At the Height of the L.A. Riots, NBC News Cut Away for 'The Cosby Show'

Crazy as it sounds, they made the right call!

The writer Hua Hsu, no stranger to readers of The Atlantic, has unearthed an incredible YouTube clip that NBC's Los Angeles affiliate broadcast at the height of the 1992 riots. Parts of the city were in flames. Millions of people were living under curfew. More than a dozen citizens were dead. Unlike broadcasters at other stations, the local NBC news team had to deal with the fact that The Cosby Show, the most popular sitcom of its era, was scheduled to air its final episode that night. Would the local affiliate keep broadcasting breaking news from the riots roiling the city, depriving residents of The Cosby Show? Or would it show the finale, depriving them of breaking news?

Here's how they handled the dilemma:

So they opted to air The Cosby Show!

That surprised me (though its very likely that I watched that very clip as a 12-year-old, and The Cosby Show episode after it). I've got to say, the more that I think about it, that they made the right call. Every other television and radio station was presumably covering the Los Angeles riots. For an hour, Angelenos who wanted a break had one alternative. And maybe the draw of The Cosby Show really did keep some people off the streets. So kudos to those bygone NBC anchors.

What I liked best about their rationale was the idea that the news team would take a "use this hour to update the stories," and would break in if anything happened that needed to be known immediately.

I'd love it if the cable news channels did this today.

WOLF BLITZER: As the police standoff continues, we could regurgitate the information we've repeated a dozen times over the last hour, and have dubiously qualified analysts speculate about what might happen. Instead we're going to air this classic episode of Cheers, with a guest appearance by Boston Celtics great Kevin McHale! If anything new actually happens, we'll let you know. Meanwhile, take comfort in the portrayal of a place where everybody knows your name!

I'm mostly serious.

The NBC anchor of 1992, perhaps motivated by a desire to justify the network's judgment call, hit on an insight: There's a point at which sitting by the TV during disturbing events has diminishing informational returns, and serves only to extend and intensify the anxiety people are feeling. Of course, the cable news networks have a business interest in keeping people glued to their channel. But the rest of us should realize that during most tragedies, however terrible, there is actually no need to sit on the edge of our seats waiting for whatever is reported next. Doing so often makes it more likely that we'll get worse information than if we just went out for a run, read a book before bed, woke up, and consumed a newspaper or magazine or public radio story the next day that distills what actually happened using verified facts.

And now, ease your mind with this charming clip:

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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