Terrorism theme widens from news divisions to entertainment

Terrorism’s no longer taboo on TV.

In the days and weeks after Sept. 11, broadcast and cable webs kept far away from anything that might remind viewers of that day’s horrific attacks, editing out images and dubbing in new dialogue on some programs.

TV’s take on Sept. 11, in other words, was almost strictly relegated to its news departments. But now, six months after 9/11, that’s about to change.

No fewer than three made-for-TV movies about Sept. 11 are in the works, including a CBS pic from journalist-producer Lawrence Schiller, an FX movie about United Flight 93 from Goldie Hawn’s production shingle, and an Alliance Atlantis project about a terrorist cell that may have coordinated the attacks.

ABC, meanwhile, has ordered 13 segs of the Jerry Bruckheimer reality skein “Profiles From the Front Line,” which follows U.S. troops fighting the war on terrorism.

And both USA and HBO have projects about ex-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and his widely praised guidance in the days after Sept. 11.

“This is something that happened to everybody,” says Bruckheimer TV topper Jonathan Littman. “People want to know more about it. Those who weren’t there want to know what it was like. People who were there want some perspective on it all.”

CBS discovered last week just how much viewers are still clamoring for new takes on the attacks.

The two-hour doc “9/11,” from French filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, attracted almost 40 million viewers — making it this season’s most-watched nonsports program.

That tremendous response helped validate the Eye’s decision to air the doc on March 10 as scheduled. CBS took a lot of heat for slotting “9/11″ just six months after that tragic day.

Arguing that it was too soon to revisit those horrific events, a handful of lawmakers and victims’ relatives had asked CBS to postpone “9/11,” which featured never-before-seen footage from ground zero moments before the World Trade Center towers collapsed.

But CBS treated the project very carefully.Although it came from filmmakers and was hosted by actor Robert De Niro, the doc was still supervised by CBS News’ Susan Zirinsky. There were no promo spots during the program and few commercial interruptions.

Going forward, it’s unlikely that all projects dealing with Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism will be handled with such kid gloves.

The challenge: How do you balance the audience’s obvious interest in the events of Sept. 11 without seeming like the projects are ripping open relatively fresh wounds?

“I think it’s a non-issue,” says Fox TV Studios topper David Grant, whose division is producing the Schiller project. “As long as you’re not being exploitative, and you’re doing something with creative integrity, then I don’t understand why you wouldn’t do these projects.”

With “Profiles From the Front Line,” which has elicited grumbles from ABC’s news division, Littman says the show will be careful to put the focus on people rather than actual events, such as serious battles.

“We’re doing an entertainment show, but there is a war going on,” he says. “You can never lose sight of that fact.”

But Jeff Gaspin, NBC’s exec VP of alternative series, longform and program strategy, believes Sept. 11 stories are still best left to the news department.

“The big question we struggle with is: How do you sell Sept. 11 as an entertainment event? You can’t,” Gaspin argues. “That’s why we haven’t pursued 9/11 through the entertainment division aggressively.”

Even Grant admits it’s probably too soon to take much dramatic license with the attacks.

“That’s why you see people struggling to handle Flight 93 stories,” he says. “No one’s sure what exactly happened on that plane.”

Meanwhile, industry execs also are mixed over how primetime will be affected longterm by Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism.

The events of 9/11 inspired Fox to rejigger “Emma Brody” into “The American Embassy,” but the show flopped its first week out. And a rush of patriotism has already inspired series like “Profiles” and CBS’ upcoming “AFP: American Fighter Pilots.”

“These are done in the fervor of something that will be gone by the time they get on the air,” says one studio exec. “I don’t see a lot of flags on cars anymore. People are healing. Unless it’s otherwise great TV, people won’t watch them.”

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