Funeral Channel: Live Coverage

By Hickey, Jennifer G. | Insight on the News, December 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

Funeral Channel: Live Coverage

Hickey, Jennifer G., Insight on the News

The TV networks are going over the top in the amount of airtime devoted to the coverage of celebrity tragedy and death, while ignoring authentic news and pressing issues.

It was a big day for the big top in Hugo, Okla., particularly for Doris Richard Miller, otherwise known as Mr. Circus, who died in September but had been put on ice by the Carson & Barnes five-ring circus until the show season concluded. While big red noses and cymbal-playing monkeys were not called for, Mr. Circus had left careful instructions for his last performance, -- including being laid out in a red and gold casket, to be carried by a horse-drawn hearse followed by marching musicians playing circus music to enliven his journey to the hereafter.

This "best funeral ever" even included in the procession one of Miller's 36 elephants, missing only live coverage by the cable-TV networks. If only there were a 24-hour funeral channel.

"Think how wonderfully ludicrous that would be. I don't think it is viable, but it is the logical extension" of the current coverage, suggests Jane Hall, associate professor of communication at American University in Washington. While the notion of an all-funeral channel (let's call it RIP-TV) may elicit a dismissive giggle from enthusiasts of black humor, the recent trend of airing everything from tragic events to the funerals that follow them suggests that there may be a Harold and Maude market.

"We're like a utility: You flip it on to get the latest news. There is an appetite for the news story," contends Dennis Murray, executive producer of daytime programming for Fox News. And the American people have been racking up some pretty high utility bills of late.

"I think there is a trend since the success, if that is the right word, with Princess Diana. There is a fascination with celebrities who are dead and live coverage of the dead has become part of reporting on the cable networks," remarks Hall. "It has gone to wall-to-wall coverage of events. It is almost as if [networks] feel they have to follow up. The funeral is almost the natural child of this 24-hour live coverage."

Victor Miller, one of two head writers for the ABC soap opera All My Children, recently said that "in the wake of the O.J. Simpson case, the soaps have lost roughly half of their audience. They [viewers] are hooked on news as soap."

And, if you air it, they will come. The memorial services for former Arizona Republican senator Barry Goldwater, entertainer and California Republican Rep. Sonny Bono and country singer Tammy Wynette all were televised live. The funerals of both Bono and Wynette tripled CNN's ratings, with Wynette boosting the news network's numbers from 0.5 to 1.8, according to CNN.

And then there are what Murray calls "tragedy funerals," such as those for the victims of the recent Texas A&M bonfire collapse, the Columbine High School massacre or the EgyptAir 990 plane crash. And they were no less successful in the ratings. NBC's Dateline ran a special on the Columbine killings, which racked up a season's-best 13.2 rating. "I think a school shooting is so relatable because everybody has gone to school. The funeral became a form of closure and we got a lot of positive feedback from viewers," recounts Murray.

The transformation of private grief into public dramas of "national grieving" and struggle for "closure" is not healthy for society, argues Bill McLaughlin, an associate professor in residence at Quinnipiac College. "These outpourings of private grief, the sidewalk and backyard memorials with people yammering on about closure. It is psychobabble."

Maybe so, but big audiences also were watching ABC's 20/20 special on the Columbine deaths, which would have topped the network's ratings for this year if it were not for Barbara Walters' equally morose interview with Monica Lewinsky. Seems prurient beats morose, but not by much.

"The coverage, per se, of funerals and tragedy is as old as time," observes McLaughlin, citing a 1649 report by Samuel Pepys of a lead story offering a thorough rendering of the execution of Charles I. …

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