of the heads of cable networks who are still struggling with a very tough question: How do they attempt to program for the upcoming anniversary of that tragedy? Or do they?
Programmers are walking on eggshells over this issue.
"We could be bombing Iraq by then," said Lifetime Television senior vice president of public affairs Meredith Wagner. Lifetime, like many of the other cable networks that are not in the news-gathering business, is still grappling with what to do — or, more important, what not to do.
To that end, at last May's National Show in New Orleans, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's Satellite Network Committee met on that very topic. They are scheduled to reconvene again in mid-July at the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing's annual Summit in Boston.
According to my random spot check of programmers, there still are more questions than answers. A&E Networks president and CEO Nick Davatzes, the SNC's new chairman, has a Biography
on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani planned for A&E Network. He's also devoting a week's coverage of the attack on The History Channel.
NCTA senior vice president of communications and public affairs Rob Stoddard said one idea on the table is for all of the cable networks to participate in a roadblock — a moment of silence at 8:43 a.m., the time the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center.
"We are trying to find some common approach that everyone can participate in," Stoddard said, but the roadblock idea has not yet been approved.
Court TV executive vice president of programming and marketing Art Bell said television could play an important role in helping viewers sort out how they feel about the anniversary of that tragedy. Bell is in support of the proposed roadblock, but beyond that, he's still looking for the right approach.
"This transcends business," said Bell. "Each network will struggle to do the right thing to try to build a sense of community."
Some will have a more difficult time at that than others. What is Comedy Central supposed to do? Is Home & Garden Television supposed to come up with a documentary about the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan?
"Comedy Central, all of us, have to somehow acknowledge that this has happened," said Bell, who agreed that for some, maybe the right approach would be to stick to running their regular programming.
These are just the types of thought-provoking questions that now swirl around programming departments. No one is taking this lightly.
And no one is looking at Sept. 11 as a way to gain more audience share or to be exploitative in any way. So, a note to programmers: Keep us posted as your own plans gel, so we can share them with all, and help to stimulate this very important industry-wide dialogue.