Television’s Real Fear Factor

2/24/2006 7:00 PM Eastern

For decades, disaster films such as Earthquake and The Day After Tomorrow have racked up millions of dollars at the box office. Now original documentaries and specials focusing on real-life natural disasters and terrorist attacks are drawing viewers to the small screen.

Over the past six months, non-fiction documentaries and even fictional movies about tragedies like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2004 Asian Tsunami — as well as dramatizations of potential natural disasters, such as a hurricane hitting New York City — are generating record-setting ratings for cable networks.

Among the recent spate of true-life disaster-oriented documentaries and specials:

  • A&E Television’s Jan. 30 original movie Flight 93, which dramatically recreated the events surrounding the United Airlines flight that crashed in rural Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, pulled a network record 4.7 household rating and 5.9 million viewers.

  • Discovery Channel’s Sept. 11, 2005, docudrama about Flight 93, The Flight That Fought Back, was the network’s highest-rated show since 2000, garnering a 5.1 household rating.

  • The Feb. 5 installment of The Weather Channel’s original “what if” series It Could Happen Tomorrow, which depicted the devastation that a Mount Rainier volcanic eruption could trigger across the country, garnered the network a 0.7 rating, one-tenth of a point off that network’s highest ratings performance for a long-form program.

  • National Geographic Channel’s August 2005 two-part Inside 9/11 special examining the terrorist attacks posted a 2.5 and a 3.6 rating, respectively — the first time any National Geographic show has earned at least a 2.0 rating in the network’s history.

Not unlike disaster-oriented blockbuster films, Syracuse University professor of pop culture Robert Thompson said such programs tap into viewers’ fascination with larger-than-life events that extend well beyond the boundaries of their own personal lives.

“There is certainly an interest in looking right into the heart of darkness, and I think some of this disaster programming feeds that appetite,” said Thompson. “But when you’re watching the Towering Inferno or The Day After Tomorrow, you have the comfort that it’s fiction. Hopefully when you’re watching coverage of Sept. 11 or Hurricane Katrina, you’re watching with all the compassion that comes from watching our fellow human beings suffer and die. But I don’t think it takes away from the fact that it’s still fascinating to watch.”

Such numbers for documentary programming were virtually unheard of prior to 2000. Non-fictional content depicting disaster scenarios for America’s cities were mostly depicted in big-budget, special effects-laden Hollywood films or often plodding documentary shows heavy on analysis from scientists and experts and light on strong visual imagery.

“[Documentaries] would provide you with knowledge, but five years ago we might have made rather somber documentaries with just scientists,” said Discovery Channel U.S. executive vice president and general manager Jane Root.

But today, with the advancement of special effects technology and the insertion of loosely scripted dramatizations that run alongside actual scientific information, networks like Discovery can visually simulate disasters, like it did with the volcanic decimation of the ancient city of Pompeii as part of its 2005 special Pompeii: The Last Day.

“We still interview the volcanologists, but we also want to have a sense of drama, immersion and energy to really bring those things alive,” added Root. Continuing the trend, Discovery is planning to premiere later this year Perfect Disasters, a six-part series about different disasters happening in different cities across the world.

Along with the added special effects, network executives say the actual disasters and potential calamities portrayed in the various shows have drawn interest from viewers as much for their educational content as for their entertainment value.

“I think people have had to become aware of what’s going on all over the world, so what happened to us in 9/11, what happened in the midst of Hurricane Katrina and what happened during the Tsunami has made us aware of our fragility,” said A&E vice president of film, drama and music programming Delia Fine.

The Weather Channel senior vice president and general manager Terry Connelly says the network’s It Could Happen Tomorrow series not only provides dramatic depictions of what could happen to a city in the event of a natural disaster, but also tries to prepare and inform viewers — along with various city, state and governmental officials — as to what to do in case such scenarios become reality.

The hope is that such information gets to people before disaster strikes. But in the case of Hurricane Katrina, sometimes a disaster strikes before the information can be disseminated.

The Weather Channel last May completed the first episode of the series, in which experts all but predicted what ultimately happened to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The episode, which eerily and accurately predicted the devastation that eventually beset the Big Easy through special effects imagery, has yet to air in its entirety on the network, and Weather Channel officials have not determined whether it will ever appear on the small screen.

Connelly argues that such shows almost have to be somewhat entertaining in nature in an effort to draw viewers so that the show’s ultimate goal of preparing viewers for the worst gets through to the largest audience possible.

“The style is deliberately dramatic because viewers tend to be pretty complacent,” he said. “People don’t think these things can happen to them, but it can and it did and it will again. Ultimately, these programs are about raising awareness, stirring discussion about preparation and safety.”