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Networks bulk up on 9/11 specials

40-plus programs expected to commemorate 10th anniversary of attacks

How many programs can a milestone like the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 attacks sustain? Ten? A dozen? Twenty? Try 40-plus.

In the coming weeks, every TV outlet with even a tangential interest in the anniversary is rolling out hours — in some cases several days’ worth — of programming to mark the anniversary of the deadliest terrorist incident on U.S. soil.

Although numerous networks will be fielding dueling specials and docus — Sunday, Sept. 11 itself will be wall-to-wall 9/11 — programmers say the emphasis is warranted given the magnitude of the attacks and their impact on the world in the decade since.

“There’s a lot of competition, and understandably so,” said Susan Werbe, History’s veep of programming. “For Americans primarily, and also for the world, so much has changed as a result of 9/11, from the way that we travel to the way that we show ID at an office.”

Newsies say the 10-year milestone is made more significant by the death of Osama bin Laden in May. The killing of the Al Qaeda leader gave the networks a reason to dust off old 9/11 docus, to which they could amend new footage and interviews in order to

close a painful chapter for the nation.

As the anniversary draws near, 9/11-related programs new and old are more frequently scheduled on top of each other. Finding plentiful material, the news nets and outlets like National Geographic Channel and A&E’s Bio have added more and more programming.

CNN, Fox News and MSNBC have a raft of special material on tap; Fox News anchor Shepard Smith has been hosting regular “Rise of Freedom” segments on the building of the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center site for the past year. The news wings of the Big Three nets, on the other hand, are largely focusing on event coverage and retrospectives to run on Sept. 11.

With so much material vying for viewers’ attention, how do you distinguish your programming from everybody else’s? The combination of renewed interest and distance offered by the 10th anniversary has created some unique opportunities. Producer Natalie von Hurter contacted victims of the attacks, their families, and first responder organizations to compile much of the material used in History’s audio-heavy “Voices from Inside the Towers” — a two-hour special, skedded for Sept. 10, that reconstructs the final moments inside the WTC before the collapse. It’s a project that would have been unthinkable in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, but 10 years later is being produced in cooperation with survivors’ groups.

“It is very disturbing,” said Werbe, who produced the special for the network. “But we also think it’s important.”

Other nets are opting for the exhaustive approach. Starting Aug. 28, NatGeo will have a full week devoted to 9/11, including a premiere of its hourlong interview with then-President George W. Bush on the subject of the attacks. It has a half-dozen new specials lined up, along with old docus refurbished with new footage. It is not lost on NatGeo programmers that the highest-rated program in the channel’s history was the four-hour “Inside 9/11” docu that first aired in 2005.

Discovery and Science channels are going all out for a six-hour event produced by Steven Spielberg called “Rising,: Rebuilding Ground Zero,” and every news network and division is covering the ceremonies at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Penn.

“Our audience kind of wants us to get into detail,” said Michael Cascio, senior veep of production for NatGeo. “Depth has been what we strive for, which is why we’re devoting so much time.”

Networks that don’t traditionally address world events are weighing in, too, and not necessarily those you’d expect — Nickelodeon, for example, will air a Linda Ellerbee-hosted Nick News special aimed at putting Sept. 11 in perspective for kids. Animal Planet will show a 9/11 edition of its rescue pet show, “Saved.” Most significantly among the scripted series, FX has set Sept. 7 for the final episode of “Rescue Me,” a series rooted in 9/11 and its aftermath for New York City firefighters.

But for many who remember the attacks, especially New Yorkers, there’s a sense that Sunday would be a good day to stay inside and unplug the television. HBO will cue the new docu “Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience” to bow at 8:46 a.m. ET, the moment the first plane hit the Twin Towers.

Even USA Network will set aside its blue-sky dramas that night for a commercial-free airing of the original telepic “The Space Between,” starring Melissa Leo as a flight attendant tasked with returning a Pakistani boy to an uncertain future in New York. It’ll be followed by the TV preem of Dick Wolf’s Oscar-winning docu short “Twin Towers.”

As the volume of programming rises, there are bound to be critics who accuse the nets of overkill and exploiting tragedy for ratings. TV journos who covered that dark day say they are extremely cognizant of the need for sensitivity in the use of the most dramatic footage available.

“We’re going to be really judicious as far as how we use some of the images from the day,” said CBS News prexy David Rhodes. Rhodes was running the news desk at Fox News on Sept. 11, 2001, which meant his shift started at 6 a.m. that day. (“It was a long day,” he recalled, with understatement.)

Mark Lukasiewicz, senior v.p. of specials and digital media at NBC News, concurred. “We’re very careful about using those images. Our policy is to use them only when they’re directly relevant to the story you’re telling — we never use them as B-roll,” he said.

For television news, 9/11 was definitely a wake-up call after the tabloid-heavy period spurred by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and other sensational stories.

“Because it changed world events as it did, it changed our coverage,” Rhodes said.

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