The Osbournes became a popular hit for MTV post 9/11. Credit: Corbis
A decade ago this week, while many were still reeling from the staggering and devious devastation of the September 11, 2001, attacks, some in the news and entertainment industries tried to divine the public’s reaction.
There was much speculation about how the tragedy would affect entertainment, especially movies and TV. A common prediction was that American tastes in entertainment would be forever changed. After seeing such real-life horrors, they believed, Americans would yearn for comforting, non-violent, wholesome family programming.
Film projects involving themes of bombs, destruction, and terrorism were immediately suspended. TV shows and films already in the process of being released were hastily re-edited or delayed; for example Disney studios postponed the release of its 2002 Tim Allen crime comedy Big Trouble because it included scenes of a bomb aboard an airplane. Even the original poster for Spider-Man, which included the Twin Towers reflected in the hero’s eyes, was recalled and is now a rare collectible.
Entertainment Weekly devoted much of its September 28, 2001, issue to, as the cover put it, “The challenge to our culture.” The magazine joined the media chorus discussing the death of irony and the dramatic impact terrorism would have on the entertainment industry. Entertainment Weekly writer Jeff Gordinier wrote, “it’s hard to believe that we’ll ever see anything the same way.…it took only an instant of excruciating reality to render our old appetites moot, piddling, even nauseating.” The effect was so profound, Gordinier wrote, that for him merely glimpsing a sitcom “was enough to induce a sour grind of physical revulsion.” Dozens of media experts weighed in with similar opinions second-guessing America’s taste in entertainment.
Nearly all of it turned out to be exaggerated or flat-out wrong. Less than two months after the attacks, an online poll of over 20,000 people showing that 75 percent of the respondents said that their taste in films and television were not changed at all by the attacks. Susan Whiting, president of Nielsen Media Research Company, said “All of the pundits who said this would happen were wrong. Shows like The Osbournes became wildly popular, along with shows like Fear Factor.” A look at the films created and released in the years following the attacks shows that the filmgoing public didn’t shy away from horror, violence, or even terrorism-themed entertainment.
Moralists aside, blowing big things up and watching people get killed is entertaining; it always has been and always will be. If anything, horror films became nastier and more sadistic since 2001. The success of the Saw films is particularly instructive. The immensely successful horror series —seven films so far, essentially about people being tortured and killed—earned nearly a billion dollars and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful horror movie series of all time.
This was of course not the first time that Hollywood got skittish about fictional entertainment too closely resembling real-life tragedy. After the space shuttle Columbia crashed in February 2003, Paramount studios pulled trailers for its upcoming sci-fi action film The Core because it included scenes of a space shuttle crashing to Earth. Even The Simpsons was not immune; an Albany, NY, Fox affiliate pulled an episode off the air (“Lisa of Little Faith”) because it included a brief scene of Bart Simpson launching a toy rocket which falls to the ground and burns down a church.
Research showed that most Americans’ lives were not dramatically changed by the September 11 attacks, and—for better or worse—their taste in entertainment never changed at all.