TV Guide: The day TV viewers stood still

2012-09-07 15:42

Who can forget the sight of the planes torpedoing into the New York skyscrapers on September 11 2001?

It’s the most powerful event in global television history, according to a recent Neilsen survey, which took its measure on viewership figures, memory of the images and how often they were shared with others.

In pop culture terms, it was the day that reality finally trumped the soap operas and changed the TV landscape for good.

But it’s not the most important event in a journey that began as far back as 1963 with the assassination of John F Kennedy.
In 1991 we watched our first war televised live in the Persian Gulf. But the real game-changer came on June 17 1994 when OJ Simpson’s white bronco hit the highway and news helicopters trailed it live.

The Simpson chase came in sixth on the Neilsen survey and the court verdict came in third. Television historians often refer to Simpson when they discuss the rise of reality TV, 24-hour news and talk shows – and the decline of soap operas and game shows.

Live newscasting proved as gripping as fiction – even sport. Simpson’s bronco interrupted the NBA final.

So it’s September again, the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks and National Geographic is offering three documentaries to mark the day.

The Fireman’s Story premieres tonight at 9pm, followed by the debut of The Woman Who Wasn’t There at 9.55pm. Voices from the Air is on tomorrow at 9pm.

Watching them, I was struck by the irony that reality has also dumbed down the TV documentary. The Fireman’s Story and Voices from the Air are constructed as fictions – re-enactments and narratives with dramatic, tense, movie voice-overs.

Facts are vehicles for cheap thrills and effects. Patriotism drips from the screen to make up for investigative prowess.

The only one with any insight is The Woman Who Wasn’t There, a “psychological thriller” released this year.

That’s not to say it’s brilliant, but it’s the most compelling of the lot – none of which try to place events in the grander universe beyond parochial American concerns.

Charl Blignaut remembers the day that reality finally changed the TV landscape for good.

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