Last-ditch attempt to counter miniseries' critics was not enough to avoid alienating audiences
As Americans struggled last week to come to terms with their reflections of September 11, 2001, ABC Entertainment dealt with its own 9/11 demons: An intense controversy around the factual accuracy of its five-hour miniseries, The Path to 9/11.
Initially presenting the program as a docudrama based closely on the findings of the 9/11 Commission report, ABC was forced to rethink its miniseries-as-an-educational-tool tack after being inundated with complaints about the portrayal of ex-President Bill Clinton and others, including a 200,000-signature scrap-the-program petition from the Democratic National Committee.
While it didn't scrap the program, ABC did edit it and incorporate a three-paragraph dramatization disclaimer throughout the miniseries' two-evening presentation. Among other critic-appeasing measures, ABC also immediately followed last Sunday night's airing with a special edition of Nightline, essentially contradicting most of the program's history-distorting allegations.
In dealing with a subject as sensitive as 9/11, a network is bound to draw some ire. But with The Path to 9/11, could ABC have avoided such a magnitude of controversy?
"The first thing, obviously, is they could have made a more accurate docudrama," says Paul Waldman, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a DC-based research center dedicated to monitoring "conservative misinformation." ABC referred requests for comment to a written statement.
Another issue, Waldman says, was ABC "went about enlisting conservatives to market" the program rather than reaching out to a broader mix of influencers. While the estimated number of advance-screening copies ranged from 500 to 900, many of those, Waldman says, were targeted to right-wing talk-show hosts and bloggers, people who, given the director's conservative bent, might be more amenable.
However, esteemed conservative commentators such as radio host Bill Bennett and National Review's John Podhoretz have been critical of the film.
But that strategy had its successes. L. Brent Bozell, founder of "liberal media watch-dog" organization Media Research Center, praised the film in a syndicated column and appeared on radio to applaud ABC.
Media critics, from Tim Rutten of the LA Times to Tom Shales of The Washington Post, also lambasted ABC's decision to air the docudrama.
And American Airlines released its own statement last Monday, calling the program "inaccurate and irresponsible," pertaining to the depiction of the airline's check-in procedure on that fateful day.
Criticism also focused on an ABC-hosted Path to 9/11 blog, which did not satisfy complaints about the movie's bent and inexplicably went dark for two days.
This is hardly the first time a network has been faced with pre-show uproar. In 2003, CBS canceled its miniseries The Reagans because of pressure from conservative watchdog groups displeased with the film's depiction of the former President. (It later aired on Showtime.) In fact, some conservatives have cited the Reagans situation as reason to oppose The Path to 9/11.
The Reagans was "the ultimate class in how to not do PR," says Robert Thompson, professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University. "CBS made 150% of the population mad at it: 50% for scheduling it in the first place, 50% for pulling it, and 50% for putting it on Showtime instead."
But, of course, controversy also does sell.
"When anything is in the papers, it's going to make people watch," notes Maryann Ridini Spencer, president of Woodland Hills, CA-based Ridini Entertainment, whose clients include The NBC Agency.
"Essentially, everyone who talked about the controversy was part of the promotions department of ABC," Thompson adds.
And both Ridini and Thompson note that TV viewers generally have short memories.
"From that, the bad stuff will fade away eventually onto the next redeeming story," Ridini says. "Put in enough positive time, and people do forget."