Air travel and 9/11 … are some networks taking advantage?

by Karl J. Paloucek

I’ve been accused of a number of things in my lifetime, and if there’s one thing I have to cop to, it’s confusing people at times as to whether I’m serious or joking. In truth, sometimes I’m not even sure. Sometimes a topic has sufficient irony to lend itself to being oddly humorous and at the same time, it might not be appropriately timed for humor. I’m not even sure that what I want to discuss here is one of those topics, but consider yourselves forewarned — I feel like it’s gonna be one of those.

About 10 to 15 years ago, there was a particular ad that used to come on TV. I can’t remember what it was for — a car, maybe? It doesn’t matter. But it appeared during the time when The Simpsons was at or near the height of its popularity. Right at the beginning of the ad, during the fade-up, you heard a synthesized chorus identical to the opening bars of The Simpsons’ theme song. The effect was that every time this commercial aired, many people — myself included — tended to look to the television with a look of anticipation that all but said, “Is The Simpsons coming on???”

I can’t go so far as to accuse some networks of using 9/11’s 10th anniversary in a similar fashion, because it’s hard to say, when it comes to TV scheduling, what might be a legitimate coincidence and what might be outright gross manipulation and exploitation. But I’m just going to consider what I know:

For most of us who remember the events of 9/11, one of the lingering effects has been a much keener awareness of the perils of air travel. With the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks this weekend, it’s understandable that there are a number of specials and films revisiting that historic tragedy and its aftermath. As such, any programming that features people on a plane is likely to draw our attention when flipping through channels — much more so, I think, than at a less conspicuous time.

As I had reason to comb through the schedules for this weekend’s films, I have to say that I felt compelled to question a few titles that are slated to air. During this weekend in particular, when sensitivity to seeing people in planes might attract viewers’ attention, a few networks have chosen to air programming that could inadvertently lure viewers whose antennae are perhaps, if only temporarily, more finely attuned to anything that could be 9/11-related.

Possibly chief among them in the bad-taste department, VH1 Classic will be airing Iron Maiden: Flight 666, (Sept. 9, 10:30pm ET) chronicling the heavy metal band’s 2008 world tour around the world in a jet flown by lead singer and licensed pilot Bruce Dickinson. Somehow, if only for this particular commemoration, with something like Flight 666, it’s just a little difficult to get on board.

TNT is airing numerous showings of the Tom Hanks vehicle The Terminal (Sept. 10, 9pm ET; Sept. 11, 6:15pm ET), based on the true story of a man whose small country’s government ceased to exist while he was in transit, leaving him in a bureaucratic no man’s land that forced him to live in the international zone of JFK airport. While he may not spend a lot of time in flight during the film, anyone who might be looking for a film like World Trade Center or, better still, United 93 might well be lured in by the New York airport terminal’s brooding presence.

And yes, even CMT has me scratching my chin with its showing of Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Sept. 10, 6:58pm ET). Yes, it’s a comedy. Yes, it has John Candy and Steve Martin, who definitely are not going to be mistaken for anything more serious. But the film does depict the harrowing anxiety that’s inherent to modern travel, which has become more acute since 9/11.

While there don’t seem to be showings of United 93 or World Trade Center among the listings, the arresting film 102 Minutes That Changed America most immediately revisits the attacks, using films, photos and recordings shot by everyday citizens, edited together in real time, for a gut-wrenching experience that puts viewers right back to that day. The film will air Sept. 11 across the board on A&E, LMN, History, BIO and Lifetime at 8:46am ET (at more or less the exact time the attacks took place) and will repeat on History at 9pm that night. If you’re really looking to remember the tumult of that day via television, this will be the way to do it.


Photo: ™ & © 2004 DreamWorks LLC. Credit: Merrick Morton