sullivan travels, again

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In 1942, as America moved from depression to war, a now classic film debuted and set the standard for entertainment during times of hardship: Sullivan's Travels, Preston Sturges' ode to the value of comedy in our lives. In the film, John Sullivan, a misguided comic director, yearned to create something “meaningful� that would speak to a troubled nation. Along with Sullivan, Americans and Hollywood execs alike experienced the humbling discovery that what troubled audiences yearn for more than anything else is laughter and respite.

Will Americans once again crowd into theaters in search of escapism and lightheartedness? Will comedy, family melodrama and fantasy supersede hard-core action and uncompromised reality? Of course, it's easy to overstate the changes to American entertainment wrought by the events of Sept. 11, but the reality of a shift in tastes seems undeniable. The actual changes themselves, however, are expected to be much more subtle.

Sure, there were the immediate results: Films depicting terrorists or havoc in the air were shelved. Others had sweeping vistas of the Twin Towers edited out, lest they distract from the action at hand. Yet most of the changes in how Americans entertain themselves have been far less dramatic.

In the weeks following the terrorist attacks, several shifts took place, often along lines last seen during World War II and at the dawn of the Cold War. First, Americans tuned in to the news to an unusual extent. When they weren't watching the headlines, they veered in an almost opposite direction — toward comedy, fantasy and escape. Thrillers and horror flicks continued to perform well, despite the initial speculation that violent themes would suffer, but with one important caveat: The violence had to seem far removed from the tangible, the possible, the foreseeable. It needed to be sufficiently unreal. (Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that reality TV, already suffering somewhat from programming overkill, found its ratings tumbling further in the weeks following the attacks.)

“Americans are fearful and full of negative emotions now,� says psychologist and author Dr. Joyce Brothers. “They're feeling depressed. They're turning to the few things that bring them joy and positive emotions.� As for other themes, she says, “Americans need entertainment that is engaging. We're not afraid to worry as long as we know the worry isn't real.�

Immediately following the attacks, 24-hour-news stations suddenly seemed essential. Even MTV and VH1 broadcast feeds from sister Viacom network CBS for the first 24 hours. Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research for New York City-based Horizon Media, says that during times of war, even young viewers tune in to more serious news coverage. “MTV viewers might be more tempted to watch the news networks now that they might know someone who's fighting in this war,� he says. After the attacks CNN's ratings were up 350 percent; MSNBC, Fox News Channel, Headline News and CNBC also saw significant gains in viewership.

Within weeks, however, the public tuned back to “Must See TV.� Although season premieres were delayed, the fall schedule debuted with force. In their first episodes of the season — less than three weeks after the tragedy — both Friends and ER garnered higher than average ratings. In movie theaters, frothy films like Serendipity (released Oct. 5), and Amelie (released Nov. 2), fared better than Miramax originally predicted, according to Mark Gill, president of Miramax Los Angeles. “Amelie and Serendipity will both benefit from the public mood. We thought they would do reasonably well [before], but our expectations are raised a bit now. Their longevity will be better, given the public appetite.� The satirical weekly, The Onion, heralded the triumph of escapist culture with the headline, “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.�

But not in quite the same way. Moviegoers also turned out to see violent films again, but ones where the threat of danger seemed somehow remote or far-fetched. The weekend of Sept. 28, Don't Say a Word, a Michael Douglas thriller, debuted at No. 1, grossing $17 million — even though the film had a scene in which a man is buried alive. Mark Gill confirms Americans' ongoing desire for far-flung action/adventure and even some violence. According to Gill, while films like Serendipity are doing well, so is Miramax's Apocalypse Now Redux, whose gross receipts went up 5 percent in the weeks following the attacks. War seems to be acceptable with audiences, as long as it's not the war at hand. Patrons of video stores relished similarly violent fare, with dark titles like Hannibal, Memento and Exit Wounds topping rental charts in the weeks after the attacks.

Betsy Frank, executive vice president of research at MTV Networks, has already noticed a shift among the network's properties, which include Nickelodeon and VH1. “It was certainly true for the first couple of weeks that [Americans had] a desire to watch something safe and something that would make them forget — at least for a while — what they had just seen. But that will return a bit more to normal as the distance becomes further.�

Change in the entertainment industry isn't only subtle, it's also often delayed. Miramax's Gill notes that in the next year or so the industry is pretty much forced to make do with the movies that are already in the pipeline. Hollywood is bogged down with excess inventory because many studios rushed projects along in anticipation of actors' and writers' strikes that never materialized. Nonetheless, Gill predicts additional changes later in terms of themes and storylines, as producers, directors and screenwriters grapple with how to interpret and filter current sentiment through their work. Says Gill: “There's a trend now toward actors and directors wanting to make films that make the audience feel good.� In about a year's time, that trend is likely to alter the pool of films from which the moviegoing public has to choose. Gill admits that when looking at potential scripts these days, comedies and patriotic films have become more attractive.

