It seems almost quaint now, the idea of the live broadcast of a disaster, or even the end of the world, would be a televised novelty. Between the 1980s and early ’90s, several made-for-TV movies aped the style and format of newscasts, paid a little homage to Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 War Of The Worlds radio broadcast, and invented disasters to cover.
1983’s NBC movie Special Bulletin led the way, as a fringe nuclear disarmament group (themselves heavily armed) rented a tugboat, loaded it down with a nuclear bomb, and docked it at Charleston, South Carolina, demanding a live network news feed from a fictional TV news network to spread their anti-nuke message. Their bargaining chip? If they don’t get to talk to the entire country on TV, they’ll kill the network’s news crew, which just happened to be there recording an unrelated news package. The fictional “RBS” network gives in to these demands, and we’re treated to two hours of this would-be terrorist/activist cell falling apart from the inside: dissent, fear, conspiracy-theorist zeal, and wide-eyed mental instability are displayed by varying members of the group, as the news anchors at RBS’ national headquarters second-guess and psychoanalyze them while the clock ticks down to the annihilation of Charleston.
In 1984, HBO took things into darkly prophetic territory with Countdown To Looking Glass, predicting that World War III – between the United States and Soviet Union – would begin with an exchange of nuclear arms over an oil supertanker blockade in the Persian Gulf. With Canadian news anchor Patrick Watson playing the part of an American news anchor who one strongly suspects is Patrick Watson in every way but name, the world goes to hell over the course of two hours that chronicle nine days’ worth of events, including a well-meaning White House staffer’s leak of information that could have prevented the war…if only that information had made it to the airwaves more than once before being pulled by the bosses at the fictional “CVN” news network (a made-up equivalent of CNN). Public figures such as Newt Gingrich and Eric Sevareid appear as themselves, showing up to comment from Washington. Almost a decade before the Persian Gulf War, this movie predicted the tone and feel of live coverage from the Middle East to a frighteningly accurate degree.
Each time one of these movies would air, there would inevitably be complaints from worried viewers. Never mind that HBO doesn’t cover news (or even have a news department); never mind that no one had ever heard of “RBS” or “CVN” prior to these broadcasts – people who tuned in unaware that they were seeing a movie were upset. NBC took great pains to ensure that audiences knew Special Bulletin was fiction, while HBO’s movie featured cutaways to events “off the air” that were shot on film in traditional TV movie style.
In both cases, people were taken in. The “faux newscast” concept fell out of favor for quite a while, and then the Cold War fell by the wayside. It would take something quite inventive to bring this genre back, because if the nukes weren’t going to kill us all, what would?
But you can always invent a new Armageddon. On October 30th, 1994, CBS aired the TV movie Without Warning, chronicling strangely coincidental simultaneous meteor strikes on Earth which proved to be the harbingers of something much more terrifying. By mixing real TV news personalities such as Sander Vanocur and Bree Walker with the obligatory “celebrity interviews” with the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, and familiar actors as reporters throughout (including the very recognizable John de Lancie of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame), Without Warning made one fatal error that got CBS in hot water: it never made up a fictional TV network, and used CBS’ existing news graphics, which had the effort of making it look like a very real CBS News broadcast. Even though both the network and local stations plastered the screen with crawls indicating that it was a movie, CBS affiliates around the country received complaints aplenty from viewers who had been taken in…and this despite the fact that Without Warning’s decidedly more science-fictional plotline was the least likely of all these scenarios.
It would have been simple enough to determine if any of these “news events” were really happening. Does HBO cover news? No. Even if it does, is CNN covering a Persian Gulf crisis in 1984? No. Is any network other than NBC, ahem, “RBS”, covering the Charleston crisis? No? Then there probably isn’t one. If CBS has been covering a world-ending meteor storm for the past hour, even if it looks real, why aren’t NBC and ABC and CNN covering the same thing? That segment of the audience that got angry simply missed the joke…and failed some common sense fact-checking litmus tests.
These days, of course, the “faux newscast” format is dead. The internet is awash with hoaxes; manic conspiracy theorists manage to get real face time on YouTube, assuming they don’t have actual radio and TV deals lined up…and surely you’d hear about Charleston or the meteors on Twitter, right?
Chances are, some would still fall for the okeydoke. (Scarily enough, one hears that these same gullible people vote…or run for office themselves.)
