Why Real-World Tragedies Like the Paris Attacks Are TV’s Newest Disrupters

Breaking news is prompting shows like CBS’ “Supergirl” and TNT’s “Legends” to reshuffle planned episodes with similar themes — and it’s likely to happen more often

Last Updated: November 17, 2015 @ 12:42 PM

The deadly terror attacks that took place in Paris Friday sent television programmers scrambling. CBS on Sunday yanked episodes of “Supergirl” and “NCIS: Los Angeles” from its schedule due to plot elements similar to the real-life events that claimed 129 lives in the French capital. The following morning, TNT revealed that it would not air an episode of drama “Legends” Monday night for the same reason.

Past tragedies have forced cable and broadcast networks to make last-second scheduling changes. But the shift toward digital and delayed viewing and the massive recent growth in original series have made those decisions more frequent and more fraught.

After the fatal on-air shooting in August of two Virginia television-news journalists, IFC rescheduled an episode of its anthology comedy series “Documentary Now!” Jennifer Caserta, the cable network’s president, worried about similarities between the episode’s story and the real-life shooting, and made the change just hours before it was to air.

“At that point, there are no real hard and fast rules as to the process, but it was about acting quickly, assessing the situation, calling key stakeholders into a room,” Caserta told TheWrap. Her concern in the “Documentary Now!” situation was doing what was “right and responsible” by viewers. But a last-second scheduling change comes with plenty of downside.

“The drawback is that you have planned to air a specific episode, so the world expects a specific piece of content that they are not now going to see,” Caserta said. “This episode was an episode that was very high-profile. We had done a lot of marketing and promotion up till this point that became irrelevant in some ways. We had inaccurate information out in the world.”

IFC broadcast the episode the following week, moving up a different new episode. Because “Documentary Now!” was a collection of six standalone films featuring the same cast and creators, the delay may have been an annoyance for some viewers, but it didn’t present challenges in terms of series continuity.

But as TV series become more serialized, last-minute scheduling shifts can be disruptive. For “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “Supergirl,” CBS chose to swap in new episodes planned for later in the season. The former series is a traditional crime-of-the-week procedural drama.

But the latter follows a newer trend toward series that benefit from being watched consecutively and feature season-long storylines that build from episode to episode. It’s unclear whether jumbling the episode order will impact “Supergirl’s” continuity — something that could alienate fans of a comic book-based franchise.

The trend toward serialization is a new phenomenon that programmers have to deal with when faced with real-life crises. Before the rise of the DVR and streaming services, broadcasters programmed with only the linear schedule in mind. Series had to be accessible for viewers who would likely miss an episode here and there, as well as those who would be watching the many reruns played during midseason and summer.

But the DVR and platforms such as Hulu have made it possible for viewers to not just catch up on shows, but to watch at their leisure without thought to the linear schedule. And the rapid growth in original series from cable and streaming outlets in recent years has forced broadcasters to up the number of hours of originals they air and scale back their reliance on reruns.

“Even back in the ’70s and ’80s, when [serialized dramas] ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Dallas’ were the highest-rated shows on television, their repeat numbers were terrible,” Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media, told TheWrap. “But there is now an aftermarket with the Netflix and Amazons and Hulus of the world that allows for an alternate marketplace” to reruns and syndication — a marketplace that thrives on binge viewing and serialized stories.

The boom in TV programming has also led to a greater diversity of content. “Documentary Now!” was praised by critics for its ambitious approach to a limited comedy series. “Supergirl” and “NCIS: Los Angeles” are more mainstream, but deal in subject matter that may have been too outrageous for previous generations. (The “Supergirl” episode in question featured a series of bombs set off in a coordinated attack on the hero’s home city, a clear riff on modern terrorism anxiety.)

USA’s “Mr. Robot,” which pushed its season finale in August after the Virginia shooting, was also acclaimed by critics for its funhouse-mirror take on contemporary concerns.

In a previous era of fewer choices and narrower creative visions, the real world and the television world would have been less likely to collide in the same way that they have on Monday night’s schedule.

“It’s a more sophisticated product,” Caserta said of television. “With more complex issues that we’re all dealing with to make our programming more interesting comes more sophisticated problems.”

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