Sharing tribute causes strife

NEW YORK — The ongoing battle between TV stations and cable operators almost derailed “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” tonight’s star-studded telethon put together by the Big Four networks in an unprecedented cooperative effort.

The O&Os and affiliated stations of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox were less than thrilled when the Big Four invited all of the cable networks to pick up the broadcast free of change. The reason for the invitation was benevolent: More viewers means that more money will flow in for relief of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

A cable who’s who

Leaping at the chance to participate in the joint effort, a who’s who of top cable nets signed up for the telecast, including USA, TNT, Lifetime, Discovery, MTV, VH1, HBO, Showtime and Starz!

Just as enthusiastic were TBS, AMC and National Geographic Channel. National Geo even put out a flag-waving press release flaunting its early acceptance of the Big Four’s offer.

But what these three networks quickly learned is that, because they’re among the diminishing band of single-feed services, they can’t do what their so-called dual-feed brethren can: carry the live two-hour telecast at 9 p.m., Eastern time, and slot a taped feed of the program at 9 p.m. on the West Coast, making it seem like a simultaneous nationwide offering.

If the single-feed nets like National Geo took the live telecast, the program would show up on the West Coast at 6 p.m., undercutting the Big Four feed at 9 p.m. (Daily Variety, Sept. 18).

As an alternative, the single-feed networks told the Big Four that they’d be willing to sked a tape of the program at midnight on the East Coast, which would put the show at 9 on the West Coast.

Alternative nixed

When some of the vocal general managers of the Big Four TV stations heard about that strategy, they went bananas and threatened to cancel the telethon and schedule their own local programming.

Sources said the Big Four had to reject cable’s single-feed plan, humiliating National Geo into a retraction of its gung-ho announcement.

“I’m outraged,” said a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. about the rejection of the single-feed-network gameplan. “Petty commercial issues have tarnished a well-meaning fund-raiser for a good cause.”

A spokeswoman for Rainbow Media Holdings, which include such single-feed nets as AMC, Bravo and Independent Film Channel, said, “We’re really disappointed at not being permitted to run the program at midnight. Not allowing scheduling flexibility is certainly outside the spirit” of “America: A Tribute to Heroes.”

Mark Turner, general manager of Fox affiliate WCCB Charlotte, said he’s not happy with the fact that so many dual-feed cable nets are running the telethon simultaneously with the Big Four.

But it’s good that the stations put a stop to the midnight slotting, he said. “This is just another example of cable trying to slide in on the backs of the broadcasters.”

A spokeswoman for the telethon discounted these conflicts. “This program is a selfless act of humanity by a group of people who are normally fierce competitors,” she said. “More than 30 cable and broadcast networks will be carrying it, plus 8,000 radio stations, and outlets in 156 countries. There are no commercials and no bugs in the corner of the screen.

“For this event, people have left their egos at the door.”

Dion added

Canadian singer Celine Dion has been added to the talent roster and will be making her first public appearance in 18 months from the New York site. She recorded a version of “God Bless America” Thursday in Montreal that will be serviced to radio on Monday, quite possibly along with other tracks related to the “Tribute” show. Columbia Records will be issuing a “Tribute,” album though no release date is set.

(Phil Gallo contributed to this report.)

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more