BROOKE GLADSTONE: The same problem that confounds TV comedians afflicts the rest of television too. We've asked TV guide columnist Max Robins to address the question: what does the public want to see, and more importantly, what doesn't it want to see?
MAX ROBINS:There's certainly a sense among people in the television business that perhaps those kind of mean-spirited, Machiavellian reality shows that have been so popular - that this is a country now that doesn't want to watch people, you know, put the shiv in each other's back to win a million dollars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does that signal the end of the entire reality-television genre?
MAX ROBINS:It may not signal the end of reality television as a genre per se, but when a country's lived through something so horrific and that was, I mean - I, I don't mean to sound glib here but reality-tv to the, the Nth degree -- are they really going to want to watch a show called Survivor or a show called Fear Factor? A lot of what these shows had going for them is that the audience gets a vicarious thrill. They're geared in an 18 to 34 year old crowd that really up to this point hasn't had to deal with this kind of stuff before. I think you really have to ask -- now that-- well, that we're facing a whole lot as a country, if this is what we're going to look for, for entertainment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you been talking to production chiefs or media buyers, and is that what they're saying? Are they backing away?
MAX ROBINS:I talked to one gentleman who works for one of the biggest media buying companies. He was a key person in bankrolling Survivor to begin with, and he said to me, you know, I think the wind may be out of the sails for this. I talked to another - a, a very senior network executive and he said to me: in my gut I feel like it's over for this stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So as far as the people who make these decisions where the money goes, the genre's run out.
MAX ROBINS:Well it's not going to be immediate, certainly. They have so much money vested in it that they're going to go ahead with it. I mean there is going to be a Survivor III. How well it does I think's a real big question mark.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know this is really soon, but has anybody told you of new ideas, fresh ideas that may have been born out of this catastrophe?
MAX ROBINS:In a sense, yes. I talked to one veteran television writer/producer, and he was working on a series that was going to be based here in New York. Now this wasn't a reality series. All it was kind of about a down on his luck cop and his travails in New York. Well all of a sudden he's moved this cop to the Catskills, and it's about a cop who was burnt out working in New York, and now goes to the sticks to solve crime. So I don't think we'd go through a, a watershed moment like this without it having a very profound impact.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How are TV producers tweaking current programming in order to make it acceptable in a post World Trade Center explosion world?
MAX ROBINS:Well in a lot of ways, Brooke. For example the show SVU -- it's a spinoff of the popular Law & Order show. In the opening montage it used to be you'd see the World Trade Center. From what I understand, digitally they're taking it out. I understand they're even talking about taking it out digitally for the reruns of the show from the last couple of seasons that run on the USA network. In an episode of Friends, one of the characters makes a joke about hijacking a plane. Well, they went back in, edited it out. I think they're just kind of calling into question what kind of appetite there's going to be, and they're stuck in a way, because some of those shows are already made. They've invested millions of dollars. You have a show like Spin City where the mayor is this goofball.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can't have a goofball mayor any more?
MAX ROBINS:A goofball mayor of New York? I don't know. I think it remains to be seen. I even got an e-mail from a research group. They're doing a lot of business now just vetting what kind of advertising and trailers for movies, for TV shows are appropriate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So now you have a new rating -- you have for sex, violence, language and now for inappropriate references to New York or violence.
MAX ROBINS:There is just a real attitude that nobody wants to offend. I mean in one sense you can say well you're messing with history. The Trade Center's existed in this city for a long time. So you have to take 'em out of a promo of a fictional show? Well I can understand how the producers are thinking because they're saying hey - they have a whole different meaning now than they did 2 or 3 weeks ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Max, thanks a lot.
MAX ROBINS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: J. Max Robins writes The Robins Report for TV Guide.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, when emotion trumps objectivity, criticism seems anti-American and we consider the vocabulary of war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.