Will Hollywood Go to War?
A special report on the impact of 9/11 on the American entertainment industry and the TV Academy's panel "Hollywood Goes to War? Politics, Showbiz and the War on Terrorism"
By David Chambers (Hollywood)
What is the mysterious
White House-Hollywood committee?
Those who follow the entertainment industry were stunned by the formation of the task force: was Hollywood, famous for favoring the Democratic Party and former President Bill Clinton, actually consorting with its own ideological "enemy," the Republican Party?
How would Hollywood react to the Bush administration during wartime? Film enthusiasts recall that propagandistic World War II films were so popular that they evolved into a still-thriving genrewitness the success of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and that most recent spate of copycat films. The Korean War veered Hollywood out of line with The Caine Mutiny (1954set during WWII, of course). A generation later, the world's first televised war in Vietnam produced a deluge of anti-war movies, including: Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970) attacking the Korean War, Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got a Gun (1971) (2) attacking WWI, and then Vietnam war stories in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978), Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Barry Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam (1987).
The Gulf War leaned toward the Vietnam tone of criticism with such movies as Edward Zwick's Courage Under Fire (1996) and David O. Russel's Three Kings (1999), but which way would Hollywood go for this latest War on Terrorism, officially "Operation Enduring Freedom"?
The task force raised the specter of government's forcing Hollywood to take on the role of propagandist, but both the White House and Hollywood managed to dispel rumors of government-induced propaganda after a few weeks with a constant litany of Hollywood "volunteerism." The White House position was that it was seeking to channel well-wishers in Hollywood but never tell them what to say, or how.
Between October 17 and December 6, there were a series of high-profile meetings in Los Angeles and Washington featuring Karl Rove, senior presidential advisor, and Jack Valenti, the long-time head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the lobbying group for the major studios. The major outcome of these meetings was a repeated question from Hollywood, how can we help? while the White House, to avoid accusations of co-opting Hollywood into propaganda, could only answer, we can't tell you how.
What has the task force
Most notable among those testifying was writer-producer John Romano of the popular TV series Third Watch before the House International Relations Committee in November 2001, who advised that content is the key to foreign perceptions of America. Former US ambassador to Egypt and the UAE Edward S. Walker testified that Hollywood should be working with foreign counterparts in media centers such as Cairo and Beirut to develop localized PSAs for regional markets.
USO Tours: USO tours have proven the strongest result and have featured singers Wayne Newton, Coolio, Mariah Carey, Joan Jett, and Ozzy Osbourne; TV talk-show host Jay Leno, TV comedian Drew Carey, and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger; war historian Stephen Ambrose; and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. MTV made a 90-minute New Year's Day special entitled "For the Troops" and featuring Jennifer Lopez, Kid Rock, and Ja Rule.(5)
PSAs: TV star comedian Drew Carey made a PSA in support of USO tours. An Arts & Entertainment subcommittee on PSAs announced in early December 2001 that the six major TV networks (Viacom's CBS and UPN, Disney's ABC, GE's NBC, 20th Century Fox's Fox, and AOL Time Warner's WB) would all be producing and airing their independent PSAs, featuring famous stars rallying behind US troops.(6)
Later in December, US Secretary of State Colin Powell encouraged radio stations across America to play any or all of four PSAs produced the US Department of State asking citizenry to join the hunt for Osama Bin Laden's terrorist network, thus becoming eligible for a $25 million reward. Powell's plea ran the same day that the US Department of Defense released a videotape of Bin Laden celebrating the 9/11 attacks. The PSAs were supervised by Charlotte Beers, US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy.(7)
At the end of December, the PSA subcommittee announced its first international PSA, featuring prizefighter Muhammad Ali, who explains that the current war is against terrorism and not Islam or Arabs. The PSA will be translated into numerous languages, targeting in particular the Islamic world.
