Skip to main content

Entertainment Nets Turned to News

In an unprecedented display, many major cable entertainment networks last week pre-empted their regular programming to air history: breaking news about the tragic terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Synergy was in full play as cable outlets were fed news coverage from their corporate siblings, the Big Three broadcast networks and the all-news cable channels. Cable News Network's feed was shown last Tuesday on most of the stable of Turner Broadcasting System Inc. services, including CNNfn, Turner Network Television, TBS Superstation and CNN Headline News.

"It was a joint decision by [CNN News Group chairman] Walter Isaacson and [Turner Broadcasting chairman] Jamie Kellner, due to the significance of the events," said Turner spokesman Jim Weiss. "It was unprecedented, a first, for all this news to be simulcast on networks like TNT and TBS."

The few Turner services that didn't air CNN's feed included Turner Classic Movies and Cartoon Network.

AOL Time Warner wasn't the only programmer funneling news onto its entertainment channels. Viacom Inc.'s MTV: Music Television, VH1 and TNN: The National Network became temporary channels for CBS News.

TNN president Herb Scannell, MTV president Judy McGrath and VH1 president John Sykes all opted to telecast CBS News coverage on the cable outlets last Tuesday after conferring with MTV Networks chairman Tom Freston, according to an MTVN spokeswoman.

News Corp. cable outlets such as FX, Fox Family Channel and Fox Sports Net also temporarily aired news coverage from sister service Fox News Channel last week. And The Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN and ESPN2 at points ran coverage from ABC News.

Even such niche services as Home & Garden Television, Food Network and Court TV, as well as three home-shopping networks — QVC, HSN and ShopNBC — temporarily switched out their regular programming in response to Tuesday's devastating attack. In a number of cases, the interruption of scheduled programming on non-news cable networks lasted 24 hours and ended on Wednesday.

The destruction in downtown Manhattan shut down Oxygen's broadcast center, located in Battery Park City. The women's network took a feed from New York 1, Time Warner Cable's New York City 24-hour news channel, and retransmitted it to its subscribers, until restoring its regular feed at noon Friday.

The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington also forced Black Entertainment Television to push back indefinitely the Oct. 1 launch of its enhanced news operations in partnership with CBS News, BET senior vice president of news, public affairs and program acquisitions Nina Henderson Moore said.

CBS will jointly produce BET's weekday news shows —BET Nightly News
and BET Tonight with Ed Gordon
— although BET will retain complete control of each show's content. Henderson Moore said the terrorist attacks will delay the network's move of its news operations to New York.

"We're in a massive transition and certainly the tragedy the week has slowed us down," Moore said.

With its limited news resources, however, BET was able to produce several live news shows during the week of the terrorist attacks. The network ran CBS News' coverage of the incident from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday before switching to its regularly scheduled programming, Moore said.

The day of the attack, the Scripps networks HGTV, Food Network and Do It Yourself opted to run a text message explaining that programming had been suspended because of the day's "tragic events."

That decision was made after discussions among the presidents of those three services, as well as Scripps Networks president Ed Spray and chairman Frank Gardner, a veteran broadcast newsman.

"He just said we have to do something drastic," Spray said. "He said, 'Let's just go to a slide with music.' We knew we're not a news network."

The initial reaction from viewers, via electronic mail, was immediate and positive, Spray said. But as Tuesday wore on, there was a subtle change in the comments, according to Spray.

"They said, 'We approve of what you did, but we're so overloaded — seeing the same buildings blow up over and over — can you please go back to your regular programming?' " Spray said.

So after 24 hours, the three Scripps channels resumed their regular schedules. HGTV then aired interstitials, with on-air personalities such as Carol Duval expressing sympathy to the victims' families and providing phone numbers for the Red Cross.

The reaction of Scripps' cable affiliates to all of this was very positive.

"We got calls from affiliates who said, 'You guys did the right thing, it was a classy way to go,'" Spray said.

Food Network, which had cancelled several tapings of Emeril Lagasse's show last week in New York, cooked and donated the foods purchased for the show to St. Luke's Hospital, which was involved in treating those hurt in the attack.

Fox Family last Tuesday ran a feed from Fox News Channel from about noon to 2:45 p.m., and then went back to its regular lineup, according to a Fox Family spokeswoman.

"The decision was made to offer Fox Family as a safe haven for the kids and families that needed a place to tune and watch normal programming," she said.

Elsewhere, Lifetime Television's site and on-air crawl message suggested that viewers check "your preferred news source" for updates on the "monumental tragedy [that] has struck our nation." Oxygen Media's Web site asked its users to chat about the terrorist attack on its message boards.

Suspending its daytime coverage, Court TV used such veteran on-air talent as Fred Graham and Lisa Bloom to cover the terrorist attacks.

"We went wall-to-wall on this, covering the legal news," said Marlene Dann, Court TV's senior vice president of daytime programming. "This is the crime of the century."

In the days following the attack, Court TV pre-empted its usual primetime documentary programming to run a CNN feed from about 7 p.m. until the early-morning hours, according to Dann.

For its part, ShopNBC aired a statement saying it was temporarily suspending programming, and then ran a live feed from MSNBC for about 24 hours. That coverage was boxed in the upper right hand corner of ShopNBC's screen, with a statement from the shopping service in white letters on the bottom half of the screen.

QVC replaced its scheduled programming with on-screen text messages expressing sympathy for the victims of the terrorist attacks, while HSN, in most cases, went to a feed from its sister service, NewsWorld International, according to an HSN spokesman.

Discovery and sister service TLC pre-empted their regular primetime programming last Wednesday. Discovery aired Deadline Discovery — Attack on America: The Day After,
which was produced in conjunction with NBC News. TLC aired a live broadcast of the British Broadcasting Corp.'s World News.

Some cable networks altered their upcoming schedules in sensitivity to the terrorist attack. The Travel Channel postponed indefinitely the world premiere of Jordan: The Royal Tour,
which had been set to debut Sept. 24.

Cable programmers also scheduled a raft of shows related to the terrorist attack. CNBC this past Sunday was slated to offer the Wall Street community four hours of on-air time, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., to use as a broadcast bulletin board. Financial firms could use the time to offer information on logistics regarding transportation and access to Wall Street, security and safety procedures and employee notices.

MTV, after dropping the CBS News coverage, suspended its regular schedule to offer special MTV News reports on the attack, hosted by reporters such as Kurt Loder and John Norris. Last Friday, MTV also started posting e-mail reactions from viewers on-air between videos during the day.

Nickelodeon scheduled a special for this past Sunday, hosted by Linda Ellerbee, entitled Nick News: Kids, Terrorism and the American Spirit.
The commercial-free program was intended to give children a forum to express their fears and thoughts about last week's tragic events.

VH1, in partnership with the American Red Cross, was producing public service announcements urging people to make blood and monetary donations. The artists slated to appear in those spots included Sting, Melissa Etheridge, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora.

R. Thomas Umstead contributed to this story.