LOS ANGELES–The Fox network's Feb. 15 broadcast of a shark attack on a shipwrecked boatload of Haitian refugees garnered a Nielsen-topping 27.6 rating and 48 share, dominating its 8 p.m. time slot and positioning itself for a 13-week series option, TV-industry insiders reported Monday.
The win caps a yearlong trend of human tragedy as the top prime-time ratings grabber for the four major networks.
"We are pleased the shark-attack footage has struck such a chord with viewers," Fox Entertainment chairman Sandy Grushow said. "Of course, we knew people would tune in to watch real-life Haitians struggling desperately among flotsam and wreckage in the open sea, only to be eaten alive by ravenous, blood-crazed schools of sharks in a feeding frenzy, but we never expected these kinds of numbers."
"I'd just like to thank all the fans for helping us realize our dream of being number one," Grushow added.
The shark attack is the latest in a string of human tragedies to top the Nielsens. Among previous winners: CBS's November 2000 special on the cannibalization of a stranded Norwegian research team in Antarctica, ABC's PrimeTime Thursday report on villagers being dissolved by molten lava during recent volcano eruptions in Indonesia, and Dateline NBC's five-part special Crushed By An Enraged Bull Elephant.
The success of such fare has cemented human tragedy's status as the primary programming directive for the coming season.
"When networks announce their Fall 2001 schedules this May, the watchwords are going to be 'pain and suffering,'" Los Angeles Times television columnist Howard Rosenberg said. "CBS has already gotten a jump on the trend by greenlighting Widowed By War, and NBC is reportedly in negotiations for an as-yet-untitled series about earthquakes that orphan small children, leaving them to wander alone through rubble, howling in confusion and despair as they scrounge for food like animals."
Human tragedy, a mainstay of the dramatic arts for thousands of years, has in recent decades been overtaken in the televisual arts by wacky pratfalls and bawdy sexual innuendo. But tragedy is making a big comeback, industry insiders say. Funny and sexy are out; horrific and senseless are in.
"Since the time of Aeschylus, human tragedy has captivated the human mind," said media and pop-culture analyst Kurt Andersen, founder of Inside.com. "Yet the current popularity of televised atrocity–beheadings, disembowelings, and immolation by chemical fires at the sites of industrial accidents–is something new. Never before have we seen such flaunting of the misfortunes of innocents by the major television networks. Because of content restrictions which hampered TV throughout most of its history, raw unedited footage of, say, an Afghan peasant mother and her five screaming children being hacked to pieces by Taliban militiamen was considered 'inappropriate' for viewer consumption."
However, Andersen said, with the advent of the Internet and the effect it has had on traditional television broadcasting, all that has begun to change.
"Now that these constraining standards of propriety have at long last loosened, we are in the middle of a 'Golden Age of Human Tragedy,'" Andersen said. "And it has made for some great TV."
Industry observers expect human tragedy to continue drawing big audiences–and big revenues–in the coming years. CBS just wrapped shooting on the series Venereal Archipelago, which will feature 16 young, single islanders slowly succumbing to worsening stages of syphilis. NBC's Tragic Event Sunday will document massacres by Third World despots and train accidents involving chemical spills. And ABC News' much-hyped six-part series on Angolan child amputees disfigured by abandoned land mines is scheduled for November sweeps. Other hot topics coming to the small screen in 2001 include starvation, killer-bee attack, and gang rape.