Televisions got the power.

A well known television personality once stated that television could be a “teacher, mother, [or] secret lover”. In a day and age when television sets rival the world’s population it is fair to say that it is possible that television plays a commanding role in the everyday lives of its viewers. One might say that in the same way that television sets tell their audiences what to look like, who to vote for and where one should shop, television might also possess the power to induce or evoke certain emotions thought the manipulation of content. In order to gauge how large scale events can result in a manipulation of television content one needs to assess the dominant themes which emerge in the aftermath of an event, such as 9/11.

A period in which the influential power of television can be seen is in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks television content responded with shock. For the ten days after 9/11 audiences were confronted with the enduring news coverage of the attacks. However in the months and years following the 9/11 attacks television, through the content aired, subtly helped audiences deal with their grief.

In the early stages of grief mourner are often unwilling to accept the magnitude of the situation. Following 9/11 television was in denial and executives were hesitant to screen television shows which may be construed as offensive, or in poor taste. Many televisions shows instead choose to adopt a policy of ignorance. David Kohan, one of the creators of Will and Grace (1998-2006), stated that “broaching the terrorist attacks in a sitcom would only trivialize them”. Will and Grace was one of nine shows (there were fifteen in total), set in New York, which choose to not acknowledge 9/11 [1]. A similar sentiment was also echoed by Friends (1994-2004) producer Kevin Bright. Denial of 9/11 was evident in The Friends episode, ‘The One Where Rachel Tells(8.03), which underwent a complete rewrite. As a result of the rewrite the story line which was centred around a New York airport security breech was omitted. Television networks also choose to postpone celebratory content, such as the 2001 Emmy Awards.

Despite some television programs omitting 9/11 references from plotlines, there were many shows which saw it in the best interest of audiences to incorporate them.  NBC’s Third Watch ran three 9/11 specials. The underlying premise of all three episodes, which were strongly patriotic in nature, was to credit and acknowledge the work of New York’s emergency services. The first of the three 9/11 episodes, ‘In Their Own Words’ (3.01), used real life testimonials to portray first hand experiences of the terror attacks. The episode was developed “to let the real people to bring their own stories in their own words” [2] into public discourse. Throughout the episode stories of heroism and triumph are contrasted against stories of loss, in which feelings of anger are apparent. Themes of heroism and mateship were commonplace in many post 9/11 programs, explicit or not.  The high prevalence of patriotic storylines in post 9/11 televisual discourse can be construed as attempts to rebuild and instil feelings of national pride and devotion. This highlights how television content can be manipulated to cater to its audience, particularly in times of grief.

Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, also sought to address the events of 9/11. However the portrayal of 9/11 in The West Wing was a stark contrast to Third Watch’s 9/11 episodes. In Sorkin’s stand alone episode, ‘Isaac and Ishmael’, a classic example of how television sought to educate audiences on the attacks can be seen. During the episode the threat of a security breach prompts a student protagonist to ask “why is everybody trying to kill us?” The episode uses a historical-“pedagogical” [3] narrative to “teach viewers how to think about the events of 9/11” [4]. ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ works to contextualise the events of the 9/11 terrorism by educating the naive students characterised in the episode about terrorism, and by extension the audience. As audiences grieved 9/11, and asked why? Television was providing the answers. In some ways the educative nature of some post 9/11 television appears to be encouraging audiences to question 9/11 and possible misconceptions which the event may have provoked.

Post 9/11 television over time encouraged audiences to lament their losses, but also to seek help in order to move on. Two television shows, CSI New York and Third Watch, ran storylines which brought issues of grief and loss into public discourse.  In CSI New York, the main protagonist, Mac Taylor, deals with the recurring feelings of grief due to the loss of his wife in the 9/11 attacks.  In Third Watch plotlines dealing the post-traumatic stress suffered by Bosco, who witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Centre, and the obstacles faced by Taylor as she deals with the loss of her father resonated with audiences. Events such as 9/11 encouraged television to re-engage with audiences. In doing this television adopted healing mechanisms by developing content which aligned with the experiences of its audience members. This brought television into a more realistic realm.

 According to Thomas Hibbs television is often used to “confront the darker side of modern life … [and] not surprisingly, after 9/11, terrorism has become a plotline in various” [5] television genres. Thus post 9/11 television saw a resurgence of the hero narrative. Fox 8s 24 (2001-2010) is an example of this. “Each season of 24 is structured around a day in the life of counterterrorism expert Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), never flinching from the unsavoury consequences of fighting terror” [6]. For the viewer Jack Bauer is a heroic “avatar of the post-9/11 age” [7] who confronts “grand dilemmas” [8] in an attempt to protect society. In effect Bauer, the personification of the new American hero, resonated with audiences by overcoming hardship and rising against the enemy. This shows how television can manipulate world events, and create a new niche market.