Separately and for domestic audiences, Starz! announced two PSAs produced with the Arab American Institute and Cleveland's Brokaw Inc. to promote tolerance toward Arab-Americans. The Starz! spots will air in over 71 million U.S. households; six major cablers and direct satellite broadcasters have committed to carriage. The Arab American Institute also released a pamphlet highlighting well-known Arab-Americans, including Danny and Marlo Thomas; veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas; John Sununu, White House chief of staff for President George Bush; and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.(8)
MTV: Viacom's MTV has been acting independently of yet in concert with the Arts & Entertainment task force. Channels MTV and VH1 have been aired in the Middle East by the Showtime television network since 1996. "While MTV has been able to build strong, local outlets in Asia and India, it's had a tougher time in the Mideast. It does air one show in Arabic, Mashaweer, in which local VJs present a mix of Arabic, southern Euro and Latin-oriented music. There are discussions about more local shows and the development of a 24-hour channel in Arabic," Variety quoted MTV International chief Bill Roedy in November 2001.(9)
On Valentine's Day 2002, US Secretary of State Colin Powell held a global town forum on MTV channels including the US, India, the Middle East, Italy, UK/Ireland, Brazil, and Russia, among others, in a 90-minute extended special entitled "Be Heard: An MTV Global Discussion With Colin Powell." Bilingual VJs translated questions from viewers in London, Moscow, New Delhi, Cairo, and Milan to Powell.(10) Subjects of Thursday's forum ranged from the war on terrorism and why America is sometimes viewed as "Satan" overseas to whether Powell considers himself an African-American.
"We gave Egyptian young people the chance to ask the most questions. This region is the most topical at the moment dealing with the peace process," Showtime's president Peter Einstein told Variety.(11)
"MTV initiated a great idea to get students around the world to have a direct dialogue." Powell answered questions frankly and even bluntly, including the issue of condoms. The show will be translated too on select MTV international channels.(12)
What was discussed
publicly in Hollywood last December?
September 11, 2001 changed all that, as America found itself under physical attack for the first time in 50 years.
So, on December 5, 2001, the powerful Academy of Television Arts & Sciences held a panel entitled "Hollywood Goes to War?"not quite a town hall meeting but at least an open debate between a party of interested panelists about what, if anything, Hollywood planned to do in response.
Heading the panel was ATAS chairman, writer-producer Bryce Zabel. The panelists were a veritable Who's Who of Hollywood TV. Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, represented the majors, while Craig Haffner, president of Greystone Communications, represented the minors. For the creatives (writers, directors, producers) were Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), Alice West (Ally McBeal), Paris Barclay (NYPD Blue), and Sheryl Ralph Lee (Moesha). For the White House were Mark McKinnon, an advisor, and Philip Strub, the U.S. Department of Defense's chief entertainment liaison.
Bryce Zabel led the panel through a series of challenging questions. Quoting an email from AP reporter Mort Rosenblum in Afghanistan, Zabel noted, "America understands little of the world it dominates." The rest of the evening was spent largely ignoring his direction in addressing whether America cares to know more.
McKinnon held tightly to public positions, that the White House has no desire to control content, thanks Hollywood for its support, and wants to help Hollywood. For Defense, Strub also thanked Hollywood for its support. He noted, however, "In the past 10 years, I've seen lots of downsizing. We have fewer people and equipment but a higher tempo right now, so we will do the best we can."
Zucker said that, despite 9/11, it was "business as usual." Current shows are not in reaction to 9/11, he stated. "We were developing police shows and military shows beforehand, but there have been no changes except specials on Jay Leno, which is all the more we want to do, or a special episode of The West Wing or Third Watch."
Sheryl Ralph Lee rallied an opposing sentiment, declaring, "Everything has changed for us, which I don't think people are seeing yet [on TV]…I would like to see a little bit of that change, because it cannot be business as usual, because it is not business as usual. And if we continue to say and believe that, then we will have learned absolutely nothing from 9/11!…This is a creative business of creative people, but we are having non-creative people making creative decisions!" Lee then backed off when asked to direct her comments to Zucker.
Zucker retorted by praising TV's star of the moment, Aaron Sorkin, and his ongoing success with The West Wing. Within an astoundingly short ten days, Sorkin and his team had put together and aired an episode dealing with 9/11, an amazing Hollywood success story and one more jewel in the crown of his extremely successful and lucrative TV franchise.
Otherwise, it was noted, TV programming often has little to do with current affairs of any kind. Alice West said, "Of course, we refer to 9/11 in episodes, except in Ally McBeal who simply has her own inner world that is not affected by things like 9/11. So Calista Flockhart may be thinking about 9/11, but we will not see Ally thinking about it." Moments later, West said, "I wish Ally McBeal were [broadcast] there to show them what the 'real world' is like. She's a woman in a career with a lot of emotion who cares about things and who has a good time." (Within days of her statement, ratings for Ally McBeal took their first nosedive in four years, along with another non-current affairs hit Who Wants to be a Millionaire? as apparently audiences found them suddenly too removed from the realities of the moment.)
