The Biz: Networks consider options for 9/11/02

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As all hell broke loose on Sept. 11, Court TV chief Henry Schleiff was in a jam. Court TV couldn't ignore the jaw-dropping events. Yet beyond the legal system, the network has a limited breaking-news infrastructure.

So Schleiff called Jamie Kellner-head of Turner Broadcasting whose parent, AOL Time Warner, owns 50% of Court TV-and asked permission to pick up CNN's feed. Kellner didn't think twice and Court TV soon had the coverage Schleiff felt it had to deliver. "It was no committee, no bureaucracy," Schleiff says. "To Jamie's credit, he took that call and it wasn't, `Let me think about it, let me discuss it."'

It was one of the many decisions TV executives made on the fly that day. The broadcast and all-news networks yanked advertising and turned to all news for days. In the end, TV was widely praised for how it handled the events. As this year's Sept. 11 approaches, executives will have had months to plan programming for the one-year anniversary of the tragedy. Will they earn the same kudos as a year ago? "It's a very tricky day, striking the proper balance, finding the right tone," says NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker.

early days

Part and parcel to that is advertising. The four major broadcast networks plan a run of programming devoted to Sept. 11-this time with ads. The same goes for the all-news channels and other cable nets offering 9/11-themed shows such as A&E.

Network officials say ad details are in the early stages, though some details are emerging. ABC is selling the day separately as a special, but a spokesman offered no further information. CNN is in discussions with advertisers with significant third-quarter spending plans about their interest, and offering 9/11 coverage in the current upfront.

It's a delicate issue for networks and marketers alike. Networks don't want to give up a full day's revenue, especially since viewership is expected to spike. MindShare researcher David Marans estimates some 72% of U.S. households-10% to 12% more than usual-will tune into prime-time. "It would not surprise me if usage levels were way above normal," he says.

But networks don't want to be seen as capitalizing on tragedy. Executives defend the decision to accept ads on grounds that 9/11/02 is different than last year when news was changing by the minute-and they say tasteful ads won't offend viewers. "I think you save [a] no-commercials [approach] for breaking news and this isn't breaking news, this is a planned event," says Fox News' VP-Programming Kevin Magee. CBS spokesman Dana McClintock says, "We're going to work with advertisers that are of the same mind-set we are of, being sensitive to the subject matter of the day."

no commericalism

But others feel that 9/11/02 will be an extraordinary day that calls for TV without commercialism. "It probably would have made sense to swallow one more day of lost revenue, and if you're going to do this as an anniversary maybe one of the things to remember is the fact that ads disappeared," says Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.

On the programming front, the major broadcast nets are expected to turn the balance of the day over to their news divisions, including prime-time. Even Fox, new to network news, will turn its two hours of prime-time into a live broadcast hosted by Brit Hume. On cable, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC will have full-day coverage. A&E is expected to make the subject of its prime-time "Biography" former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani followed by a two-hour special on investigations around the tragedy. The History Channel has seven documentaries in the works for a 9/11-themed week.

"I'm hoping that my television brethren will not go after the sensational and just trying to make people cry," says History's Exec VP Abbe Raven. "I don't feel that's what your mission should be."

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