It is clear to see that television has become tightly engrained in the world of its viewers. The ability of television to quickly respond to a situation has allowed programming to resonate with the experience of its audiences. This can result in the drawing out pending emotions, educating audiences, or creating a new niche market.



[1] T. Gladstone-Sovell and W. Wilkerson, “Inclusion, Education, and Avoidance: The Prime Time Response to September 11,” Proceedings of The 2002 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, Massachusetts, August 29- September 1, 2002, p.5.

[2] “In their Own Words,” 2001 episode of Third Watch (NBC, 1999-2005: NBC Television, 2007 DVD).

[3] J. Holland, “When You Think of the Taliban, Think of the Nazis’: Teaching Americans ‘9/11’ in NBC’sThe West Wing,” Journal of International Studies 40(2011): p.85.

[4] J. Holland, “When You Think of the Taliban, Think of the Nazis’: Teaching Americans ‘9/11’ in NBC’sThe West Wing,” Journal of International Studies 40(2011): p.85.

[5] T.S. Hibbs, “Film and TV in Anxious Times,” The New Atlantis (2004): p.102.

[6] T.S. Hibbs, “Film and TV in Anxious Times,” The New Atlantis (2004): p.102.

[7] J. Parrish, “Defining Dilemmas Down: The Case of 24,” Essay’s In Philosophy 10 (2009): p.2.

[8] J. Parrish, “Defining Dilemmas Down: The Case of 24,” Essay’s In Philosophy 10 (2009): p.4.

8 comments on “Televisions got the power.

  1. emmacardwell says:

    Unfortunatly only 1 of my embedded links will work so I have uploaded the corresponding links if you would like to see exmaples of my argument.

    1. “teacher, mother, [or] secret lover”

    2. 9/11 terror attacks

    3. David Kohan

    4. Will and Grace

    5. “broaching the terrorist attacks in a sitcom would only trivialize them”

    6. Friends

    7. Kevin Bright

    8. ‘The One Where Rachel Tells’

    9. 2001 Emmy Awards

    10. Third Watch

    11. credit and acknowledge the work of New York’s emergency services

    12. Stories of loss

    13. The West Wing

    14. “why is everybody trying to kill us?”

    15. Educating

    16. CSI New York

    17.Mac Taylor

    18. post-traumatic stress

    19. loss of her father

    20. 24

    21. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland)
    protect society

  2. NikiOsborn says:

    Hey Emma,

    I like how you have linked the power of television to depictions of the 9/11 attacks. The war on terror and 9/11 itself has had a major impact on the worldwide community. I agree that television played a crucial role in shaping the way in which people should or shouldn’t respond to the event. Some of the shows you mention were strongly influenced by politics and national pride. As you say, some of these depictions may have aided victims of terrorism to deal with their grief. However, the ideologies portrayed in some of these shows also ignored other sectors of society that were affected by the event.

    It is evident from your post that television only presented heroic, nationalistic and militaristic ideologies in favour of the American point of view. These views are now commonly believed throughout Western society. I therefore have to agree with you. Television does have the power to manipulate, create and disperse certain ideas to billions of people around the world. By linking the attacks to television shows, you effectively show this.

    Well done! 🙂

  3. mvirata says:

    An interesting topic Emma!

    Television shows, and I guess popular media and as a whole, do appear to have such an impact on society especially after times of social trauma, but I was wondering what your views were on the fact that most of these shows do not really ‘question’ or challenge the dominant perspective.

    As you say, “As audiences grieved 9/11, and asked why? Television was providing the answers. In some ways the educative nature of some post 9/11 television appears to be encouraging audiences to question 9/11 and possible misconceptions which the event may have provoked.” but do you think its really teaching audiences to question or simply want to hear what they want to hear?

  4. jarrodhore says:

    Hey Emma,

    I really enjoyed reading your post and I was initially surprised at the different reactions that different shows had to the tragedy of 9/11 over the past 10 years. I got to thinking about this post because of the claim the Niki made about television only presenting heroic, nationalistic and militaristic ideologies in favour of the American point of view.

    While this is true in some cases, 24 springs to mind immediately, I think it uncovers some interesting points about the television response and how we think about it. To begin with, I think we underestimate the extent to which the public shapes the attitudes and presentations of these TV shows in favour of analysing the way television shaped responses to the conflict. This is a two way set of influence, after all these are popular programs that depend upon a popular audience and often reflect their values and ideas.