Zabel pressed the panel repeatedly, quoting from Rosenblum: "A crushing majority of Afghanis and Muslims everywhere hate Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda for blackening a religion which defines their lives. The Quran does not call for innocent blood. So we have to ask why so many Muslims are distressed with American policy and are against the U.S. government. We may know our motives are good and we may believe ourselves to be generous, but what counts is their perceptions of us. We are widely perceived to be selfish and self-indulgent and so sensitive to our own pain that we cannot feel anyone else's."
Zucker replied, "Listen, we are not culpable for the images we portray on television. News informs the American public and keeps our politicians honest. Entertainment entertains the American public. The point is that we do it freely. Saturday Night Live made fun of Osama Bin Laden, as did Jay Leno and David Letterman. That's what's great about this country, that we can do that."
"People are still feeling out what is appropriate" in terms of a response to 9/11, McKinnon noted. Industry panelists nodded agreement and added that what would start the response would be the first daring "movie of the week" about 9/11 itself.
Without help from panelists, Zabel concluded, "What we need is a new paradigm. If the War on Terrorism is the equivalent of World War II, is really the best way to deal with that to say, 'We'll just do things the way we used to do them'? How are we perceived, as a concern to our Industry? What do we do? How do we reconnect? There is a message we can send to the American public; there is also a message we can send overseas…I'm disturbed that others wish us ill."
Not one panelist seemed to have any knowledge of the Middle East, not even industry information such as whether their shows aired therefor instance, that Ally McBeal is aired all over the Middle East and Central Asia (even Afghanistan) on the MBC and Star World channels. One panelist commented, "Maybe we should get DirecTV over there," apparently unaware of such networks as Showtime, Orbit, ART, or StarTV, not to mention the myriad free-to-air channels, many of them broadcasting American shows, legally and illegally. Not one person mentioned CNN's critical role in the opening of Middle Eastern satellite airwaves during the Gulf War, giving rise to the Arab challenge in Al-Jazeera (though AP's Rosenblum might have, had he been present).
No panelist attempted to imagine life for Middle East audiences who may watch American programming. No one addressed issues such as cultural imperialism, the impact of Western technology nor the changes accompanying it that have shaken the West and are reverberating in geometric proportions in the rest of the world.
Despite years of Hollywood sympathy for next-door Central America (expressed in such movies as Costa Gavras' 1982 Missing and Roger Spottiswoode's 1983 Under Fire), none such can be found for the Middle East.
Having quoted Ellen DeGeneris' question, "What would bother the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?" from last year's Emmy Awards, no one questioned whether Hollywood wants its most quote response to be, effectively, one loud, rather sophomoric raspberry in response to 9/11. All the panelists seemed focused on Americans' rights rather than their responsibilities.
"The best thing is that we are talking openly about our government's role right here and now, which is what America is all about," Zucker concluded. True words he spoke, but more tautological self-praise rather relevant to questions of what could and should be done about regional perceptions and feelings toward America vis-ŕ-vis American film and television content.
What has happened in
Washington since the TV Academy panel?
It is difficult to judge whether industry developments in Washington have really been changed by 9/11. This is due to the of the vastness and complexity not only of the entertainment industry in America but of its conglomerates who are vertically and horizontally integrated throughout much of the media and entertainment industries. All the major studio members of the MPAA are all owned by media giants: Disney (by itself), Universal by Vivendi (France), Paramount by Viacom, Columbia-TriStar by Sony (Japan), 20th Century Fox by NewsCorp (Australia), and Warner Bros. by AOL Time Warnerexcept for MGM, which just put itself up for sale in February 2002. Corporate decisions hardly emanate from Hollywood any longer but from New York, Paris, and Tokyo.
What's happening with
US Congressional legislation?
For HR 3131, the Independent Film and Television Production Incentive Acta bill introduced to the House to fight runaway production by providing a wage-based tax credit for productions with budgets under $10 million to level the playing field against productions receiving foreign incentiveslobbyists had lined up 11 co-sponsors in the House. With its Senate companion bill S 1278 introduced in July 2001, HR 3131 is supported by a coalition including the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild of America, and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS or the "TV Academy").(14)
A new consideration starting in the Senate Foreign Relations committee is a bill called the "911 Initiative" to invest $500 million into a pan-Arab satellite TV channel to combat the media influence of the increasingly successful Al-Jazeera and to target Muslim youth. The story, first reported in Variety, was picked up by the Manchester Guardian in late November but has hardly been mentioned since then outside interested circles. Hill sources estimate this bill is very much alive but will take at least six months just to review.(15)
What is happening in
Washington with federal regulation?
