Newtown tragedy Newtown tragedy

Soon after news broke of the horrific December 14 elementary-school shootings in Newtown, Conn., the broadcast and cable networks scoured their schedules for anything that might be deemed offensive or inappropriate in light of the massacre.

"Caution carries the day," says one network executive. "You look up and down the schedule for shows and promos that might be uncomfortably close to the subject matter. Then you ask yourself, 'Are we being sensitive in a correct way or are we being overly careful?'"

As a result, Fox pre-empted episodes of Family Guy and American Dad, and Syfy bumped Haven, which included scenes of violence at a high school. USA swapped out episodes of shows like NCIS, while CBS switched out a CSI repeat. History pulled an airing of the gun-centric reality show Sharp Shooters. And Showtime erred on the side of caution and ran disclaimers in front of Homeland and Dexter, shows that both feature a body count.

That's not all: TLC's Best Funeral Ever, which spotlights wacky burials, was set to premiere December 27 and was pushed to January 6. Discovery, which had already quietly canceled American Guns earlier this year, confirmed the news (leading some gun enthusiasts to accuse the channel of making a knee-jerk decision). And Fox replaced edgy promos for its upcoming serial killer drama The Following with less graphic images.

In the wake of a tragedy like Newtown, "these things are going to come up," one exec notes. And it doesn't have to be man-made violence. In 2011, Fox postponed a night of hurricane-themed episodes of Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show in the wake of a series of deadly tornadoes in the South.

It's not the first time mass murder has forced the networks to alter their schedules. When those killings take place at a school and involve children, programmers are doubly sensitive to pull any depictions of kids in danger, regardless of context. "If we had an episode about a school shooting," the exec says, "I'm not sure when we'd put it back on."

The Columbine High School shootings in April 1999 occurred a week before The WB was scheduled to air the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Earshot," which included hints of a potential mass murder planned at a school. The episode was delayed until the following fall.

These exercises are a reminder that violent images are a TV mainstay — and viewers eat them up. Crime procedurals are among the longest-running and highest-rated shows on TV, and The Walking Dead, with its gruesome images of zombie mayhem, was the fall's No. 1 series among young adults.

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