'Shooter' and TV's Grim Reality: When to Delay a Show After Tragedy

UnReal S02E07 Still - Publicity - H 2016
Bettina Strauss/A+E Networks

UnReal S02E07 Still - Publicity - H 2016

As the USA series falls victim to Dallas violence, execs open up about confronting tough and all-too-frequent choices between taste and creative freedom in an explosive news environment: "We can't censor ourselves into oblivion."

As night fell July 7, television viewers watched in horror as a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas became the scene of a sniper attack with five police officers killed by a disgraced military vet. The following day, 1,500 miles away at USA Network's Manhattan headquarters, the conversation already had moved from heartache to strategy.

USA was set to premiere its series Shooter on July 19, and there were mounting concerns that debuting the now-unfortunately-titled drama, which opens with sounds of gunshots and images of real-life gun violence, as scheduled would be insensitive. That the series centers on a U.S. veteran (Ryan Phillippe) wrongly accused of a crime was a nuance that could not be communicated properly with the country in such a fragile emotional state. Four days after the Dallas attack, USA said it was delaying the premiere by a week. Then, more tragedy — first in Nice, France, then in Turkey and, most recently, in Baton Rouge, La. — prompting another announcement the following week: Shooter would be shelved until the fall.

Such conversations, which often involve executives across marketing, publicity and programming, are becoming increasingly common as instances of violence continue to ravage the world. In fact, only a month earlier, TNT pushed the season-three premiere of The Last Ship, which included a shooting at a Vietnamese nightclub, a week in light of the Orlando club massacre that left 49 dead. And 10 months before that, those same USA executives benched the season-one finale of Mr. Robot for a week because the episode featured a gruesome on-air shooting that was eerily similar to one that had just occurred at a Virginia TV station. Other recent examples of real-life tragedy intruding on escapist TV include episodes of ABC's Castle and NBC's Revolution (pulled after the Boston Marathon bombing) as well as CBS' NCIS: Los Angeles and Supergirl (following the terrorist attack in Paris); in each case, the network delayed the episode a week.

In discussions largely off the record given the sensitivities, some TV executives question whether simply pushing a week is enough, while many others argue that doing so is a sign of respect and allows the country — or at least the vocal critics on social media — time to process, grieve and move on in today's fast-paced news environment. The Jackal Group CEO Gail Berman suggests both the world and the culture have changed since she ran Fox from 2000 to 2005, making the need for decision-making much more immediate. "There's no doubt in my mind that everyone who runs a network these days wants to behave in a responsible and sensitive way," she says, "but it's perhaps a bit easier now to be able to say, 'Hey, in a week, things will die down and we'll move along.' "

By contrast, insiders often point to the 1999 "Earshot" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which a student brings a gun to school. "One week before the episode was scheduled to air, one of the writers came into the room at Buffy and said, 'It's happened again,' " recalls Jane Espenson, who penned the episode. The "again," she explains, referred to the school shooting at Columbine High School, and a decision was made by The WB to delay the episode for roughly five months. "[It] was the right call," she says now. "The episode had moments of irreverent humor that would have been jarring in the immediate light of the tragedy."

For Berman, who was readying the Fox terrorism drama 24 in the fall of 2001, it was the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that put her team in the hot seat. Fortunately, she had the benefit of a couple of months, which allowed time to cut a scene involving a plane blowing up. The intent of the episode remained, notes Berman. "You have to be sure you're being respectful of your audience, the country and the victims on the one hand, and then on the other hand, you have to allow your creators to create," she says. "We can't censor ourselves into oblivion."

That sentiment encouraged the writers of UnREAL to tackle race relations in a season devoted to the first black suitor on the series' Bachelor-esque reality show. Co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro recalls pitching the idea: "I just said, 'It makes me totally uncomfortable … but it would be a shame to be too scared to do it.' " That mind-set also emboldened executives at Lifetime and parent company A+E Networks to air the series' July 18 episode, featuring a police officer shooting one of the season's black characters, in the wake of the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile deaths. That the episode was airing midseason and was part of the season's larger commentary made the decision easier, say insiders.

"I definitely was like, 'Oh shit,' " says Shapiro of seeing iterations of her story play out in reality. "I hope we got it right because it's such a crucial issue right now, and I feel really scared to be on the frontlines of it." Ariana Jackson, a black writer who penned the episode, aptly titled "Ambush," concurs, adding a sentiment shared by many about their hot-button shows: "It would have been great for this episode to have been irrelevant by now."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.