The setting and current circumstances, however, have altered that dynamic, in what has turned out to be a deeply personal way.
What’s different about the latest TV efforts is that they originate from the various performers’ homes, a symbol of shared experience as well as the broad swath of fear that the pandemic has already inflicted and the potential extent of its reach.
These specials have come at a moment when people are huddled inside their homes, deprived of many of their usual pastimes. Television has always helped people process and deal with tragedy and uncertainty, but seldom with quite so captive an audience.
At the same time, the communal feeling associated with “A Tribute to Heroes” in Sept. 11’s wake isn’t completely analogous to the climate now. The rally-around-the-flag effect has been blunted, for starters, by intense political polarization and questions about the Trump administration’s response to Covid-19.
The age of social media has also fed hostility toward celebrities who don’t share one’s political views, even as people retweet those who agree with them. Finding points of commonality — even during a crisis — has become a more formidable challenge in these tribal times.
Even so, the current shelter-at-home scenario has temporarily thrown TV back in time a few years. Network ratings are notably up, despite the advent of streaming services and seemingly ubiquitous tide of content.
The sense of togetherness, clearly, has its limits. Content consumption is increasingly a niche-oriented proposition, as people scatter not only to different rooms but their own individual devices to watch entertainment and hear information that speaks narrowly to them.
What we’ve seen in the last few days, with the Disney and “Together at Home” specials, is that there’s still a craving for the feeling of connectedness, of togetherness, that broadcasting has traditionally been uniquely able to provide. It’s just that such harmony is less indicative of what is, in normal times, than what was.