An impressive array of talent from the worlds of music, film and television mounted a low-key but inspirational celebration of the American spirit Friday in a history-making, two-hour telethon to raise money for victims and their families of the terrorist actions in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
The benefit, called "America: A Tribute to Heroes," was devoid of tote boards, studio audiences, money totals, applause, and even hosts in the traditional sense. Stars like Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, George Clooney, Calista Flockhart, Amy Brenneman, Will Smith and Muhammad Ali talked about heroes who gave their lives or saved the lives of others after two hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
The aggregation of channels showing the telethon was unprecedented in the history of modern television. It ranged from the Big Four networks--ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC--to the three mini-nets--UPN, the WB and PAX--and a slew of cable networks, including pay channels HBO and Showtime and basic providers BET, Court TV, Discovery, E!, Lifetime, Sundance Channel, Telemundo and Univision. More than 30 networks signed on for the broadcast.
In addition, several Westwood One and Clear Channel Communications radio affiliates simulcast the special. It was expected that some 8,000 radio stations in the United States broadcast at least parts of the telethon. Internet coverage was available at www.tributetoheroes.org.
Hanks hails heroes
Hanks said those on the flight in Pennsylvania "witnessed the brutality on board and somehow summoned the strength to warn us and take action. United they stood and likely saved our world from an even darker day of perhaps even more unthinkable horror."
Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Alicia Keys and many more performed songs in a mostly straight-ahead manner devoid of pretension. Tom Petty looked at the camera and sang how "I Won't Back Down." Billy Joel was in a "New York State of Mind" in New York City, playing the piano with a firefighter's helmet on top of it.
The telethon, shown from 8 to 10 p.m. in Chicago, was performed live at undisclosed, candle-and-spotlight lit studios in Los Angeles and New York. Part of the secrecy was due to heightened security concerns. Actress Dyan Cannon of NBC's "Three Sisters" and producer Marti Noxon (UPN's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") both said Friday that the FBI had notified the major production companies of telephone threats that a bomb would destroy a studio if America retaliated against Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of the studios were shut down.
Other highlights of the Hollywood-schmaltz-free presentation included former "NYPD Blue" co-stars Dennis Franz and Jimmy Smits, who talked about a missing New York police officer, one of a legion Smits said are "willing to sacrifice their lives in an instant for people they do not know;" and Canadian Celine Dion singing an amazing rendition of "God Bless America."
Beyond the stars, the most moving moments belonged to regular people affected by the tragedy: video diaries by Muslim children who also were afraid of the violence, tape of firefighters, police officers and others who rose to the occasion, and relatives showing pictures of missing loved ones.
The broadcast networks have never banded together to offer such a program. In 1990, ABC, CBS and NBC simulcast an animated anti-substance abuse special that Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, BET and the USA Network also picked up.
The telethon followed similar accords reached between the networks and cable outlets during the early coverage of the devastation in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania. At the suggestion of CBS "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt, the networks covering the attacks agreed to share the same video feed without exclusivity.
That agreement only lasted a few days.
This history-making collaboration probably won't last much longer than the Friday broadcast. Monday marks the delayed launch of the 2001-02 season, when the networks trot out their new series and welcome back their returning shows.
On Friday night, they rose to a special occasion.