August 29, 2006

We wish somebody had thought this through. It's somewhere between ignorance and incompetence.
- Tim Gilbert, general manager of NBC's Lexington affiliate (WLEX)
One assumes the reference is to the Conan O'Brien skit preceding the Emmy award presentation, and not to the airplane-crash show Lost which it parodies: but then one would also have to wonder why not both? Why is one condemned and another praised?

One notes, first, that the parody in question was not of the event itself. No one suggests that O'Brien came up with this skit as a way of spoofing airplane crashes in general, or the one in Kentucky specifically. The parody was of a fictional show, not of a real event.

Timing alone does not provide an adequate answer. Certainly it was an unhappy coincidence that a United States domestic flight should crash a few hours before the start of the Emmys and the planned, pre-taped opening skit. However, common sense and a quick glance at airline statistics would suggest that, while not certain, it was highly likely that an airplane crash would occur somewhere in the United States during the run of Lost itself: which might seem to raise the bar from the inadvertent "ignorance"/"incompetence" to the near-deliberate and knowledgeable competence. (We don't consider crashes elsewhere in the world, which would not have created the same reaction -- and again, why not?) Quite probably it was just good fortune for the show's producers that such a crash did not occur right at its outset. Certainly other events on United States soil have caused other about-to-be-new shows to become stillborn or, at best, indefinitely postponed. With a show whose very premise is the catastrophic event at its beginning, there is no option to postpone a single midseason episode until the summer re-run season, as Whedon had to do with Buffy the Vampire Slayer after the Columbine killings.

Unlike new attempts, established shows are given the leeway to sidestep outright cancellation for any reason outside in-season ratings (or sometimes station policy clashes which develop during the run). When they happen to intersect parallel events outside their control during their run, no matter how closely, we rarely hear of any protests demanding they be pulled from the air.

While parody shows can become similarly established, individual parody skits are isolated events. Further, by their nature, they are time-sensitive: the skit must be performed at a point when the parodied material is still high in the public consciousness, in the available environment which allows for that skit to reach the most viewers who would find it relevant. If the optimal environment also happens to be a unique one (which can never be repeated), the skit must be aired then -- or not at all. The more detailed the skit, the further in advance it must be planned and created. The most detailed skits are usually reserved for the key points in a programme to catch and maintain viewers: opening, mid-point (or on the half-hour), and occasionally around commercial breaks. Of these, the opening is easily the most important, and thus its structure has the least amount of flexibility. Additionally, here, the entire show had been planned out around a connected series of pre-recorded spoofs that also included O'Brien's dropping in on The Office and South Park. (One wonders whether, had the timing been different, this might have gone down as one of the better-structured Emmy awards presentations in the history of the show.) Cancel the opening at what is the last moment for a single-occurance show such as a specific Emmy awards show (after the rehearsal, before airing): and the entire show cannot but be disrupted. ... And then there would have been complaints about how lame it had been.

But all of this assumes time proximity of an event as the only relevant factor. So ask: would the exact same material be acceptable in a different time environment? Would anyone have objected to that exact same parody had there not happened to have been that airplane crash just before? Heck, has anyone objected to far more vicious parodies or even news headlines, provided that they are of undesirable persons?

Give the last word to O'Brien, then:
We got trouble, right here at NBC, with a capital T and that rhymes with G, as in 'Gee, we're screwed!

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