Cable had a busy schedule of things that resembled documentaries, but except for some of the productions of the consistently surprising HBO, most of those betrayed, in their formulaic sameness, the constraints of tiny budgets and cramped schedules. And the networks had just about given up on the serious long-form exploration of current affairs in prime time — those White Papers and Reports that used to be a modest but obligatory part of the season line-up and whose producers were often allowed the luxury of plotting their deadlines on the calendar, not the watch.
The networks did point to a few exceptions. ABC News’s once-or-twice-yearly Peter Jennings Reporting series has taken on an eclectic range of subjects, some of them much more current than others; one of last year’s entries examined the power of the National Rifle Association, the other the life of Jesus. Other programs have come under the rubrics of existing magazine shows. Once a year Ed Bradley has devoted the entire hour of 60 Minutes II to a single topic such as warning signs before the Columbine shootings or AIDS in Africa. NBC News’s Dateline, too, has periodically turned an entire program over to one correspondent exploring a single issue; recent hours have examined teenage Sudanese refugees in America and a murder inspired by racist Web sites.
In September alone, NBC News did have on the schedule two programs it somehow called “News Specials.” The first, “Revenge of the Whale,” portrayed the ordeal of desperate sailors driven to cannibalism after a sperm whale sank their ship in a remote stretch of the Pacific. The description of the program on MSNBC.com suggests one reason NBC considered this 181-year-old event newsy enough to deserve a two-hour special. Under the headline “Survivors’ Nightmare,” the blurb tells us this is “Nantucket-style reality TV” that “makes all those survivors look like sissies” — and of course back in early September a reference to “survivors” still meant only one thing, CBS’s wildly popular last-person-left-standing reality program. The second special, an hour with Tom Brokaw called “A Day in the Life of President Bush: Inside the Real West Wing,” had been scheduled as the lead-in for the season premiere of one of NBC’s hottest hit shows. (It was “postponed by the White House,” says NBC News spokeswoman Barbara Levin.)
In our new post-attack lives, of course, a lot of what we used to do has come to look embarrassingly trivial, and it’s not entirely fair to judge yesterday’s bright ideas with today’s sobered consciousness. But we can hope that our new seriousness might make unthinkable a repetition of the phenomenon of a news division devoting its resources and brand name to fighting the battles of the entertainment division. In the early days after the attacks, the networks and cable news channels showed that they could do impressive work on the fly — and viewers, notably those Rangers and Flyers fans who demanded to watch the president’s address to Congress instead of the end of a tied hockey game, showed their eagerness to follow the story. As events continue to unfold, perhaps news divisions will find the time, and see the need, to do the protracted reporting and to devote the on-air hours instead of minutes that will be required to set this story in its whole sprawling context.