Sunday Night Football Bulls Past 9/11 Programs

Harvey Keitel, left, in ABC's
Harvey Keitel, left, in ABC's "The Path to 9/11," Part 1, of which was a distant second in the ratings to the Manning family drama on NBC -- in which Peyton, below, took on brother Eli. (By Peter Stranks -- Abc)
By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

About 13 million viewers tuned in to ABC Sunday night to watch Part 1 of ABC's highly controversial two-part 9/11 . . . um, what the heck is it anyway --




Whatever. Anyway, ABC called it "The Path to 9/11" and it pulled in not a whole lot more viewers on its first night than did CBS's competing Sept. 11 program -- a third broadcast of its documentary "9/11," which clocked nearly 11 million viewers.

That two-hour movie, you'll recall, was hosted by Robert De Niro and shot by two young French filmmakers, Jules and Gedeon Naudet, who on Sept. 11, 2001, were in the middle of shooting a documentary about firefighters in downtown Manhattan when the first plane plowed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

And, because in this great country of ours the national religion is not politics but football, both 9/11 projects got whomped by the debut of NBC's Sunday night football, featuring Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts against younger brother Eli Manning of the New York Giants.

The game garnered nearly 23 million viewers -- virtually the same number as watched the two 9/11 pieces combined. In fact, NBC's Sunday football debut topped every regular-season "Monday Night Football" telecast since Sept. 4, 2000, NBC noted.

The Nielsen numbers on CBS's docu are a little wonky. They're actually time-slot numbers, not program numbers. CBS stations covering about 10 percent of the country were not airing the documentary in that prime-time slot because they had no confidence the Federal Communications Commission wouldn't slap them with crippling indecency fines: The documentary contains some explicit language, used mostly by rescue workers on the scene when the towers collapsed.

Since the CBS documentary first aired, six months after Sept. 11, the maximum FCC fine for stations has increased from $32,000 to $325,000 -- per "incident." As in "per word."

Also since the documentary's initial two airings -- both in 2002 -- some arch-conservatives have mobilized against it. The Roanoke Times reported over the weekend that its local CBS station, WDBJ, decided to yank the Naudet brothers' film off its prime-time lineup after receiving "a dozen or so very explicit comments" from people who said, " 'If you run this during prime time, I will ask the FCC to impose the maximum fine' and I believe they would," station General Manager Bob Lee is quoted as saying. According to the WDBJ Web site, the station did not receive a single complaint the first two times it aired "9/11."

Meanwhile, ABC cut several scenes from its $40 million not-a-documentary, but the trims did little to placate critics, among them some Clinton administration officials. (The Washington Post objected to an inaccurate reference to the newspaper, which the network said had been removed.)

Bill Clinton, for one, watched the football game Sunday night.

"He made the choice that most Americans made," a Clinton Foundation spokesman told the Associated Press. "Of a fictionalized drama version of September 11 or the Manning brothers playing football against one another, he chose the latter."

Part 2 of "The Path to 9/11," which spans the period from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing through the 2001 attacks, was scheduled to run last night, with a big fat break in the middle so ABC could, like all the other broadcast networks and the cable news networks, carry President Bush's speech on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company