September 12, 2006
9/11 Documentary to be Streamed Online for Second Viewing, Viewers Who Missed the Documentary

CBS is making the re-airing of its award-winning documentary special 9/11 available through its Web site for one week for free, after the special aired Sunday night on the network's evening lineup.

The network has indicated that one of its decisions to make the program available in this format as well is that approximately some network affiliates across the country chose not to run the special in their lineup or delaying it to a later time slot, chiefly over some concerns of potentially offensive language in the broadcast.

The special, hosted by Robert DeNiro, included several new interviews not featured in the previous broadcasts of the documentary.

The special first aired in March 2002 and was replayed on Sept. 11 that year, the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. CBS decided to run the two-hour special again on the five-year anniversary of the event.

The documentary was originally meant to be a profile of a a group of New York City firefighters, and documentary-makers were able to capture the 9/11 events as they were happening due to already being on the scene for this documentary. The network was and some of its affiliates, especially those who chose not to air the re-broadcast, were concerned that groups like the Parents Television Council or the FCC itself might raise questions about the language used by some of the firefighters in the documentary but chose to run that risk anyway.

This sets up an interesting way that networks can avoid such censorship in the future, though, by bypassing affiliates who refuse to run a show and broadcasting it online as well. As high-speed Internet becomes more prevalent, networks can do this more often. I can remember that, in Kentucky, our local ABC affiliate used to refuse to run NYPD Blue in its first season, instead replacing it with that gritty realist cop show, The Andy Griffith Show every week.

And, when affiliates across the country have to preempt a program, instead of playing it at 2 a.m. that particular affiliate or CBS itself could run the episode online for viewers to catch up (this is particularly important for soap opera fans, whose content is preempted all the time and never re-shown.)

The key point here is that it might have taken a weighty subject like the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to allow these precedents to be set, but they could help broaden the scope of what is possible for networks and their affiliates in the future to both have more creative freedom, when the situation calls for it (as some profane language in the 9/11 documentary may be fairly easily justified) and as creating a way to bypass logistical problems with affiliates by allowing viewers access to content through other methods as well.

And it will be interesting to see if the usual suspects--like James Dobson, for instance, would criticize television for using profane language in this instance.