In wake of tragedy, TV shows scramble to show sensitivity

Even as networks delay or drop potentially sensitive episodes and clip violent scenes in terrorism's immediate wake, network executives expressed uncertainty this week about how lasting the effects of Sept. 11 will be.

"Everyone wants to see this as a demarcation line in popular culture, and it may very well prove to be," NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker said. "But I think it's too early to know exactly what that is."

The attacks bumped the official start of the new season a week, to last Monday. While networks gingerly returned to regular fare after nonstop news coverage, viewers seemed eager for the change.

A repeat episode of "Friends" with the wedding of Monica and Chandler on NBC last Thursday drew 17.6 million viewers - unusually high for a rerun. Late-night shows returned somberly last week, but already have returned to comedy.

"Clearly, people are looking for some diversion, and clearly that is a role that entertainment can play," Mr. Zucker said.

In general, networks took no chance of giving offense: Even a lightweight comedy like "Ellen," the new CBS series starring Ellen DeGeneres, was subject to revision.

Ms. DeGeneres's character spoke in Monday's première episode of losing her job in the dotcom collapse. Her mother's reply - "I hope you didn't get caught in the building" - was removed from the show.

In an upcoming "Friends" episode, changes are being made in a scene in which newlyweds Monica and Chandler (Courteney Cox and Matthew Perry) run into airport problems on their honeymoon.

More problematically, a number of new series are set in the world of government agencies, with stories that edge perilously close to aspects of the tragedy. CBS pulled the pilot episode for "The Agency," which opened with a Middle Eastern scene of a booby-trapped hostage dying in an explosion. Airing in its place was an episode about a plot to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

In the new Fox series "24," a drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as the head of a US counterterrorist unit, the pilot included a now-edited scene in which a bomb explodes on a plane. The show debuts Nov. 6.

NBC has scrapped a script with a terrorist story line for the new action series "UC: Undercover," which starts Sept. 30 and focuses on a Justice Department unit.

Lloyd Braun, ABC entertainment chief, said this week he wondered whether viewers would have patience for reality shows with petty conflicts when real news is so dramatic.

"I'm not sure the country is going to be as accepting of these shows as they've been in the past," he said.

NBC's White House drama "The West Wing" is tackling the issue of terrorism head-on. The administration of President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) will be shown coping with fallout from a terrorist attack in the Oct. 3 episode. The episode planned for the season première was moved to Oct. 10.

"We didn't feel comfortable going back to our fictional White House without taking a moment," executive producer John Wells told Daily Variety. "Hopefully, we can say something that's useful, and not at any way appear like we're trying to exploit the tragic events that occurred."

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