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March 23rd / 24th, 2013

"The Message of Special Bulletin Still Relevant Today"

Special Bulletin graphic from fictional RBS NetworkThirty years ago this week, people panicked in the streets over the threat of a nuclear explosion. Not really, but that’s what NBC thought was going to happen when Special Bulletin was first broadcast on March 20, 1983.

Special Bulletin was the brainchild of former film school pals Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick. Today they are Hollywood’s most renowned triple-threat team who writes, produces and directs, responsible for such films as Legends of the Fall, Glory and Shakespeare in Love, and TV classics like “Thirtysomething” and “My So-Called Life.” But back in 1983, Ed and Marshall  weren’t yet Oscar and Emmy winners. They were just two buddies who had a wild idea for a television movie.

Special Bulletin is the story of a band of anti-nuke activists holding America hostage by threatening to detonate their own nuclear device, unless the government dismantles its warheads within 24 hours. It is also the story of how the news media injects itself into and promotes an evolving crisis.

During an interview for my book TV Creators, Herskovitz credited his partner with the film’s approach. “Ed started talking one day about how television news had become the language of storytelling, and that you could tell a story through the language of television news. He was saying you would never have to go behind the scenes, and you’d never have to have a narrator. You’d just see what you would see as if you were watching television, and you could tell a whole story that way.”

But NBC executives were afraid that a movie shot on videotape to simulate live news coverage of a nuclear threat, might be misunderstood by viewers. So the network displayed a disclaimer before and during the broadcast, stating, “The following program is a realistic depiction of fictional events. None of what you are about to see is actually happening.” Zwick told me recently that he and Marshall fought against the disclaimer, but said Ed, “Standards and Practices holds an extraordinary kind of power, and in this case, they just said, ‘It’s our way or the highway.’” NBC’s trepidation was understandable. Forty-five years earlier, Orson Welles’s faux newscast approach for a radio presentation of War of the Worlds created widespread panic when listeners thought America was being invaded by space aliens. CBS felt the backlash from politicians and media critics, and was even sued by a number of listeners who claimed they suffered from mental anguish and personal injury. By 1983, people feared the threat of nuclear war more than they did Martians, so Special Bulletin audiences were warned, then reminded that they were in no danger of being incinerated.

Interestingly enough, Zwick and Welles met some years after Special Bulletin aired, and it was then that Ed learned why the boy genius pulled his radio stunt back in 1938. “He said the reason he did War of the Worlds is because it was at the time of Father Charles Coughlin and the demagogues on radio. Back then Welles said that people always assumed that because they heard it on the radio, it was true, and so he wanted to do something on radio that wasn’t true. That was our purpose with Special Bulletin to a certain degree as well. We wanted to talk about the complexity of the news media in the event, and how they became a part of it.”

In that regard, Special Bulletin was a groundbreaking use of television because it was a cautionary tale about television. Unfortunately, neither the TV industry, nor government heeded the cautions that Ed and Marshall proffered. Today, network and cable news operations are more interested in ratings than they are in facts. They are more adept at exploiting than they are at explaining. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, for example, cable news outlets rushed to judgement in order to scoop their competition, and ended up identifying the wrong man as the shooter. Meanwhile, we’ve developed into a nation where wars can be fought over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, and Homeland Security says that duct tape will protect us against an airborne bio terrorism attack.

Perhaps it’s time for Ed and Marshall to come up with a new kind of Special Bulletin that could frighten us into demanding more of ourselves and of those who lead us and keep us informed. Or perhaps they already have. Late last month, unknown hackers broke into the Emergency Broadcast System of Montana TV station KRTV, and broadcast a warning that zombies were on the loose. People in the Big Sky State panicked. I guess they needed a disclaimer to let them know not to believe everything the media and the government tells them. I asked Ed if he and Marshall were responsible for the hoax. Said Ed laughingly, “We were nowhere near Montana that day”. I kinda wish they had been.