CBS's much-discussed 9/11
documentary proved a success by virtually all accounts, drawing a host of viewers and widespread critical and public acclaim.
The special attracted an average of 39 million viewers—more than a third of all TV sets turned on during the two hours on Sunday, March 10—with higher proportions in the cities most closely tied to the Sept. 11 disasters: New York, Boston and Washington. It was the most-watched non-sports program this season. CBS, which produced it along with filmmaker brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, is permitted to air it again, with the one-year anniversary of the tragedy the most likely date.
The program had generated controversy prior to its airing, when some victims' family members and others representing their interests complained the program—which was to feature never-seen footage from that day—would be exploitive or at least would be airing too soon after the tragedy.
But Christie Coombs, who lost her husband, Jeffrey, on a plane that crashed into the World Trade Center and had emerged as a leading critic of the CBS program, said she viewed part of the program and agreed with the network that it was not exploitive.
Coombs watched the second half of the show with her 14-year-old son—whose therapist had advised that he not watch it alone—intentionally missing the sight of the crashes. "What I saw I did not think was exploitive," she said. "And family members who watched all of it felt it was well done. But they told me that I could not have watched that part of it" that included the crashing of the planes.
She said that all the publicity attached to the new footage led to a great deal of her discomfort. "That's what I took offense to."
Sirri Spiesel, executive director of the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund, which had protested the show in advance, said most of the families she knew didn't watch the program, adding that several kept their children out of school that Monday to avoid conversations about it. "The American public tends to look at this as planes slamming into buildings," she said, "but not as people meeting a gruesome death." Both she and Coombs maintained that, despite program quality, it was presented too soon.
CBS spokesman Gil Schwartz said the network intended from the start to be sensitive in telling of the New York Fire Department's Manhattan Engine 7/Ladder 1 involvement in rescue efforts and the chaos following the crashes. Some perceptions, CBS said, suffered from misinformation that it tried to correct from the beginning.
Schwartz said hundreds of e-mails praising the program were received, directed at the network, filmmakers, producers and underwriter Nextel. Particularly gratifying, he said, were comments from mental-health professionals that the presentation could ease people's suffering. Few complained, even about occasional rough language.
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