- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Entertainment mavens and TV producers face a difficult judgment call as they finalize their own wartime footing.

Should it be business as usual belly laughs and all while bombs fall? Perhaps.

"It is absolutely essential to be amused, to giggle, to sigh during wartime. It counteracts the negative effects of truly disturbing news," said Charles Figley, a Florida State University psychologist who specializes in public reactions to disasters.

"We feel safer when we get information during a crisis. But we can also overdose on it," Mr. Figley said, adding that amusement provides a valuable buffer and can help maintain public perspective.

C-SPAN asked viewers yesterday whether the Academy Awards and the NCAA basketball tournament should be canceled in deference to the Iraq invasion.

Some viewers said preserving the status quo constituted an act of defiance to terrorists intent on bruising American popular culture.

"We should go about our business. If we don't, the terrorists win," said one caller.

"The Oscars, the NCAAs this is manna from heaven for our troops," noted one former military morale officer. "We have to carry on with it. Our guys can't wait to hear who won things like the World Series."

But others on C-SPAN said a grave situation calls for an equally grave prime time.

"The nation must pause and pay attention to the fact we may be killing people," said one viewer. Another said TV viewers should all pray.

But the rules of war may dictate coverage.

"With embedded journalists prohibited from filing stories for the first two or three days of conflict, it's possible that viewers would be better off without having the networks give us nonstop coverage based on hearsay and speculation," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

"That said, asking media outlets for journalistic restraint when faced with the potential to not be the first with a story is an exercise in futility," he added.

Are commercials appropriate during war coverage? Mr. Felling says it presents a "Catch-22" situation for broadcasters and advertisers alike.

"Ratings will skyrocket at the most critical wartime moments, but it's at these times when commercials are inappropriate. Airing them will merely push viewers to another channel," Mr. Felling said.

The commercial-free mode was established after the September 11 attacks, when television was dubbed a "national campfire" by ABC's Peter Jennings.

Those days of a neutral comfort zone are ebbing, however.

Mr. Jennings hosted "When Diplomacy Fails," a three-hour special aired after President Bush's speech to the nation Monday night. The Media Research Center deemed it "World News Tonight's Anti-War Agenda" yesterday, adding that "ABC advertised its editorial slant."

Meanwhile, producers and programmers must decide whether to pre-empt, delay, rework or even cancel programming that might offend a wartime audience.

Academy Awards producer Gil Cates is adamant that the Oscars will air Sunday night, "war or no war." Mr. Cates has discreetly tried to keep Hollywood nominees on message: short thank-yous are preferred to anti-war rants.

Oscar organizers announced yesterday, however, that they will curb the flashy red-carpet segment in recognition of the war that likely will have commenced by Sunday night's broadcast. As actors arrive for the awards ceremony in downtown Los Angeles, they won't stop for press interviews or photographs, organizers said.

Mr. Cates also said ABC may cut away from the Oscar ceremony for breaking news as well as run a news ticker across the bottom of television screens.

British director Stephen Daldry, nominated for best director for "The Hours," has already said he will denounce the war should he win.

"I certainly will mention the war in my speech," he told reporters yesterday. "I think it would be impossible not to."

Scott Galupo contributed to this report.

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