    24 is clearly a patriotic reaction and depiction of American values. Although it certainly cannot be associated with the conservative, deeply and insularly patriotic attitudes that are too easily attributed to America and Americans. Jack Bauer’s name evokes the immigrant origins of America’s past and implicitly associates the show with a noble, accepting and classical tolerant (in the Lockean/secular way) identity. As an intentional caricature of American values, Jack can be seen as embracing integrity, capability, secularity and morality. Even though 24 is patriotic reaction to 9/11, the complexity of Jack Bauer’s character, his cause and purpose, muddies the waters in relation to the analysis of this trend.

    In terms of television only presenting heroic, nationalistic and militaristic ideologies in favour of the American point of view. Isaac and Ishmael is one of my favourite television episodes ever, and I can certainly not understand how this fits. ‘The West Wing’ delicately handles the subject of international terrorism, its motivations and the very reasoning behind extremism. I think it does more than answer the questions of the audience. Aaron Sorkin has probably taken it upon himself to shape the opinions of the audience in the opposite manner assumed by some those critical of televisions role after 9/11.

    This doesn’t even mention the silence of popular sitcoms. So on the whole, while a trend of response seems clearly identifiable, the complexity of responses, while detailed in Emma’s post, is probably missed by a lot of critics.

    I wonder whether the classic ‘seven stages of grieving’ would correlate with the responses of American television in the ten years after 9/11? It would be an interesting thing to look at.

    Thanks Emma!


  5. Emma Cardwell says:

    Hi Jarrod,

    It’s funny that you
    mention the seven stages of grieving. My first post for this was based on the seven stages. There was a really obvious flow with the stages of grieving however there were time discrepancies which negated the argument (as in they did not follow the order of growing). I however think that regardless of that television post 9/11 did loosely adopt those stages. I would be happy to also post or email you that essay if you want to have a look to see how television fits into that paradigm.


  6. rlhungerford says:

    Wooh, good work Em! What a comprehensive study! Impressive! You really have provided a great insight into the role TV plays in history and the role that it will continue to play in the future. What a great (and sad) case study to choose as well! As 9/11 continues to work its way in the past the perspective that you have provided is going to be invaluable. Was there much work on this area already? If you had the time and energy =)…how would you continue research/study in this area? Were there any particular areas/aspects of the research assignment that have been left untouched?

    Good sum up at the end too. Strong points!

    • emmacardwell says:

      Hi Rich,
      There was defiantly a huge amount of secondary literature about the responses of popular culture. However there was varying degrees of information. One example of this is that there was a large amount of literature about the Third Watch episode, ‘In Their Own words’, but not much at all on the subsequent episodes. There seemed to be some classic go-to shows such as The West Wings ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ and 24. These shows were repeated examples in much of the literature so I do feel that addressing the other shows is important as it gives us a more comprehensive view of how television responded. I was interested to learn in my research of how the television show Friends responded. Friends is a television that I have watched for a long time and not once was I made aware of the edit made to the episode I reference in my blog. I found this interesting that in drama series there was a large amount of media and academic attention given to how they addressed 9/11 but in sitcoms this was not the case. Admittedly this was in the year following the attacks, but it is still interesting that to my knowledge none of the DVDs make a mention of this specific edit.
      I have to say that I used mainstream television shows as my primary sources as they were more easily accessible and relevant to the general reader. However I would have liked to have, given more time (and energy for sure), done a more chronological analysis and followed right through the decade. I do feel that there were many shows I would have liked to have included, but given time and word restrictions this was not possible. I think that it would have also been nice to look at the different areas of television such as news, drama, sitcoms/comedy and special event television to see the change before 9/11 and the decade following. However this would have been unmanageable and with the word limit I would have really only scraped the surface.
      Emma 🙂

  7. emmacardwell says:


    In answer to your question I have to say that in my research I came to conclude that an audience sees what they want to see. As I was discussion with Jarrod, my initial blog was constructed around the stages of grieving. The reason I choose to not do this was because at some points the arguments were weak because of the stringent word limit of the blog. However I was compelled to really think about how television fitted into some of the dichotomies. In turn I was made aware of the fact that one can look, and usually find, whatever themes they like in popular culture. There are of course the dominant themes but if you look really hard you can find what you want. In saying this I think that that popular culture post 9/11 raises questions in the minds of the audience and for some it tells them what they want to hear, because that is what they are looking for. I can give you an example of this. In the preliminary stages of research I was also looking at film. I was given a list of popular culture by my advisor and one of the films was The Passion of the Christ. I was very interested as to why this was considered a 9/11 film. Before I watched the film I went into many themes I thought would be prevalent. When watching the film I found I was really looking for these themes. However in subsequent viewings I was more relaxed and opened minded about the themes and I actually was able to detect a theme which was more relevant to 9/11 than the other themes I had come across.

    I hope this answers your question.

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