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Plots are hot spots for nets

Skeins delay, eliminate episodes and plotlines too sensitive to b'cast

HOLLYWOOD — The producers of “The West Wing” are rushing to pull together a special episode of the White House drama dealing with terrorism — even as other series look to eliminate any reference to the matter in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack.

Seg, “Isaac and Ishmael,” will deal with how the nation and the fictional Bartlett White House copes in the wake of a terrorist attack. NBC has moved “The West Wing’s” regular season premiere back to Oct. 10 in order to air the special episode on Oct. 3.

For other shows, however, the terror attacks have meant delaying or eliminating episodes and plotlines now deemed too sensitive for broadcast. Among the latest examples:

  • A week after temporarily shelving the pilot to its new CIA drama “The Agency,” CBS has now decided to delay another early episode of the skein because of its plot. Episode, which according to most TV listings was skedded to air this week, deals with a potential anthrax attack on Washington, D.C.

    “The Agency” will now premiere Thursday with a seg about a plot to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

  • Fox has decided to edit out a key scene from the pilot of its new drama “24” in which a terrorist bomb causes an airplane to explode in midair.

  • CBS has changed a line in tonight’s premiere of “The Ellen Show” referring to a character losing her job in the dot-com collapse. “I hope you didn’t get caught in the building,” she said in a line that now won’t be broadcast.

  • An upcoming terrorist-themed script of NBC’s crime drama “UC: Undercover” has been shelved. Scribe Shane Salerno is rapidly working to pen a new episode.

  • Showtime has indefinitely pushed back the premiere of “The Believer,” inspired by the true story of a self-hating Jew who became an anti-Semitic skinhead.

  • Twentieth Television has pulled from syndication a classic episode of “The Simpsons” in which the toon family visits the Big Apple — and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

The date and locale of football’s Super Bowl, meanwhile, remained in doubt over the weekend, but by Sunday there were strong indications that the game would be pushed back a week. Last week’s games, which were postponed in light of the terrorist attacks, will be played on the first weekend of January. Rather than canceling wildcard playoff games that weekend, the league may instead delay the Super Bowl to Feb. 3.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, speaking on CBS’ “NFL Today” pregame show Sunday, said he thought it was “likely” that the game would be pushed back a week, and that “hopefully it will be in New Orleans.”

If the game, to be televised by Fox, is played on Feb. 3, it will be the first time it has aired in the February sweep period.

As for “The West Wing,” creator Aaron Sorkin began writing the series’ special episode soon after the Sept. 11 events. The show’s producers, along with NBC and Warner Bros. TV, decided to race the seg into production so it could air before the season opener.

“Obviously, everybody in entertainment and series TV have been trying to figure out what’s the appropriate response, such as what needs to be said on ‘West Wing,'” exec producer John Wells said.

“We didn’t feel comfortable going back to our fictional White House without taking a moment,” he added. Hopefully, we can say something that’s useful and not at any way appear like we’re trying to exploit the tragic events that occurred.”

Stand-alone seg

The stand-alone episode won’t refer specifically to the recent tragedies in New York and Washington, for example.

The special “West Wing” also will suspend the show’s ongoing narrative, which will be picked up the following week. The episode will open with the show’s actors addressing the audience before jumping into character.

“Hopefully, it will make people talk and think,” Wells said. “You can’t pretend this didn’t happen.”

“West Wing” had been scheduled to pick up after last May’s cliffhanger with a season premiere on Sept. 26; a repeat of the episode “In Excelsis Deo” will air that night instead.

As for “The Agency,” producer Shaun Cassidy has been working feverishly to vet upcoming storylines and episodes already produced to make sure they’re appropriate for broadcast.

“Everybody is trying to take the pulse of the world one day at a time,” he said.

Skein’s pilot included a storyline in which CIA agents worked to stop a planned terror attack by Osama bin Laden. Some scenes from that episode will be worked into Thursday’s revised series premiere, which now deals with the agents attempting to thwart the assassination of Castro by a former CIA operative.

The anthrax-themed episode is expected to air later in the season.

Looking within

As they work on new episodes of “The Agency,” Cassidy and the show’s other scribe-producers are seeking to avoid storylines that are too tied to world headlines.

“The CIA has a lot of internal stories that can be told that don’t deal with external threats,” he said.

Meanwhile, Showtime’s postponement of “The Believer” could push back the plan by Fireworks Pictures to release the pic to U.S. theaters early in 2002, following its cable run. Showtime, which ponied up about $800,000 for the pay TV rights to “Believer,” has a 45-day exclusive window before the movie can show up in the multiplexes. Henry Bean is the director-co-writer of “Believer.”

Showtime has postponed a batch of other movies whose content makes them inappropriate at this time, including “Rules of Engagement,” “Deterrence” (about a U.S. president in jeopardy), “Hiroshima” and the remake of “On the Beach.” All previously ran on Showtime.

As writers and producers head back to work, Wells said the aftershock of the terrorist attacks will resonate in primetime for some time to come.

“I think it changes everything for everybody,” Wells said. “It would be unrealistic to think that it won’t change what we have to say in narrative dramatic TV shows.”

(John Dempsey in New York contributed to this report.)