Top executives from all four major television networks had just one question for Joel Gallen last weekend: Was it feasible to pull together--in only four business days--a memorable two-hour telecast to raise money for victims of the terrorist attack?
Gallen's mind began to race. Could he line up the talent, the stages and the crews on such short notice? It usually took him two months of full-time work to produce the MTV music and movie award shows.
But Gallen couldn't say no to an opportunity to help his native New York after the wrenching tragedy. So he agreed to orchestrate "America: A Tribute to Heroes," one of the most enterprising undertakings ever by the nation's television and entertainment industry.
"It won't be a big, glitzy show, and it shouldn't be," Gallen said. "There will be no live audience, no host, no introductions. It's not a celebration. It will be emotional, personal and intimate."
The two-hour show, to be aired tonight at 9 p.m. on more than three dozen broadcast and cable networks, promises to have the heart of the Jerry Lewis telethon and the soul of MTV "Unplugged." It will be filmed at two locations--CBS' Television City in Los Angeles and a Sony stage in New York.
Populated by A-list celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Robin Williams and Tom Cruise, with performances by Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Mariah Carey, Neil Young and others, the tribute will reach beyond national borders in a rare cross-media collaboration.
With everyone from stars to stagehands to corporate executives working pro bono, the event is poised to raise significant money for a charity supporting relief efforts related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The organizers are not quite sure how much they can raise through thousands of phone lines being established to accept contributions. Sources say the networks alone could generate calls offering $30 million or more.
The usual warring between the networks and their affiliates and broadcasters and their cable rivals has been suspended for an extraordinary moment of national solidarity. The sponsors--ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox--will be joined by every other broadcast station, including affiliates of Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision.
More than 31 cable channels, including FX, TNT, Discovery and BET, will air the program. Unable to drop contracted games scheduled during those hours, sports outlets ESPN and Fox Sports Net plan to run crawls along the bottom of the TV screen with the 800 number for making donations.
Westwood One, which is mixing the sound and distributing the tribute to radio broadcasters here and abroad, expects participation by as many as 6,000 U.S. stations, including those owned by Clear Channel, CBS and ABC.
Yahoo! surfers around the globe will be able to tune in on the Internet. Newspapers--including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Los Angeles Times--each contributed full-page ads today promoting the effort, while hundreds of Hollywood and New York entertainment executives donated their time.
"It takes something like this to force cable and broadcasters to set aside their agendas," said Henry Schleiff, chairman and CEO of Court TV. "There's a psychic value for the nation in our coming together. It's part of the healing process."
A noble effort, indeed--and a logistical Rubik's cube.
"There's been a conference call every hour, with about 75 people from across the country on every one of them," said Thom Ferro, executive vice president of Westwood One. "I was naked in a robe in the doctor's office when one came through. My doctor said my blood pressure was high. I wonder why? This thing is not going to take shape until Friday morning. It's a rush."
Gallen was having to strong-arm some of music's foremost figures. A team of musicians in Los Angeles was pulling out the stops Wednesday night to record a special rendition of "God Bless America," ordered up by Sony music chief Thomas D. Mottola, so that Celine Dion could add her voice from Montreal to make a tape for the show. Then word came down from Gallen that all performances were to be live.
Upstaged by the tribute, MTV and VH1 were reconsidering a benefit concert for the victims that they were planning for Oct. 20 at Staples Center and Madison Square Garden.
Some cable networks excluded from airing the tribute were still trying to negotiate their way in. Only cable channels with dual feeds on the East and West coasts were allowed to participate because of contracts with the stars giving networks rights to only one run of the show. That meant no channel could air the tribute outside the 9 to 11 p.m. slot, regardless of the time zone.