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Small screen has already tackled 9/11 fears

UNIVERSAL’S APPREHENSION about whether moviegoers are ready for “United 93,” its grim account of a doomed Sept. 11 flight, has appeared almost palpable. Yet newscasters and pundits wondering whether this sobering film represents too much for the public to handle clearly don’t watch much television.

Despite recent pangs of social consciousness, from “Brokeback Mountain’s” gay romance to “Good Night, and Good Luck’s” allegorical condemnation of McCarthy-esque tactics used to stifle dissent, TV has flown headlong into thorny topics while movies are still getting their wheels up.

And people are watching. Discovery Channel marked the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks with a United 93 docudrama, “The Flight That Fought Back,” which attracted over 7 million viewers — the net’s highest-rated program last year. A&E’s made-for-TV movie “Flight 93” drew the channel’s best-ever audience in January, totaling 18 million viewers for multiple airings. National Geographic, too, set records with a Sept. 11 documentary.

Granted, seeing a movie theatrically is a different experience, and what an audience will pay to see can vary significantly from what someone will watch in the comfort of home.

“Once you’re in a theater, you’re locked in,” says Discovery Networks prexy Billy Campbell, whose channel aired its production commercial-free.

Even so, framing the “United 93” discussion in the context of whether Americans have achieved proper distance to face those events simply ignores the Nielsen paper trail. And while most TV execs and producers accept toiling in the movie industry’s shadow, others rightfully chafe at the media’s apparent surprise now and throughout the recent Oscar race that popular entertainment can boldly tackle matters of substance — a case of myopia that’s especially acute, oddly enough, in TV newsrooms.

“A lot of people are disturbed about it,” CNN’s Larry King mused last week teasing a “United 93” hour on his show, which previously devoted an hour to “Flight 93.”

Admittedly, “United 93” is a gut-wrenching experience, as was the A&E project. Yet whatever the movie’s fate, TV has demonstrated the audience’s willingness to embrace that and other controversial ideas, which enjoy greater small-screen prominence in part because special effects-laden blockbusters aren’t as viable an option.

Primetime dramas, for example, routinely wade into treacherous political waters. On ABC’s “Boston Legal,” producer David E. Kelley has lamented everything from detaining Guantanamo Bay prisoners indefinitely to the government’s controversial surveillance program. Even Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica” revival has deftly tackled questions of security vs. liberty that parallel a post-Sept. 11 world.

On a more fanciful but equally telling level, Fox’s Monday lineup segues from an evil vice president being managed by a shadowy cartel on “Prison Break” to a sniveling president apparently being managed by a shadowy cartel on “24.”

Indicting both government and media, “Saturday Night Live” featured a compendium of Robert Smigel’s “TV Funhouse” cartoons in its April 29 episode, including a superhero called the Divertor, who causes celebrities to suffer trumped-up PR scandals to distract the public from more serious problems. And then there’s “South Park,” which is always laboring to piss off somebody, most recently by seeking to confront the Danish cartoons that outraged Muslims.

By its very nature and immediacy, TV almost invariably gets there first, with each “Schindler’s List” preceded by a “Holocaust,” each “Amistad” owing a debt to “Roots.” Hell, before “Brokeback’s” Ennis met Jack, a pair of teenage boys frolicked in a swimming pool on “Desperate Housewives.”

All of which brings us back to “Flight 93.” Delia Fine, A&E’s VP of film & drama, says the cable network made a conscious decision to be extraordinarily careful in promoting its movie, anticipating the hand-wringing that greeted initial airings of Universal’s theatrical trailer.

“We did not want this movie to be launched in a way that would create a furor that would prevent people from judging it on its own merits,” she says. As for the focus on “United 93,” she adds philosophically, “We live in an increasingly short-attention-span universe, and (the A&E movie) was in January, so it’s as if it never happened.”

True enough, and it’s hard to deny TV’s lingering country-cousin status. Although not nearly so much as in the past, it’s often still fashionable in elite circles to say, “I don’t watch TV.”

Perhaps that’s why not everyone is sanguine about TV’s leading role on this particular front being overlooked or downplayed. “Some people just see TV as a conveyor belt,” says David Gerber, who produced A&E’s movie. “They don’t remember its history dealing with social issues.”

Indeed, if recent history is any guide, most can’t even remember its present.

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