Monday was the 85th 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 soon follow. There has been much media coverage of that broadcast in the last week. Ten years ago, on its 75th anniversary, we wrote an article that is worth revisiting now, with some edits to look at more recent activity that might bear on any repeat of The War of the Worlds controversy.
On the 75th anniversary of The War of the Worlds broadcast, PBS’s American Experience ran a great documentary about the production – talking about Orson Welles’ decision to delay an announcement that the program was a fictional production, not a real invasion, long after his network superiors ordered that announcement because the network phone lines were tied up with anxious callers. Also tied up were the phone lines of emergency responders, and the broadcast supposedly 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 into 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.Continue Reading Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds Turns 85 – Could the Panic It Caused Happen Today?