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Football trips up `Path to 9/11'

The controversial ABC miniseries does well in ratings but can't top an alluring NFL matchup.

September 12, 2006|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

In the end, politics just couldn't trump Americans' football fixation.

"The Path to 9/11," ABC's hotly debated miniseries about the years leading up to the 2001 terrorist attacks, earned solid ratings for its first installment Sunday night, averaging 13 million total viewers over three hours, according to early figures from Nielsen Media Research.

But those numbers paled beside NBC's season opener of "Sunday Night Football," which drew an initial estimate of 20.7 million viewers.

Hyped for its display of fraternal quarterback rivalry -- the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning squaring off against his younger brother Eli of the New York Giants -- the game delivered better household ratings than any "Monday Night Football" season opener on ABC since 2000 (starting this week, "MNF" moved to ABC's sister network ESPN). The Colts won, 26-21. The ratings were especially good news for NBC, where football is a linchpin in the network's recovery from a couple of seasons of mostly failed prime-time efforts.

Still, ABC's "9/11" performed more strongly than many other recent TV movies have done, no doubt helped in part by controversy. The $40-million film, which aired without commercials, was heavily attacked by many Democrats, who said the miniseries unfairly blamed the Clinton administration for failing to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s.

In an effort to quash the flap, ABC made a number of edits. An early cut of the movie shown to TV critics, for example, included a scene that suggested Clinton was too preoccupied by the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal to devote time to fighting terrorism. In that scene, FBI agent John O'Neill was shown asking counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke what the president would do about Bin Laden. Clarke replied, "I don't know. The Lewinsky thing is a noose around his neck."

This exchange didn't take place in the version that ran Sunday. ABC also ran a disclaimer that said that "for dramatic and narrative purposes the movie contains fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters and dialogue, as well as time compression."

Right up until Part 1 began airing, Clinton lawyers and other opponents continued their unsuccessful bid to persuade ABC to dump the movie. Part 2 was schedule to air Monday night.

Democrats remained unimpressed with ABC's efforts to soften the movie's stance toward the Clinton administration. "It is still utterly and completely false," Clinton spokesman Jay Carson said Monday.

Some liberals posited the movie as part of a right-wing conspiracy. Over the weekend, the Internet was abuzz with an expose from Huffington Post blogger Max Blumenthal, who wrote that "9/11" director David Cunningham founded a "secretive evangelical religious right group," the Film Institute, that "proclaims its goal to 'transform Hollywood' in line with its messianic vision." "9/11" executive producer Mark Platt said he never discussed religion or politics with Cunningham and called the report "absurd." He added that Cunningham joined the project at a relatively late stage and did not have final authority over the finished cut of the film. A representative for Cunningham did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Clinton himself didn't watch the movie, according to his spokesman.

"He made the choice that most Americans made," Carson said. "Of a fictionalized drama version of Sept. 11 or the Manning brothers playing football against one another, he chose the latter."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Channel Island is a blog about the television industry. For the latest posting, go to latimes.com/channelisland. Contact reporter Scott Collins at channelisland@latimes.com.

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