In October 2001, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Michael Powell announced plans to make a thorough review of media ownership before making any changes, an unwelcome message which he assuaged by lauding Hollywood's war efforts a few days later at a Beverly Hills luncheon.(16)
In November 2001, the FCC agreed with a Supreme Court ruling of 2000 to eliminate a federal regulation requiring cable companies to scramble sexually explicit programming, though one Democratic FCC commissioner, Michael Copps, called for further studies to protect children from seeing sexually explicit content.(17)
Perhaps most important to the MPAA and its members has been the approval of the FCC, following its harsh September 2000 report. Studios and the videogame industries had already fared well in a first follow-up report in the spring of 2001, though the music biz remained sharply criticized. The MPAA stated, "The FTC's report confirms that the film community has made good on the 12-point set of initiatives we presented to the Congress in September 2000. Today's report confirms that the Hollywood studios have redeemed their commitment to each initiative."(18) Theater owners were also praised by the FTC. Still, this success results from compliance with regulations, not alliance with the White Houseand a month Congress had set aside $500,000 for the FTC to use in continued monitoring.(19)
In January 2002, the Bush administration surprised the industry by transferring the power of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to approve or veto media and entertainment mergers to the US Department of Justice. Two big mergers will be affected by this change: the AT&T/Comcast deal and the EchoStar/DirecTV deal. It is unclear what, if any, impact the proposal would have on the Federal Communications Commission, which conducts its own review of media mergers.(20)
Also in January 2002, consumer organizations and citizen groups asked the FCC to reimpose strict federal limitations on of 30% cable television system ownership, following the proposed merger of AT&T Broadband and Comcast. The goal is not just to stop cable monopolies of TV programming and Internet services, which will likely raise consumer prices. AT&T/Comcast would need to drop 3.5 million subscribers to comply with the limit. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) has protested separately that vertical and horizontal integration have limited diversity and creativity and asserts the FCC must hold hearings on the impact of recent key rulings. Regulatory easing has allowed media giants to control key aspects of production, exhibition, and distribution. WGA opposes the EchoStar/DirecTV merger. "We have witnessed an unparalleled consolidation within our industry," said Victoria Riskin, prexy of the WGA West. "This consolidation limits diversity and creativity. Ultimately it is the American public that is hurt."(21)
The biggest surprises in the industry have come in February 2002. First, the Supreme Court announced it would review laws that protect copyrights. In legislative terms, that means reviewing the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Act, which added 20 years to all existing copyrights. Disney is particularly vulnerable since as it has old movie rights that would expire starting in 2003 for Mickey Mouse (for Steamboat Willie), Pluto in 2005, Goofy in 2007, and Donald Duck in 2009.(22)
Then, a federal appeals court threw out limits on broadcast and cable cross-ownership at 35%. Such a reversal would mean immediately that Viacom and NewsCorp, both currently exceeding the 35% thanks to recent acquisitions, may not have to sell off any TV stations. On the much larger horizon, media giants could now conceivably own their industries vertically from production to home delivery, making complete control over branding and repackaging possible. Already, there is speculation that AOL Time Warner may try to buy NBC from General Electric, though of course NBC could itself do some buying of its own, particularly with GE financial companies as sisters. And there is further speculation that Comcast may have eyes on Disney or parts, like ABC. Though many media giants may be too short on cash at the moment, few will be able to resist a ceiling raised to 45% or 50%.(23)
What's happening in
Blockbuster movie approval averages far longer than the few months between 9/11 and the present, so there have been few movies announced related to 9/11. Instead, the summer 2002 schedule is one long list of sequels, from Men in Black 2 to a third Austin Powers to a cleverly titled Analyze That (sequeling Analyze This). As The New York Daily News commented sardonically in January 2002, "Pity the film industry. It has to deplete an inventory that is 18 months to three years behind the news before it can exploit the news, which means Sept. 11, 2001 won't produce any significant post-9/11 movies at least until 2003."(25)
Without a proper war, Hollywood cannot be expected to crank out war movies or escapist musicals at 10-20 a year per studio, as they did during the height of WWII. Instead, moviegoers are treated to those movies due for release between September 2001 and March 2002 with sufficiently relevant content to merit specially remarketing: John Moore's Behind Enemy Lines, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers (with Mel Gibson, who already has four Lethal Weapon and three Mad Max movies under his belt), and Andrew Davis' Collateral Damage (with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will appear in True Lies 2 in 2002 and Terminator 3 in 2003).
