Times Change

Four years after 9/11 telethon, different vibe for Katrina fundraisers

The nation faced a common enemy four years ago when ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC collaborated on an unprecedented prime time telethon 10 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In two hours, 59 million viewers pledged $150 million.

As the six major broadcast networks teamed last week to produce a Sept. 9 telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims, Shelter From the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast, many were concerned that the concert might turn into a political forum.

The one-hour, commercial-free telecast is one of several telethons, including one on BET, that aired afterwards on Viacom's cable networks.

Last week, as President Bush, the military and White House administrators came under bruising criticism for responding too slowly to the disaster, telethon organizers were anxious that some vocal A-list talent might alienate potential donors if they made controversial, politically charged statements.

Hip-hop superstar Kanye West already did that when NBC aired a hastily arranged benefit on Sept. 2. On that telecast, West veered from the script to vent, ending his rant by exclaiming, “George Bush doesn't care about black people.” NBC added fuel to the fire by cutting his comments from the West Coast feed, an attempt to avoid alienating some viewers who might have otherwise made donations.

Among those scheduled to perform on the all-network benefit were Mary J. Blige, Garth Brooks, Foo Fighters, Dixie Chicks, U2, Neil Young, Chris Rock, Ellen DeGeneres and Ray Romano.

In a conference call last Thursday on the eve of the special, producer/director Joel Gallen, who four years ago produced America: A Tribute to Heroes after 9/11, tried to downplay the issue, insisting it wasn't a concern.

But with unrelenting questions from the press, CBS spokesman Chris Ender said later, “We don't expect or want this to be a platform for political statements. People across this industry have shed their day jobs over the past week for the sole purpose of raising the most dollars possible for those in need. Anything that takes away from getting the most dollars to people affected in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama would be very unfortunate.”

Prior to the show, Gallen had spoken to most of the performers. Everyone, including West, agreed the telethon should only be an entertainment event to help the victims, Gallen said.

“Everybody is in the same spirit of what this evening is about, which is to raise as much money as possible for the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the victims of the hurricane,” he said. “I think people know that politicizing will certainly not be a smart thing to do as far as inspiring people to want to call in and rally around this cause.”

Yet there was an aura of uncertainty in the air. Gallen expressed his strong personal desire for the networks to show restraint in censoring political expression, using a routine live-event network delay (in this case, 30 seconds) only for obscenity and indecency issues.

“The delay is not to be used, and will not be used, for … those kind of remarks,” he asserted.

But he ultimately said it was up to each of the networks, which were reluctant after the call to flatly say whether or not anyone would push the button if performers spoke their minds. Gallen noted that West would not be speaking, only singing, as one of 12 performers scheduled.

The telethon, initially slated to air Sept. 6, was pushed back to Sept. 9 to give the networks more time to put safeguards in place to ensure that the right charities were on board to hand out the funds. They were hoping to avoid a repeat of the controversy that surrounded the 9/11 funds-distribution effort.

As with the 9/11 special, there was some brief talk about expanding it, but given the throng of people involved with the project and its worldwide distribution to more than 140 nations, that was impossible.

Although all six networks split the costs of the Katrina special, Fox, ABC and CBS seemed to be calling most of the shots, sources say. Sony donated the soundstage, while Gallen said Telepictures President Jim Paratore, whose Warner Bros. unit produces a syndicated talk show for New Orleans native DeGeneres, was heavily involved in the production. DeGeneres immediately called Gallen after he came aboard, volunteering to lead the charge.

Fox, which handled international distribution four years ago, is believed to have tackled that area once again. The six networks put up the satellite feed for the taking, as they did with the 9/11 fundraiser.

To ensure that every dollar raised is earmarked for charity, everything is donated, from the crew to the food and equipment. Talent were asked to bring their own hair and makeup people, as well as to drive themselves to the studio because no car service was provided. That, in show biz, is something like leaving your ego at the door.

Additional reporting by Ben Grossman