This is the 75th anniversary of the Mercury Players broadcast of the Orson Welles production of the War of the Worlds – a radio broadcast that seemingly scared many Americans into thinking that the country was under attack by Martians, that my home state of New Jersey had been overrun, and that the rest of the country would be soon to follow. PBS’s American Experience just ran a great documentary about the production – talking about Wells’ decision to delay an announcement that the program was a fictional production, not a real invasion, long after his network superiors ordered that announcement after the phone lines of the network were tied up. Also tied up were the phone lines of emergency responders, and it supposedly even caused people to leave their homes to flee the path of the oncoming invaders. The PBS program talked about how the FCC opened an investigation of the program, and how Congress demanded that laws be passed to prevent such a broadcast from happening again. Essentially, through some well-publicized apologies by Welles and others involved in the program, and a promise by the network to take steps to prevent it from happening again, the FCC closed its investigation and no law was passed by Congress. Even though the government did not act 75 years ago, it is interesting to look at how the FCC has changed since that time, and why such a broadcast would not fly under FCC rules today.
Most prominent among the FCC rules adopted since the famous broadcast is the FCC’s rule against “hoaxes.” As we’ve written before (usually just before April Fools’ Day), this rule (Section 73.1217) forbids broadcasters from airing programs that are false where it is foreseeable that the broadcast will tie up the resources of first responders or that the broadcast will otherwise cause harm to people or damage to property, and where such harm is in fact caused. Applying that rule to the War of the Worlds broadcast would mean that the radio network (and its affiliated stations) could likely be looking at big fines were such a broadcast to be made today. While a broadcaster could certainly argue (as was done at the time) that no rational person would believe that the Martians were really invading, the fact that the network was deluged with calls, and that the network warned its director to air a disclaimer (which was delayed for dramatic effect) would likely defeat any such arguments.
In today’s society, we seem much less willing to allow any program that upsets audiences or potentially imperils safety in any way. In recent years, the few times that a television program utilized an on-the-spot news format for an entertainment program, the disclaimers were prominent and repeated, and usually there were many pre-show announcements that warned the viewer that the program that was upcoming was only a dramatization. Where there is even an innocent hoax, especially when it goes tragically bad, there is worldwide outrage, as was the case when the Australian radio team called the hospital of Princess Kate earlier this year. Times have changed, and the media has changed. We are unlikely to see a War of the Worlds recreation any time soon, so it’s very unlikely that 75 years from now PBS or its successor will be celebrating the commotion caused by a contemporary program.