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Disaster disrupts prime time

This year, the television industry looked forward to a premiere season that wouldn't include presidential elections, the Olympics, an O.J. Simpson trial, or impeachment hearings.

No one ever considered that the new season would be prefaced with the worst act of terrorism in the nation's history.

In the aftermath, the 53rd Annual Emmy Awards were postponed, the 2nd Annual Latin Grammy Awards canceled and the start of the TV season delayed in some cases.

NBC last week was the first major network to announce it would push back the launch of its fall lineup a week, to Sept. 24. CBS and ABC followed quickly. Fox had not decided what to do, but it has baseball's post-season to get through first: Schedule interruptions could push the World Series into the November sweeps period. The NFL resumes next Sunday.

"In light of the recent tragic events in our country, NBC has decided to postpone the premieres of the network's fall prime time programs," a network statement said. "However, further developments could alter this plan."

By week's end, even Nielsen Media Research didn't know exactly what to do. "We understand that many of you are in the process of making decisions on whether you will be delaying the program premieres that were scheduled over the course of next week," reads a Nielsen letter to networks that BROADCASTING & CABLE received. "Our decision on whether to make a change in our reporting of season-to-date figures will be made after all of you have made your decisions."

Meanwhile, networks were busy weeding through programs to find content that, after the World Trade Center disaster, seemed inappropriate or insensitive.

Fox pulled all promotional spots for its new action series 24,
scheduled to debut
Oct. 30. It is unclear whether the show will launch as scheduled. The series stars Kiefer Sutherland as the head of a counter-terrorist unit attempting to stave off an assassination plot on a presidential candidate—and, in the first episode, a bomb goes off in a commercial airliner. Fox last week hurriedly pulled the film Independence Day,
which was to have aired last Sunday, and yanked The X-Files Movie
and The Rats, an original Fox film that features thousands of rodents taking over Manhattan.

CBS's new CIA thriller, The Agency, is under heavy scrutiny because its first episode includes a reference to accused terrorist Osama Bin Laden as the mastermind of a phony bomb threat in London.

The weirdest happenstance may be at CBS where three remaining contestants in the network's Big Brother 2
were still confined in a house in Studio City last week.

The contestants were told about the attacks shortly after they occurred, although, typically, contestants are not supposed to be informed of life in the "outside world." Contestant Monica Baily, of Brooklyn, whose cousin worked at the World Trade Center, has been given daily updates; the others have not.

Because of the news events, CBS pre-empted at least two of the three scheduled telecasts of last week's Big Brother 2.
The network still says the show's final episode will air Sept. 21.

Networks and studios spent millions of dollars in marketing and advertising to launch new series this fall. Those messages got lost in the news shuffle, or were simply eliminated last week. With an advertising market already down substantially, the fall television season was precarious enough.

"There is clearly going to be a financial impact for everybody, but that's just the way it's going to be, said Lloyd Braun, ABC Entertainment's co-chairman. "I just think it's a situation where the country is clearly traumatized, we are all traumatized. And I think we as broadcasters all feel a public responsibility to do the right thing."

More routinely, several syndicated shows were forced to stop production in New York, and the debuts of several national series, including The Other Half
and The Ananda Lewis Show, were prevented by wall-to-wall news coverage. A number of first-run court shows, including Divorce Court, Power of Attorney
Judge Hatchett, will probably be out of production this week as well, because of travel concerns.

All new first-run syndicated shows are set to launch as planned this week, including Tribune's Talk or Walk,
Fremantle's Card Sharks
and Warner Bros.' Elimidate.

Warner Bros. executives have told stations that they were waiving any make-good demands from preemptions of their syndicated shows last week.

Said Tribune Entertainment President and CEO Dick Askin, "There will be some economic repercussions that will affect the distribution community and broadcasters." But, he said, on a practical basis, compared with what's going on in the world, syndication's woes don't amount to much.

The Rosie O'Donnell Show, Live With Regis and Kelly
and many other Manhattan-based talk shows were dark last week. Those two will be back this week, but, with travel concerns for audiences and potential guests, it's unclear when others will be.

Jill Blackstone, executive producer of Twentieth Television's Divorce Court
and Power of Attorney, both taped in Los Angeles, noted: "We do 30 to 40 cases [a week]. That's 60 to 80 people we need to put on airplanes. Are we going to be able to find 60 to 80 people who will want to get on airplanes right now? I don't think so."