Six shows included in tonight's lineup as deadline for Iraq passes; war coverage may interrupt viewing
By R.D. Heldenfels
If a real war starts tonight, it could mean real trouble for reality shows.
Tonight's broadcast TV lineup, which comes as President Bush's deadline for Iraq passes, includes six reality shows.
At 8 p.m. are Fox's American Idol, CBS' Survivor: The Amazon and Pax's Candid Camera. CBS' Star Search and ABC's The Bachelor: Where Are They Now? special are at 9 p.m., and ABC's All American Girl at 10 p.m.
Now, many viewers, both locally and nationally, will be more interested in war news. Still keep in mind, Survivor: The Amazon had the third-largest national audience in prime time (behind top-ranked CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Tuesday's American Idol). Wednesday's Idol telecast was eighth.
That interest in reality TV is one sign of how television has changed since the last time it had to cover a big international conflict, the Persian Gulf War.
When the Gulf War began in 1991, reality TV as we now know it was far from a phenomenon. One of the pioneering shows in the genre, MTV's The Real World, was still more than a year away. And that's not the only change in the TV universe.
The most popular of the cable news networks, Fox News Channel, did not exist during the original Gulf War, when CNN proved that cable could compete fiercely against the broadcast networks on a big news story.
Fox News made its debut in 1996, and now reaches more than 80 million U.S. homes by cable and satellite dish. That same year, NBC expanded its reach into cable by launching MSNBC, now in 76 million homes.
While MSNBC has struggled, Fox News has changed the TV news rules. Through a philosophy that blends political conservatism with strong personalities, Fox has forced CNN and MSNBC to rethink their programming approaches more than once. If nothing else, Fox's rivals operate with the knowledge that Fox has a lot of friends in the Bush administration, giving it a jump in any race for access.
ABC, CBS and NBC in turn know that they are facing more competition for news viewers than they did in 1991, on both cable and broadcast TV. Fox, after all, uses its cable news as the foundation for broadcast news coverage on big stories as well.
TV's changes go beyond news. Three broadcast networks have arrived since 1991 -- UPN and The WB in 1995 and Pax in 1998.
Cartoon Network, Food Network, HGTV and Sundance Channel are a few of the cable networks to premiere since the Gulf War, adding to the available choices for viewers.
And those viewers are greater in number. More than 73 million homes have at least basic cable, according to National Cable & Telecommunications Association estimates. That's more than two-thirds of available homes, up from about 60 percent during the Gulf War. Still more have satellite dishes.
Yet some of the cable channels may end up serving the broadcast networks' interests, because they are parts of the same companies.
Ownership changes since the Gulf War have included the Walt Disney Co.'s acquisition of ABC in 1996 and Viacom's absorbing CBS in 1999. Where NBC and Fox have the same owners, they have expanded their holdings -- so NBC can now look to MSNBC, Bravo and its partial interest in Pax TV, and Fox has FX and Fox Sports Net as well as its cable news.
This gives the networks flexibility with their schedules that was not there in 1991, especially when it comes to providing entertainment programming and war news at the same time.
CBS, for example has a companion network, UPN, and cable siblings TNN, MTV, VH1 and TV Land.
ABC's program decisions, meanwhile, can include an array of cable channels, among them the ESPN channels and ABC Family, which Disney bought in 2001 and has increasingly used to replay ABC network programs.
You can find similar options for some local stations, which have seen dramatic changes since 1991 as well.
Six stations now have different owners: WKYC (Channel 3), WJW (Channel 8), WOIO (Channel 19), WVPX (Channel 23), WUAB (Channel 43) and WOAC (Channel 67).
Of particular note is the single owner for Channels 19 and 43, giving it some possibilities in moving programs around (as it often does with its news personalities), and an agreement between Channels 3 and 23, which allows for program movement between the two.
And where does all this leave viewers? With only two certainties. One is that the war could delay or postpone just about any show at any time. The Bush speech on Monday night had networks scrambling to adjust on Monday afternoon. The other is that, because of the likely confusion, your channel-flipping hand is going to get a workout.