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Does Homeland Security Make Good Television?

The other night my wife and I were watching the National Geographic Channel’s program, “The Liquid Bomb Plot.” The two-hour program chronicled the 2006 plan of al Qaeda affiliated terrorists in London to mix explosive fluids, smuggled as conventional bottles of soda onto seven aircraft, and detonate them over the Atlantic, killing nearly 2,000 people. Broken up by British Intelligence services, the threat to the world’s civil aviation was the most substantial terrorist threat since the 9/11 attacks. It also changed the way we all board an aircraft, by limiting the amount of liquids we could take onto a plane.  While it may have caused the travelling public one more inconvenience in going to the airport, once you saw the test footage of what these bin Laden inspired wannabe killers were up to, it gave you full appreciation (and support) of the current policy limiting liquids to three ounces calling for a clear Ziploc® bag to hold your toothpaste and deodorant.

Now I have to admit I am probably a completely prejudiced viewer of this program. Having worked at DHS Headquarters when the liquid plot occurred, I had a pretty good understanding of what had happened during that time frame. With the approaching 10th anniversary of 9/11 as a backdrop, years of hindsight as well as declassification of plenty of plot details, the producers had a treasure trove of items to present to a viewing audience. Furthermore, the program was, in typical National Geographic manner, exceptionally well done, with compelling interviews of notable principals involved, and great footage (actually recreations of surveillance activities and bomb mixing); it had you riveted to your television screen from beginning to end.

As my wife and I watched the program, she turned to me and said something to the effect of, “If more people watched this, they’d better understand what you guys [homeland security personnel] are up to.”

That got me to this thought: Does homeland security make good television?

For years, television viewers have been glued to their TV sets to watch long-running shows like “COPS,” or the recently cancelled, “America’s Most Wanted” to get an insiders view of police work. Both shows have run for 20+ years and literally took viewers along for the ride on some intense and disturbing encounters while putting away their share of bad guys.

As impressive as the records of both shows have been, when it comes to homeland security on television, the record is a lot less impressive.

ABC Television cancelled its reality based series, “Homeland Security USA” after a few weeks and only aired seven of its 13 filmed episodes that profiled some of the rank and file activities of DHS.  Other efforts to profile some of the department’s actions, such as National Geographic’s “Border Wars” that specifically chronicled the efforts of the U.S. Border Patrol to thwart the flow of illegal immigrants, drugs and other things we would rather keep on the other side of our borders, have had successful, albeit limited television runs.

Even the Discovery Channel’s most successful reality based series, “Deadliest Catch,” has gotten into featuring homeland security at work when it rides along with U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and boats during rescue operations off the Alaskan coasts. While those are notable visual chronicles of select homeland security missions undertaken by some of this country’s bravest in some of the most deadly circumstances, it’s an absolute unfair comparison to measure the viewership of a specialty cable channel (National Geographic, Discovery) against the other major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox).

The only popular series I can think of that even remote has some type of spellbinding homeland security bent to it would have been Fox’s 24 series, where Jack Bauer would solve all of the nation’s most critical problems in a day before absolute carnage could happen.  Trust me when I say if Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff, or Janet Napolitano had had a Jack Bauer on their payroll, they would have sent him to Capitol Hill to effectively and efficiently deal with the overburdening congressional oversight problem.

So why is it that homeland security does not have a more widespread television audience?

Is it because it is far more interesting to watch a nobody from the middle of nowhere who thinks they can sing, dance or entertain a group of celebrity judges and a cynical crowd either succeed or make a complete fool of themselves?

Or is it that people would rather completely unplug from their respective days and find something that has none of the stress that they regularly encounter?

The next few weeks should be fairly telling as to how the public will be responding to television about homeland security. National Geographic has been featuring footage of its exclusive interview with former President George W. Bush on his 9/11 experience. That program will herald a barrage of programming looking at every possible angle of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Every cable channel, news network, broadcast service, and device with an electronic screen will be putting forth its own version of a day that all of us remember far too vividly to possibly ever want to relive. There are poignant and powerful stories that need to be told, remembered and recorded. History demands that of us and we have the blessing and curse of having imagery and audio that records the horror and heroism of those fateful hours that changed our nation and planet forever.

As to wanting to watch it all again, or for that matter watching the daily, mundane, and often dangerous work that goes into many of the jobs that fall under homeland security, we are fortunate to have the choice to do so. We can choose to see up close and personal what these men and women do, or we can choose to turn to something else entirely. That is our option. Having the opportunity to visually tell the story of what homeland security is, and the people behind it, is an opportunity that fortunately the department has embraced from time to time. Despite the less than stellar ratings, it is something that I hope they will continue.

While homeland security may only find viewership in niche channels, the audiences that watch it, as well as the viewers that channel-surf and accidently stumble upon it will find programming that tells them about those who anonymously risk it all in service to the nation they’ve sworn to protect. That makes not just for great programming but rather continues a story that pre-dates television. We call it the American adventure and it has been epic from the very beginning.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...