Overall, uncertainty persists. What will engage; what will alienate? Even MTV's Frank, who barely a week after the attacks sent a battery of questions to young adults on topics ranging from where they got their news to how they were coping with the tragedy, is wary of gauging her audience's future response. “There was a lot of prognostication going on after the attacks that everything, including entertainment, was going to change. You shouldn't make those types of prognostications because you can't underestimate the human spirit and their desire to get back to normal, which is exactly what has appeared to happen.� Perhaps it's a slightly new kind of normal, for a new kind of normalcy.

comfort me

Overall, networks with that “warm and fuzzy� feeling tended to regain viewers more quickly than networks that concentrated on pop culture, sports and travel. For instance, three weeks following the attacks, CMT regained 129 percent of the number of viewing households that tuned in just before the attacks. ESPN only regained 78 percent of its viewers.

HH RECOVERY CABLE NETWORK RATE POST 9/11

CMT 129%
Disney Channel 106%
TV Land 102%
Nickelodeon 95%
E! Entertainment TV 82%
ESPN 78%
Court TV 75%
The Weather Channel 75%
The Travel Channel 71%
MTV: Music Television 65%
Source: Horizon Media

every which way

In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks, survey companies took to the field with questions trying to gauge the opinions of the American public as to what they want from the entertainment industry. The following are just some of the questions asked and the responses:

Over the past few weeks, it has been somewhat of an emotional relief to see the return of programming, commercials and promotional events not focused on the recent tragedy.

Strongly agree 49%
Somewhat agree 32%
Somewhat disagree 10%
Strongly disagree 5%
Don't know 4%
Source: Strategy One, September 18-21, 2001

Agree or disagree with the following statement: It is time for networks to begin fall programming:

Strongly agree 32%
Somewhat agree 48%
Somewhat disagree 15%
Strongly disagree 4%
Source: Knowledge Networks/Statistical Research, September 22-23, 2001

On a scale of 1 to 5 (one being the most likely) how likely are you to go out to see a movie or live entertainment in the next four weeks?

More likely 9%
2 7%
3 59%
4 10%
Less likely 15%
Source: Initiative Media, September 21-23, 2001

Thinking about what you want to see on TV, which of the following types of programming are you more likely to watch in the next few weeks? (Multiple answers allowed.)

News updates 60%
Comedy 57%
Police/detective dramas 38%
“All news� networks 38%
Action/adventure 33%
Lawyer/courtroom dramas 33%
Investigative spy dramas 31%
Source: Initiative Media, September 21-23, 2001

marching to the same beat

Top-selling albums the week of the terrorist attacks appeared to be the same types of albums selling before Sept. 11 — new albums by artists popular among young Americans.

Top 10 Albums week ending Sept. 9 Top 10 Albums week ending Sept. 16
1. Toxicity, System of a Down* 1. The Blueprint, Jay-Z*
2. Songs in A Minor, Alicia Keys 2. Silver Side Up, Nickelback*
3. Aaliyah, Aaliyah 3. Songs in A Minor, Alicia Keys
4. Now 7, Various artists 4. Ghetto Fabolous, Fabolous*
5. No More Drama, Mary J. Blige 5. Love and Theft, Bob Dylan*
6. Break the Cycle, Staind 6. Satellite, P.O.D.*
7. [Hybrid Theory], Linkin Park 7. Glitter (Sndtrk), Mariah Carey*
8. Now, Maxwell 8. [Hybrid Theory], Linkin Park
9. Celebrity, ‘N Sync 9. Now 7, Various artists
10. The Good Times, Afroman 10. Aaliyah, Aaliyah
*Album debuted that week Source: SoundScan

déjà vu

The same dark, violent movies that topped the video rental charts the week before the attacks came out on top the week after.

Top 10 video rentals week ending Sept. 9 Top 10 video rentals week ending Sept. 16
1. Hannibal 1. Hannibal
2. Memento* 2. Blow*
3. Exit Wounds 3. Memento
4. The Mexican 4. Exit Wounds
5. Chocolat 5. The Mexican
6. Joe Dirt 6. Joe Dirt
7. Enemy at the Gates 7. The Tailor of Panama*
8. 15 Minutes 8. Chocolat
9. The Family Man 9. Enemy at the Gates
10. See Spot Run 10. 15 Minutes
*Video was new to release that week. Source: Video Store Magazine
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