There seems to be little talk about recent, prophetic films such as The Siege (1998). In The Siege, director Ed Zwick and screenwriter Lawrence Wright unfolded their story as if they had glimpsed Osama bin Laden's master plan. In the movie, Middle Eastern terrorists attack New York City by blowing up a bus, a theater, and the office tower housing the FBI's New York headquarters. The terrorists are portrayed as Arab, Islamic militants, largely Palestinian and under the leadership of one mysterious "Sheikh Ahmed bin Talal." At its release, the Arab-American community roared in indignation, while film critics lambasted the plot's unlikely scenarios. Now, there is just silence. (At a December 2001 conference, Valenti was asked whether Hollywood has turned Arabs into villains. "Well, in Hollywood, we have equal-opportunity prejudice," Valenti said, since nearly every ethnic group has been made the bad guy at one time or another.)(26)
What's happening in
Viacom's CBS seems first out of the starting box to run for direct 9/11 content, announcing a dramatic, two-hour special to air Ground Zero footage and shot as if through the eyes of firemen during prime time at New York's World Trade Center on March 10, 2002, with actor and New Yorker Robert De Niro as host. CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves, a prominent member of the Arts & Entertainment task force, has been a prime champion of the program.(27) There have been no announcements from the other major networks.
Despite the absence of attack-related projects in this year's drama pilots, 9/11-related themes are resonate in them. Home and family values are one major trend, particularly friendship and love, according to Warner Bros. TV president Peter Roth. Escapist fantasy is another trend, particularly on the still-new and brand-crazed WB Network, whose upcoming pilots include such titles as Lost in Oz, Birds of Prey, and The Lone Ranger. Hunting in that pack are Fox with Time Tunnel and Firefly and NBC with Arthur (about King Arthur). Nostalgia themes from the 1960s appear in NBC's Miss American Pie and the WB's In My Life, from song titles by Don McLean and the Beatles respectively.
Successful formulas continue to spawn further variations. Police shows continue, the variation from last year's undercover orientation returning to street cops in such shows as NBC's Boomtown and Miss Miami, Fox's Fast Lane, CBS's Hack, and the WB's The Black Sash. The success of NBC's The West Wing has given rise to NBC's Mister Sterling and CBS's Georgetown. Going back home in search of a simpler way of life also continues as a major theme with ABC's That Was Then and Homeward Bound and the WB's Everwood.
The business side has felt 9/11 deeply, which coincided with sagging advertising. To shore up revenues, networks have been demanding co-production deals with outside suppliers and also repurposing rights. Thus eight of nine NBC's pilots are produced or co-produced by NBC Studios, 12 of 14 projects at Disney's ABC from its sister Touchstone, and WB pilots through Warner Bros. TV and a new in-house production arm at Turner Broadcasting for the WB and other TBS channels. Sony, on the other hand, took the opposite direction and halted network pilot development last fall at its subsidiary Columbia TriStar.
TV producers have to think about where and even whether they can sell their projects when there a fewer buyers who are producing in-house all they can. If they need pilotsNBC has limited needs for pilots thanks to its current successes.
Entertainment by sequel?
In an exclusive interview following the December 5 panel, Zabel reaffirmed that Hollywood would act without White House coercion and would cooperate only in a "spirit of volunteerism." Translated in terms of the Hollywood market, that means that if a someone wants to write or produce content in response to 9/11, Hollywood will show interest only if the show promises to make money.(28)
In The Year of Living Dangerously, to his own question, "What then must we do?" Billy Kwan answers himself, "You must add your light to the sum of light." He hangs a banner of his one-time hero Sukarno outside a hotel window which demands, "Feed your people!" and is thrown out of window to his death many stories below by security forces.
The scene was 1965 in the last days of president Sukarno, and we are watching the aftermath right now in the courts and streets of Indonesia. Has anyone noted that the authoritarian militaristic Sukarno regime, threatened by the totalitarian communist PKI, was eventually replaced with the Islamic militaristic Suharto regime? For once, perhaps we do need a sequelThe Year of Living Dangerously: 30 Years Later. Now, there is 9/11-relevant content! Peter Weir, Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hunt, where are you? TBS
David Chambers is Digital Content Management manager for Communications & Content industry, KPMG Consulting, Los Angeles.
2002 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo