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Kibosh on telethon artist comments?

Times Staff Writers

Cable channel executives organizing two telethons to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina said that musicians participating in the weekend events will have free rein to speak their minds, but it remains unclear whether the commercial broadcast networks sponsoring a third concert will give performers similar latitude to criticize the government’s disaster response.

“We will not be censoring anyone on editorial content or point of view,” said Reggie Hudlin, president of entertainment for BET, whose “S.O.S. (Saving OurSelves)” telethon airs tonight from 7:30 to 10 p.m. “We want a wide variety of views expressed.”

The trio of fundraisers comes a week after rapper Kanye West declared that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” during a live NBC hurricane relief telethon, prompting the network to hastily cut him off. His remark was later edited out of the tape-delayed broadcast that aired on the West Coast. An NBC spokeswoman said West went off script and producers feared that his comments would distract from the aim of the program.

That concern is not shared by organizers of two different televised benefits airing on BET and MTV this weekend, which are both scheduled to feature West and dozens of other artists. (All the telethons will air live on the East Coast and be shown on tape delay on the West Coast.)

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Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks Music Group, said that the 45-plus artists participating in “ReAct Now: Music & Relief” running on MTV, VH1 and CMT at 8 p.m. Saturday have been asked to address the musical heritage of the Gulf Coast and the importance of assisting those in need, but will be allowed to speak about whatever they wish.

“Musicians are a unique breed,” Toffler said. “In no way can you control what they say, and we don’t plan to censor them.”

Russell Simmons, chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, who is helping produce the BET telethon said he does not expect the event to be “a bunch of people complaining about our government.” Nevertheless, he said it’s appropriate for artists to voice their opinions.

“That’s what rappers are supposed to do -- say what the masses are thinking,” he said.

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But it is unclear how any political statements would be handled on “Shelter From the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast,” an hourlong star-studded fundraiser organized by the six commercial broadcast networks that airs tonight at 8.

Executive producer Joel Gallen said he does not believe participants will make off-the-cuff statements. Gallen said that he has spoken to nearly every artist on the bill -- including West, who is performing -- and that all agreed that they should keep their remarks focused on the needs of the Gulf Coast.

“Everybody is in the same spirit of what this evening is about, which is to raise as much money as possible for the American Red Cross, for the Salvation Army, for the victims of the hurricane,” he said. “I think people know that politicizing will certainly not be a smart thing to do as far as inspiring people to want to call in and rally around this cause.”

Gallen said the telethon will be delayed by 30 seconds on the East Coast in order to weed out any obscenities. A broadcast standards official representing all six networks would have to decide how to handle unscripted political remarks, he added.

Network representatives would not say how they plan to deal with such a situation.

“I can’t predict what we will or won’t edit, but I will say that no one expects or wants this to be turned into a platform for political statements,” said CBS spokesman Chris Ender. “People across this industry have shed their day jobs over the last week for the purpose of raising the most amount of money possible for the victims. Anything that takes away from that would be most unfortunate.”

In the last week, dozens of A-list actors and recording music stars have signed up to participate in the hurricane benefits. Some -- like West, comedian Chris Rock, rapper Ludacris and singers Alicia Keys and Sheryl Crow -- are scheduled to perform in more than one concert.

Hollywood’s response to the disaster is reminiscent of the outpouring after Sept. 11, when the entertainment industry mobilized to put on “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” a two-hour telethon produced by Gallen that generated more than $150 million in pledged donations for victims of the terrorist attacks.

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But unlike 2001, when all of the industry’s efforts were corralled into one event, Hurricane Katrina has generated four separate telethons. The first, which aired last Friday on NBC and its sister cable channels, raised $39.5 million for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.

Organizers said they were not concerned that the multitude of events would dilute their effect.

“There’s so much need that I don’t think there are too many of these things that can happen,” said Sam Haskell, former head of worldwide television at William Morris Agency and a native Mississippian, who has helped recruit stars to participate in “Shelter From the Storm.”

The broadcast network-sponsored concert will air on all the networks, as well as PBS and more than 30 cable channels. The program will feature U2, Dixie Chicks, Neil Young, Jennifer Aniston, Jack Nicholson and Ellen DeGeneres, among others.

It’s unlikely the various telethons will strike the kind of unified and patriotic tone that marked the Sept. 11 fundraiser. This time, the government’s response to the destruction that followed Hurricane Katrina has been lambasted by critics across the political spectrum.

West was one of the first artists to voice those sentiments when he angrily denounced Bush during the NBC telethon last week. After his remark, upset viewers dialed in complaints to the pledge phone lines, according to Sarah Marchetti, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, who would not say whether it affected donations.

Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello, whose band is performing at MTV’s “ReAct,” said that West “may have ruffled some feathers in some quarters, but there were roars of approval in other quarters.”

“The hurricane took some lives, but the ineptitude of the Bush administration is responsible for far more deaths than Sept. 11,” Morello said. “The purpose of our taking part in the telethon is twofold: to join in solidarity with the millions of Americans in a time of national disaster and to protest the Bush administration’s sorry response.”

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Other artists have indicated that they plan to share their own concerns, as well. Hudlin said that when he contacted Ludacris about the BET concert, the rapper asked whether he would be allowed to speak his mind.

“I told him: ‘We want you to talk,’ ” said Hudlin, noting that the network invited everyone from West to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to participate in the event (the latter has not yet responded).

But not all of those critical of the government response said they plan to speak about their discontent during the telethons.

In an interview last week, singer John Mellencamp called the initial relief efforts strikingly inadequate. But Mellencamp, who taped a portion of a concert in Denver Wednesday that will air on the MTV telethon, said he didn’t feel “a concert stage is a place to voice these views.”

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Gold reported from New York; Lee reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Geoff Boucher also contributed to this report.


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