Must The Show Go On?

On Sunday afternoon, hours after America's counterattack on terrorist strongholds in Afghanistan began, television's Emmy Awards, scheduled for that evening, were once again postponed. Television Academy chairman Bryce Zabel consulted representatives from the major networks and decided that it would be "inappropriate" to air even a dressed-down version of the affair. Indeed, in light of the nascent war and everyone's fear of terrorist reprisals, a James Van Der Beek tribute to fallen firefighters might be more than most could bear.

But while it's fun to mock network stars (and I do it all the time, petty basic-cable player that I am), the producers of the Emmys faced a dilemma plaguing all network television execs at the moment. Going through with the event might have seemed self-indulgent, even disrespectful. Not going through with the broadcast might have seemed like a submission to terrorism (though as of now Al Qaeda is not targeting "The King of Queens"). As with any entertainment programming during a time of national crisis, there are no hard and fast rules, only a programmer's sense of appropriateness. And we've seen that standard shift again and again throughout the country's history.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II, the producers of the 1942 Academy Awards went ahead with a sober ceremony. Formal gowns and tuxedos were eschewed, as were floodlights when the stars arrived. Holding the ceremony that year seemed almost patriotic since the movies honored included "Mrs. Miniver" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Hollywood had rallied quickly around the country's war effort. (This year's Emmy Awards, by contrast, would have little to honor that might reflect support for our troops--unless the "Sex in the City" gals could be refashioned as a kind of latter-day Andrews Sisters ... you know, the kind that don't sing but do sleep with many different guys each and every week ... nah, doesn't work.)

Sports have historically been a safe bet against the appropriateness challenge. An exciting touchdown pass is just that--exciting, and a wonderful distraction. After President Bush announced the commencement of our bombing raids on Sunday, the day's NFL games kicked off without delay. Cheering a game of football, our most warlike sport, seemed almost like an endorsement of our actions overseas.

On March 30, 1981, the day John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, NCAA basketball officials wrestled with whether or not to go ahead with that night's championship game in Philadelphia. (The Oscars had already been postponed until the following night.) After the president's surgeon reported his patient was on the road to recovery, the game went forward. Still, commentator Dick Enberg expressed the reservations of many during the broadcast: "I had hoped the game would be postponed 24 hours." Only later, when a note from the president himself was released, did the decision seem appropriate. "All in all," Reagan scribbled from his hospital bed, quoting W.C. Fields, "I'd rather be in Philadelphia."

But in November 1963, the call was not so successful. After the assassination of President John Kennedy, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle consulted with White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger and made the widely criticized decision to resume his teams' schedules on the Sunday following the Friday of the president's murder. Players hung their heads and the crowds who showed up were dispirited. It was a decision Rozelle regretted for the rest of his life.

Historically, Major League Baseball has avoided any similar public relations snafus. Aside from suspending play for the 72 hours following the Sept. 11 attacks, its only other nonstrike stoppages occurred the day following the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 and the day after the death of President Warren Harding in August 1923. (I'm assuming he was a huge baseball fan.)

Overall, sports have been accepted earlier in the aftermath of a crisis than have late-night comedy shows. In the current emergency, Bill Maher has paid the price of lost sponsorship for speaking too irreverently too early about the U.S. military. The other late-night shows waited as long as 10 days before cautiously returning to air. During the Vietnam War, Johnny Carson never once mentioned the war--would've been too upsetting for an audience looking for escape, I'm assuming. The highly rated "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," on the other hand, was canceled by CBS after they took on the subject of the Vietnam War too aggressively.

Entertainment, of course, existed before the advent of film and television. In 1917, after the Bolshevik Revolution, many of America's libraries purged themselves of books considered sympathetic to Marxism. In 1901, anarchist Leon Csolgolz shot President William McKinley outside the Temple of Music at Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition (essentially a World's Fair, the megaentertainment of its day). Though the event very well might have been suspended or cancelled, that actually wasn't deemed appropriate. In fact, the public's morbid curiosity only expanded turnout through the fair's closing day eight weeks later. (On Sept. 11, almost all of America's theme parks closed within hours of the first attack.)

The most famous murder during a entertainment event occurred, of course, in 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln was shot while watching the play "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater in Washington. In this case, the show did not go on. (It was 10:15 p.m., so it was almost over anyway.) But there were miles-long parades in the 20 cities through which Lincoln's funeral train passed. Mostly they featured orating ministers. (That passed for entertainment back then.) Since this was only days after the Civil War's end, paraders also had to restrain themselves from celebrating.

But Lincoln didn't live in a 24/7 media age, with its many potential pitfalls. In the short-term aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, most programmers have handled the situation deftly. Long term, though, what seems appropriate on television may be harder to predict. My guess is that reality television will take a hit. Who can get excited about "Survivor's" immunity challenges when most Americans are worried about getting vaccinated against anthrax? And there's really no excuse for "Big Brother's" contestants to not be the least bit curious about events in Central Asia. Suddenly their so-called reality seems totally unbelievable--and an insult to real reality. In times like these, only fictional characters have a right to argue about toothpaste or obsess over tribal councils.