So let’s examine the scorecard for each movie.
Special Bulletin: This is still the granddaddy of them all. Despite how scarily accurate Looking Glass may have been, Special Bulletin presents the most plausible scenario, and uses its characters to ask cutting questions about crisis news coverage as entertainment, poking sharply-pointed fun at news entities’ tendency to come up with full packages of intro graphics (with urgent music!) for any crisis that’ll be covered for more than a couple of hours. If anything, this scenario could be re-filmed more plausibly now: the terrorists wouldn’t be waiting for a camera power/signal cable thicker than an aircraft fuel hose, they’d simply Facetime “RBS” headquarters from the reporter’s phone and demand to have that put directly on the air. See if you can spot Lane Smith, the future face of the resistance newscasts in V: The Series, as a reporter working the Congressional beat here; this was earlier in his career, before the lizards landed. The writer/producer/director duo behind Special Bulletin went on to create thirtysomething.
Countdown To Looking Glass: If you grew up in the 1970s/’80s and were aware of the threat that the Cold War might thaw out very quickly, what with all the saber-rattling and speeches about “evil empires” and public safety films about what to do when The Bomb drops, this movie also rings terrifyingly true. Having real news anchors play the part of news anchors is a step up. Looking Glass’ fatal flaw is its cutaways to life outside the TV studio. They convey necessary information that would have been hard to do otherwise; one of “CVN”‘s reporters is sleeping with a White House staffer, and when he begs her to drop everything and evacuate Washington with him, it isn’t romantic – it’s scary. But this element of Looking Glass also takes me right out of the story every time. If not for those scenes, this would be the most flawless (and utterly terrifying) of the bunch.
Without Warning: This one is the most fun, simply because it’s no longer the Cold War. It’s also not Deep Impact or Armageddon – there’s a nice twist in the story that begins to emerge about halfway through, initially rebuked by the [made-up] news media and commentators alike as the most outlandish of explanations for what’s happening. Other than that, Without Warning rings true, though its coverage is a little too perfect and free of technical flaws. Again using real news talent, it’s a nice exercise in cognitive dissonance between “these are real news people” and “but this can’t possibly be happening”.
(Please note that your author, who dearly loves movies like this, has taken great pains not to spoil the endings. Fake newscast movies, like revenge and ice cream, are best served cold. Both Special Bulletin and Without Warning are available on DVD; Countdown To Looking Glass is forever confined to VHS, like the Cold War itself.)
What killed the “faux newscast”?
Quite simply, the world has become a scarier place, sometimes because the very people we once trusted to simply convey the news to us have deemed is necessary to make it scary. Scary sells ad time. These quaint artifacts of classic TV now seem tame compared to disasters that we’ve seen unfold on live TV ? terrorist attacks, hurricanes and levee breaks, tornadoes bearing down on hospitals, tsunamis engulfing entire populated areas..none of these are fiction. We’ve all seen these horrible scenarios play out for real, complete with earnest news anchors, rookie reporters tested to their limits, and panicked bystanders and witnesses. We’ve seen reporters shot to death at point-blank range live on the air.
We no longer need nightmare live news scenarios faked for us.
And, while hastily trying to figure out what the official hashtag for the latest real-life crisis is, we still don’t ask the big questions about why the news media operate the way they sometimes do, who decides what gets covered and what barely gets a mention in the “C” block after the weather.
Maybe, on occasion, we should.
Earl Green has been the head writer and podcast host at theLogBook.com since 1989, when the Earth’s crust was still cooling and dinosaurs could be heard plaintively baying for the blood of small mammals in the distant background of the pre-internet age. He has worked in his fair share of TV newsrooms (for real), and has since gone on to write two gigantic Doctor Who guidebooks, VWORP!1 and VWORP!2, and a more recent book about being geeky and daddy at the same time, Fatherhood, Fandom, and Fading Out. He’s also written for The Retroist, All Game Guide, and Classic Gamer Magazine, and hosts three podcasts: theLogBook.com’s Escape Pod (a daily dose of geeky history), Select Game (covering the Odyssey2 video game system), and In The Grand Theme Of Things (grouping movie, TV and game soundtracks together by topic). He is writing this bio from underneath a pile of cats. Please. Send help.