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A battle for good hearts

Net competish brewing over Katrina goodwill

This article was updated at 9:21 p.m.

Multiple telethons to help raise coin for victims of Hurricane Katrina began taking shape Wednesday — but at least one such effort is sparking some behind-the-scenes controversy.

Execs at ABC, CBS and Fox are putting together the most ambitious project, a one-hour live broadcast similar to the post-9/11 Joel Gallen-produced “A Tribute to Heroes” telethon.

New Orleans-born Ellen DeGeneres has expressed an interest in hosting the commercial-free special. It’s believed Gallen has been approached to produce, perhaps in conjunction with Ken Erlich. Former William Morris worldwide TV topper Sam Haskell — a Mississippi native who maintains deep ties to the region — has also been involved in organizing relief efforts.

Nothing was final late Wednesday, including producers or talent, but broadcasters were looking at airing the special Tuesday at 8 p.m. Wednesday may also be an option.

Feed of the special will be made available to all broadcasters, and by late Wednesday, NBC, UPN and the WB had all committed to joining ABC, CBS and Fox in airing next week’s telethon.

Plans for the multiweb telethon were proceeding even after NBC Universal surprised its broadcast peers by unilaterally announcing its own one-hour telethon, which will air Friday night on NBC, CNBC and MSNBC.

Soon after NBC U unveiled its fund-raiser, MTV Networks announced plans for a Sept. 10 fund-raiser across all of its outlets. Peacock-owned Telemundo is also planning a fund-raiser for this Friday night, while Jerry Lewis said he’ll donate $1 million from this week’s MDA telethon to disaster relief.

But it was the Peacock project that raised eyebrows — and ire — across town. The reason: It came together so quickly, and despite the fact that the multinetwork telethon was already in the very early planning stages, according to multiple industry insiders.

What’s more, execs at other nets worried that NBC’s effort would dilute the talent pool and audience potential for a single pan-network broadcast.

Peacock said it was simply trying to begin raising funds as quickly as possible. New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr. called NBC U TV topper Jeff Zucker to suggest the quickie broadcast, according to one network insider.

That insider suggested Connick begged Zucker to air a fund-raiser as soon as possible and said Connick’s schedule played a key role in the decision to air the special this Friday.

Skeptics at rival nets noted that Friday is one of the least-watched nights on television, and that NBC U was not airing its telethon on Peacock-owned USA or Sci Fi — two nets that have strong Friday lineups.

An NBC U spokeswoman scoffed at the notion that the Peacock’s plans were anything but virtuous.

“This is not about competition. This is about raising money for those in need,” she said. “We’re interested in helping out the victims of the hurricane. We can’t raise enough money.”

Rep said NBC’s telethon will be made available to other networks and said the Peacock is “interested in joining any other efforts.”

Execs at other nets said it was understandable that NBC would want to begin the fund-raising effort as soon as possible. Numerous local stations, including many network affils, were already in the process of mounting localized fund-raisers.

What peeved the Peacock’s peers was the net’s decision to announce its telethon without checking with other broadcasters, particularly since 9/11 seemed to set a precedent for the Big Six abandoning competition in times of national crisis.

Though they never went public with their feelings, several network execs were also puzzled by the Peacock’s decision to mount a tsunami relief telethon last January without trying to enlist the support of non-NBC U outlets.

NBC insiders said the hurricane telethon was announced quickly because of the need to attract top talent in a short timeframe. Late Wednesday, Connick, Tim McGraw and Wynton Marsalis were the only scheduled performers; Matt Lauer will host from Peacock’s studios in Rockefeller Plaza and Leonardo DiCaprio will appear.

Despite the behind-the-scenes brouhaha, in the end, all of the Big Six decided to put aside deep rivalries in order to “do what’s best for the people impacted by this,” as one exec put it.

Top execs from several networks were said to be in communication with one another throughout the day Wednesday, trading ideas and ironing out details.

Reps for ABC, CBS and Fox declined comment.

Meanwhile, the aftermath of Katrina continues to dominate cable news, while ABC, CBS and NBC all preempted an hour of repeats for primetime news specials devoted to the hurricane devastation.