Fall season in limbo as news of attack dominates webs

It wasn’t the first thing on their minds, but network programmers Tuesday nonetheless struggled with the short- and long-term impact the terrorist attacks will have on primetime skeds and the upcoming fall season.

Wall-to-wall news coverage pre-empted all network entertainment programming Tuesday, from “All My Children” to “Late Night With Conan O’Brien”, including commercials.

Most of the Big Four expected to stick with news until noon Wednesday, if not longer.

In between worrying about the safety of colleagues and mourning a national tragedy, execs were starting to think about how Tuesday’s events might impact the fall season, slated to start Monday.

Three high-profile new shows, “24”, “The Agency” and “Alias”, deal with terrorism and the CIA. A key plot point of “24” involves a terrorist blowing up a passenger jet.

One project in doubt: “Terror,” a five-hour “Law & Order” miniseries NBC was planning to air next May. It’s now highly unlikely the project will ever get made.

Some speculated the season’s start might be pushed back; most webheads, however, said it was simply too soon to say.

“Right now, everyone I’m talking to just wants to go home and hug their kids,” one studio insider said.

Still, some immediate decisions were made:

  • Several feature films with terrorist or disaster themes were pulled from network schedules.

    ABC nixed a Saturday showing of the 1997 George Clooney starrer “The Peacemaker” in favor of the Sandra Bullock romantic laffer “Hope Floats.” Fox replaced Friday’s planned broadcast of “The X-Files” movie and a Sunday screening of “Independence Day” with “Nine Months” and “Something About Mary,” respectively; “Day” features a scene in which the White House and the Empire State Building are blown up.

  • While most nets had planned to air repeats in primetime Tuesday, Fox was skedded to bow the limited-run reality series “Love Cruise.” It’s now been pushed back at least a week.

  • CBS ditched Tuesday’s installment of “Big Brother 2″; it’s unclear if it will be rescheduled. The three remaining houseguests in the reality game, who have been almost completely shut out from the real world since July, were told of the attacks.

  • Eye won’t decide until today what to do about tonight’s second episode of “The Amazing Race” or the scheduled series premiere of “Wolf Lake.” There’s a good chance they’ll be postponed.

  • UPN and the WB, which don’t have news divisions of their own, picked up feeds from corporate cousins CBS and CNN, respectively.

  • The decision to preempt all programming, including commercials, will cost the Big Six (as well as cablers) tens of millions in ad dollars. That’s particularly bad news in a soft economy and with cutbacks already looming.

Meanwhile, net execs were reviewing their lineups for the coming weeks to make sure no planned programming could be deemed insensitive in the wake of current events.

“We’re going to take it day by day,” one network spokeswoman said. “We are reviewing movies and series to make sure we don’t have anything that might be offensive.”

Longer-term, webheads will soon have to decide what to do about the fall season.

Long-term fallout

The magnitude of Tuesday’s events is likely to reverberate for weeks, particularly as U.S. military reaction to the terrorist attacks unfolds. That could cause all sorts of havoc for schedulers as breaking news preempts series premieres.

Already, some premiere dates are in question.

If, as expected, CBS reschedules the Emmy Awards for Sept. 23, its Sunday bow of “The Education of Max Bickford” will have to find a new home. Eye had also wanted to preview its Ellen DeGeneres laffer Sept. 17, the night after she was set to host the Emmys.

NBC and ABC might also want to avoid premiering their Sunday offerings Sept. 23 opposite a rescheduled Emmys.

One solution would be to simply push back the start of the 2001-’02 season a week, with nets sliding everything back seven days.

Some network execs weren’t so sure that’s a good idea, however. “At some point, people are going to want to see entertainment programs again,” one insider said.

Fox’s plans are tied to whether Major League Baseball decides to push its season back by a week. If it does, the World Series would be delayed, bumping the net’s season premieres even later into the fall.

“Our immediate goal was to get through this week,” one insider said. “When the dust settles we’ll make our decisions.”

(Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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