Television networks are rushing to raise funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
But, unlike four years ago, when a rare spirit of cooperation among networks resulted in the joint production of "America: A Tribute to Heroes" for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, which was telecast live across more than three dozen networks, this time fundraising program plans are only slightly less chaotic than the relief efforts in New Orleans.
The broadcast networks plan to announce today a one-hour special to air next week. Oddly, NBC announced Wednesday that it was rushing to put its own benefit special, "A Concert for Hurricane Relief," on the air tonight at 8.
The networks had hoped to simulcast their joint effort next Tuesday, but that fell through late yesterday when they learned they probably couldn't acquire for that day the large number of phone banks needed to mount a major telethon fundraiser, according to an executive involved in the discussions. They are now shooting for a later date, probably Friday.
Like the Sept. 11 fundraiser, this special will be offered free to any network and will also be executive-produced by Joel Gallen. There was talk of having Ellen DeGeneres, who is from New Orleans, host, but as of last night the networks seemed more likely to go with a hostless format, as they did in '01. DeGeneres would be one of the special's participants.
NBC's hurricane relief concert will air tonight on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC, as well as on i, formerly known as PAX. (NBC's Telemundo network will broadcast its own one-hour special at 9 tonight.)
ABC, CBS and Fox, which spearheaded the simulcast effort, were ambushed by NBC's announcement, according to some on those networks' staffs, because the Big Four already had early talks about doing another collaborative effort like that in '01.
NBC did not notify the other networks that it was about to announce its own special, those sources said.
Trade reports on NBC's announcement cited network insiders who claimed NBC rushed its special onto the air in response to a call from Harry Connick Jr. to NBC chief Bob Wright and/or NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker, asking the network what could be done to help hurricane victims. Those reports also said that tonight was the date that worked with Connick's schedule.
Connick, a native of New Orleans, where tens of thousands of people are homeless and stranded by floodwaters, did a well-received multiple-episode guest gig on NBC's sitcom "Will & Grace" and headlined an NBC holiday special in 2003 that averaged just under 7 million viewers, but it is unclear how Connick was able to singlehandedly talk these two men into preempting the broadcast networks' collaborative fundraising effort with a separate fundraising special. An NBC rep declined to discuss it on the record for this column.
Also interesting is that not all of the NBC Universal networks are simulcasting the NBC special, which is being produced by the news division and will feature news packages, as well as performances by Connick, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Wynton Marsalis and Aaron Neville, and appearances by Mike Myers, Hilary Swank, Lindsay Lohan, Claire Danes, John Goodman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Eriq La Salle and Eli Manning.
NBC had much better luck getting its cable networks to simulcast its tsunami relief fundraiser concert in January. USA Network, Sci Fi and Bravo all participated in that one; they will not simulcast tonight's special.
Tonight, instead of "A Concert for Hurricane Relief," USA Network continues its 12 days of U.S. Open coverage with a lineup headlined by Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Serena and Venus Williams.
Bravo will kick off its rerun marathon of "Being Bobby Brown," the reality series that ran this summer, documenting the antics of Mr. Whitney Houston.
And Sci Fi opted out rather than annoy "Stargate SG-1" fans who had voted in an online poll for the rerun episodes they wanted to see during the "Stargate" marathon that kicks off at 8 tonight.
The NBC rep said those cable networks may run the special at a later date.
Among the networks planning to participate in the more ambitious telethon are Time Warner's WB network, as well as UPN, which like CBS is owned by Viacom.
But Viacom, like NBC Universal with its smaller effort, doesn't have all its networks on board. Then again, Viacom is in the middle of a messy divorce from itself. (It's set to split into two companies in 2006 with CBS separating from many of the Viacom cable properties.)
Specifically, MTV Networks has already announced its own fundraiser special for Sept. 10, to be simulcast on MTV, VH1 and CMT. And Viacom's BET network has announced its own fundraiser TV special, scheduled one night earlier.
MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath explained in a statement that "in the face of a tragedy of this scope, we simply have to do everything in our power to offer support, comfort and hope to all the people directly impacted by the hurricane" because "this is always the first and best instinct of all our millions of viewers and the artists we know so well."
Wading through the treacle, those artists with the best instincts include Ludacris, Green Day, Gretchen Wilson, Usher, Alicia Keys, John Mellencamp and the Dave Matthews Band.
BET decided to go out on its own, a network representative told The TV Column, because "BET places special priority around the needs of African Americans."
He said BET did not, at this time, plan to participate in the major simulcast being put together because "one of the things about this particular tragedy is there is such tremendous need. . . . I don't think we can do this type of philanthropic effort enough," adding, "There is enough need to go around."
But that's not all. Late yesterday, networks DIY, Fine Living and GAC: Great American Country announced they would simulcast on Sept. 27 "Country Reaches Out: An Opry Benefit for the American Red Cross."
The commercial-free special will include performances by country music stars such as Alan Jackson and Alison Krauss, who will urge viewers to contribute to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. The special will originate from the syndicated radio show "Grand Ole Opry Presented by (down-homey restaurant/retail chain name)," which is heard on more than 200 country radio stations and on GAC each week. GAC, DIY and Fine Living are all owned by the E.W. Scripps Co.