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Post-9/11 Becomes a Television Plot

ABC's Threat Matrix
is the first prime time series to take on post-9/11 American society, focusing on the heroism and the humanity of people who dedicate their lives to saving the country from ongoing terrorist threats. Taking its name from a report that lands on the president's desk every day at 8 a.m., Threat Matrix
follows a team of government-backed terrorism-fighters who report directly to the president.

"This is a whole new world and one we felt would provide the kind of high stakes and reality and drama that would be a good show about our times," says creator and executive producer Daniel Voll. "We wanted to be fearless in what we went after."

DOD 'offered help'

To keep the show accurate and realistic, at least three consultants experienced in the subject matter read every script, Voll says. One of the show's top consultants is Bill Crowell, former deputy director of the National Security Agency. The producers also work with a former FBI agent, former military intelligence officers and ex-CIA officers. They also check in with informed Congressmen and their staff from time to time.

"The ones that can tell you the best stories are the ones who don't work for the government anymore," says Voll, who was once a journalist covering terrorism issues for such publications as Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker
and The New York Times.

The Department of Defense also "reached out and offered their help," says executive producer Michael Edelstein. "They are very interested in having us accurately portray what they do. All the branches of the military have come out here to meet with us."

That said, Voll points out, no part of the government has tried to censor any scripts or asked to read anything in advance. "They have been very respectful of the fact that we are engaged in a serious storytelling enterprise here."

'Dr. Germ,' suicide bombers

With all that input, the show remains true enough to life that the writers routinely start working on a script only to wake up days later to find the topic in the headlines. Five days into a story about shoulder-launched missiles, Voll said, the Times
ran a front-page story on them. Other episodes dealt with an Iraqi biochemical expert the writers called Dr. Germ and a suicide bomber masquerading as a mild-mannered day trader who plots to blow up the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

The show's producers understand that, after hearing about terrorism on the news all day, viewers may not want to deal with it during their downtime at night. But viewers do want to know about the people who are keeping them safe, Voll says. "I don't want to watch a murder a day either or be inside an emergency room watching people bleed to death, but shows like ER
figured out how to give us characters and stories that made us say, 'I sure would like to have those people on my side.'"

Ratings-wise, the bar isn't set very high for Threat Matrix. It needs only to come in third in the time period against NBC's No. 1 combination of Friends
and Scrubs
and CBS's Survivor: Pearl Islands.

Tough time slot

"Everyone here understands that this is a very difficult time period," says Thom Sherman, senior vice president of drama series for ABC. "But the bigger issue for us is that the show shows creative legs."

While so far ABC is happy with the show creatively, it's hard to tell yet whether Threat Matrix
is accomplishing its ratings goals. Oct. 2's baseball playoff game between the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins gave Fox third place in the time slot by a narrow margin in the adults 18-49 demographic, with baseball scoring a 3.0 rating/8 share vs. Threat Matrix's 2.0/6.

Once baseball completes its run, though, Fox has a new show—Tru Calling, starring Eliza Dushku—slated for the spot, and it's likely to have just as hard a time getting a toehold as Threat Matrix. Thursday nights are so threatening for everyone but NBC and CBS that Fox has already moved its summer hit The O.C.
away from the tough Thursday 9 p.m. slot to Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET.

Still, just into the new season, the ratings news has been relatively good for Threat Matrix. In its first three weeks, the show saw total viewers grow by 7%, from 6.7 million to 7.2 million. And it builds from its first half-hour to its second in viewers and adults 18-49.

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.