Programming 9/11

For September 11th, 2002, Canadian and US networks are planning a blitz of specials and live reports. Advertisers are keeping their distance.

National Post, August 28, 2002   

In the hours and days after last September’s terrorist attacks on the United States, the power of television to relay breaking news to the world was made abundantly clear. Audiences around the globe turned on their sets to see the live reports, video and analysis that only television could provide.


A year later, the medium that showed the world the attacks and their aftermath is wrestling with how best to revisit the day. Currently, coverage plans are as different as the range of channels on the dial. CBC plans wall-to-wall coverage with both television services and its radio networks, for example, while the A&E network will replace its regular programming that morning with a silent list of the names of everyone killed in the attacks, beginning at 8:46 a.m.


One of the few certain things about television on Sept. 11, 2002, however, is there will be few or no commercials.


Ad sales staff at U.S. networks have found few companies want to buy spots in such sombre and potentially harrowing programming; most say commercials would seem insensitive or crass. Some companies — Volkswagen, Pepsi Cola, McDonald’s Restaurants and Dell Computer, to name four — aren’t running any commercials anywhere on U.S. TV that day. And most viewers don’t want other companies to advertise, either. A survey by Advertising Age magazine found 51 percent of the respondents thought companies shouldn’t run commercials on Sept. 11.


Networks have been trying to sell low-key sponsorship packages for some of their Sept. 11 programming, but those aren’t finding buyers either. NBC says it has a sponsor for its prime-time offering — a Concert for America, hosted by First Lady Laura Bush — but won’t identify the company. Fox forestalled such questions by refusing to sell advertising in its network documentary, The Day America Changed, or on its news channel. It is estimated the lack of advertising will cost the networks about US$32-million.


No estimates are available for Canadian outlets, though media buyers in this country are advising their clients to avoid buying spots on that day.


“We’re doing it on a client-by-client basis,” says Lorraine Hughes, president of OMD Canada, the nation’s biggest media planning and buying firm. “We don’t have any standing policy, ‘do not advertise that week or that day.’ But there’s a lot of sensitivity to the creative and the content — making sure that what we do is appropriate and sensitive.”


OMD’s clients are also considering who’ll be watching what on Sept. 11. “It’ll be interesting to see how much Canadian audience gets drawn to the U.S. coverage,” Hughes says. “We’ll be watching the numbers, definitely. You’d certainly be looking for compensation” if the network can’t deliver the audience advertisers are paying for.


Jack Tomik, president of CanWest Media Sales, says the tenor of that particular day and its coverage will limit advertising. The U.S. programming the network would normally be running won’t be available, and Global will be airing its own special coverage.


“A number of our advertisers have asked us not to air commercials on that specific date, and we’re respecting that wish,” he explains. “Likely as not, most of the day will have limited commercials, largely because of the wishes of the advertisers not to be on the air.” He says advertisers who didn’t want their commercials to run on Sept. 11 bought time before and after the date, so the number of spots will balance out.


CBC’s approach is simple: no commercials. It will not carry any spots on the main channel or Newsworld that day, says spokeswoman Ruth Ellen Soles. The radio networks, of course, never run commercials.


“A lot of that [the Sept. 11 programming] is going to run commercial-free,” says Fred Auchterlonie, senior vice-president and director of planning services for Harrison Young Pesonen & Newell Media Management. “If it is carrying commercials, we’re not really interested in having our clients in it. We just don’t think that people are in a very receptive mood.”


No representatives from CTV’s advertising sales department would comment, despite repeated requests.


The programming and coverage question presents Canadian networks with a unique challenge. European broadcasters and others outside North America can choose which of the American networks’ coverage to carry. But Canadians can get that from U.S. channels. Sept. 11 is primarily an American story, and Canadian television has to cover that as well as the relationship between the two countries and how it has changed in the past 12 months. It’s safe to say the Canadian networks as well as local channels will be trying to include Jean Chrétien, the Prime Minister, in their coverage. He is expected to be in Gander, Nfld., with U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci.


CBC is making an effort to ensure all of its services work in concert. “Everybody is aware of the perception that the different parts of the CBC don’t always work well together,” the CBC’s David Barnard says. “This is an example of the way this company wants to operate.”


Radio aims for intimacy by examining the day through individual points of view. Loss and Legacy: Reflections of September 11th is a 6½-hour program that will begin at 8:30 a.m. and include the memorial ceremonies scheduled to begin at 8:46 — the time the first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center that morning in New York.


CBC Television and CBC Newsworld will be running the same programming on Sept. 11, 2002. Peter Mansbridge will anchor 17½ hours of television coverage, starting at 6 a.m. and running until 11:30 that night. “There will be a lot more pundits,” as well as CBC reporters, Barnard says. “There are a couple of special documentaries, including one hosted by Mansbridge, which is specifically the story of what Canada’s government and the military did on the 11th.”


At CTV, the focus will be on finding a balance between remembering the events of Sept. 11 and looking at how the world has changed since.


“The day provides us with two important opportunities,” says Kirk LaPointe, CTV’s senior vice-president of news. “One, to revisit and try to learn the lessons from that day without reopening wounds, but without whitewashing what took place. The second opportunity is to understand how the world has changed, how we’ve constructed our society differently and how we intend to move forward.”


That begins at 6:30 a.m. with the network’s morning show, Canada AM, coming from New York and Toronto and running for five hours. At 8 p.m., Lloyd Robertson anchors a 60-minute news special revisiting the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and examining their implications.


CTV’s news channel, Newsnet, devotes all its programming that day to marking Sept. 11, including live coverage of the memorials in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 crashed.


“Unless you can provide the Canadian context to those events, there really is almost no use to mount that kind of an effort,” LaPointe says. “Our challenge is to tell the story through the Canadian lens. How do we make sure we really do justice to a massively complex story so that it’s internationally competitive as journalism, but much more nationally relevant than anything someone could get from another news source?”


Global News is thinking along similar lines. “We’re neighbours with the largest country in the world, economically and geopolitically,” says George Browne, the executive producer of Global National. “What was the impact of the change in our relationship since 9/11 happened? Having to fight terrorism together, how much of ourselves are we giving away? It’s sort of an exploration of that, trying to understand. Has Canada changed? Has our relationship with the States changed? What’s different today since that moment in time last year?”


Global National plans to explore those questions with a week’s worth of stories leading up to the 11th, with Kevin Newman anchoring the newscast from different Canadian cities. On the 11th, he’ll be anchoring from New York, where he used to work for ABC News before he left for Vancouver and Global just a month before the attacks.


The network and the National Post are collaborating on a poll probing how Canadians’ views of their country and its relationship with the United States have changed in the past year. As well, Global will show Facing the Century, an hour-long documentary hosted by Newman that will examine the issues facing Canada a year after the attacks and will include interviews with high-profile politicians and pundits, including John Manley, Brian Mulroney and Andrew Coyne.


All three big U.S. networks plan expanded morning shows on Sept. 11. Then their plans diverge.


ABC will stay with news anchored by Peter Jennings through prime time.


CBS’s plans are unclear; the network says it is trying to determine what its audience wants and how best to deliver that. Prime time for CBS will be 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II, featuring the exclusive interview U.S. President George W. Bush granted CBS reporter Scott Pelley. On Sept. 8, the network will rebroadcast the 9/11 documentary it first aired in March to an audience of 39 million. NBC’s six-hour edition of its Today show will segue into an afternoon town hall meeting anchored by Tom Brokaw.