How easy is it to scare the pants off America? "Amer ican Experience" (9 p.m., PBS) makes use of extensive re-enactment in "War of the Worlds," a look at the famous Oct. 30, 1938, radio play about a Martian invasion that caused a panic among those who mistook it for real "news."
Performers, shown in a blurry black-and-white, act out the verbatim transcripts of contemporary radio listeners who admitted to being fooled, frightened and outraged by the broadcast.
"War" describes the conditions that made the American public so ripe for this Halloween fright 75 years ago. Images of little green men from the red planet had long filled the popular imagination. A decade of Depression and reports of looming war in Europe had the public on edge.
Had director and producer Orson Welles stuck to the original script, "War of the Worlds" might have been a radio dud. Instead, he decided at the last moment to rewrite the story and tell it in a series of breaking "news reports" mimicking the breathless, emotional style of Hindenburg disaster coverage of 1937.
Many tuned in later in the program after listening to a more popular comedy program. So they missed its introduction and station identification and mistook it for the real deal.
Apparently nobody was more surprised by the mass hysteria than Welles. He's seen here in news photographs, bearded and exhausted, facing reporters' scrutiny the morning after. He's filled with both contrition for provoking hysteria.
He also was a little bewildered that anyone in his or her right mind would actually believe reports of an invasion from Mars. He was only 23 but keenly aware that this "scandal" would be the making of his career.
"The War of the Worlds" may have hit a nerve, but neither Welles, nor his broadcaster CBS, sought to create fear, or to further exploit the anxiety and ignorance that produced it.
They did not follow up with more "proof" of alien invasions. Besides, the years following 1938 provided enough real-life horrors to produce a thousand frightening news bulletins.
But speaking of irresponsible broadcasters who do manufacture fear for audiences not necessarily in their right minds, "Doomsday Preppers" (9 p.m., National Geographic, TV-14) begins its third season.
---TV-themed books available today include "Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind The Scenes At Masterpiece Theatre And Mystery On PBS" (Viking) by
---The top 12 finalists are revealed on "The X-Factor" (8 p.m., Fox).
---Part two of "African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross" (8 p.m., PBS, TV-PG) recalls slavery, the Civil War and emancipation.
---Miranda's story is revealed on "Ravenswood" (8 p.m., ABC Family, TV-14).
---A summer reunion on the season premiere of "Little People, Big World" (9 p.m., TLC).
---Gone too soon on "Person of Interest" (10 p.m., CBS, TV-14).
---Jax feels conflicted on "Sons of Anarchy" (10 p.m., FX, TV-MA).
---Talents outfit a party for a zombie-themed wedding on "Naked Vegas" (10 p.m., SyFy).
A small-town girl (Sissy Spacek) embarks on a road trip with a handsome killer (Martin Sheen) in director Terrence Malick's haunting 1973 drama "Badlands" (8 p.m., TCM).
---Coast Guard duty on "NCIS" (8 p.m., CBS, TV-14).
---Klaus wants answers on "The Originals" (8 p.m., CW, TV-14).
---A teen hacker strikes on "NCIS: Los Angeles" (9 p.m., CBS, TV-14).
---Beverly is bereft on "The Goldbergs" (9 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).
---Dorothy Gale drops in on "Supernatural" (9 p.m., CW, TV-14).
---Halloween erupts on "Trophy Wife" (9:30 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).
---Posture comes first on "Shark Tank" (10 p.m., ABC, r, TV-PG).
---Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., is scheduled on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" (11 p.m., Comedy Central).
---Queen Latifah and Asa Butterfield appear on "Conan" (11 p.m., TBS).
---Casey Wilson, Chris Franjola, Annie Lederman and Ross Mathews are booked on "Chelsea Lately" (11 p.m., E!).
---Penn Jillette is scheduled on "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell" (11 p.m., FXX).
---Billy Collins sits down on "The Colbert Report" (11:30 p.m., Comedy Central).
---Rob Lowe and Alan Jackson appear on "Late Show with David Letter man" (11:35 p.m., CBS).
---Jay Leno welcomes Savannah Guthrie and Kodaline on "The Tonight Show" (11:35 p.m., NBC).
---Jennifer Garner and David Arquette appear on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (11:35 p.m., ABC).
---Kate Bosworth, Tim Conway and Chromeo visit "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" (12:35 a.m., NBC).
---Craig Ferguson hosts Alyssa Milano and Lawrence Block on "The Late Late Show" (12:35 a.m., CBS).
Kevin McDonough can be reached at kevin.tvguy@g mail.com.