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Suddenly 'small potatoes'

Culture | The terrorist attacks prompt Hollywood to question its relevance

Issue: "Bush: 'We will not fail'," Oct. 20, 2001

After a three-week delay brought on by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Emmy Awards were canceled last week, just hours before they were scheduled to air nationally on CBS.

The air strikes against the Taliban had just commenced, and rather than immediately reschedule the annual television awards ceremony a second time, organizers of the star-studded event elected to indefinitely postpone. They donated 3,000 servings of already-prepared gourmet food-lobster salad, filet of beef, risotto, Italian espresso layer cake-to no doubt surprised area homeless shelters.

The cancellation of TV's annual self-congratulatory fashion show was just one in a line of difficult, often tortured decisions the entertainment industry has had to make in light of recent events-events that almost instantly brought the industry's relevance into question.

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The networks delayed the debut of the entire fall television season by several days; movie studios pushed back the release of a handful of films; and everyone, from advertisers to network executives to industry journalists, has combed through their products looking for inappropriate or insensitive language and images. Arnold Schwarzenegger's new film, Collateral Damage, about a man who avenges the death of his wife and child at the hands of terrorists, will not be released this year. Makers of the upcoming film adaptation of the Spider Man comic have pulled television advertising for the movie temporarily because it features a prominent shot of New York's pre-attack skyline.

But beyond the practical decisions of sensitivity and appropriateness is the context in which they are being made. At least for this brief moment, in the wake of events that took the national focus completely away from Hollywood (in spite of a nation glued to television screens), a predominant, radical change in tone has taken place among entertainment industry elites.

Witness the comments of Les Moonves, entertainment president for CBS, in announcing the further delay of the Emmy broadcast (as reported in TV Guide): "There was a general feeling of people feeling uncomfortable. It was not a day to celebrate, certainly.... This is television. It's really small potatoes compared to what's going on out there in the world."

The A-list actors and musicians that filled out the roster of the celebrity telethon aired just after the attacks were certainly successful in their worthy attempt to raise relief funds, with estimates coming in around $150 million. And the show, although sadly shallow, was remarkably understated in tone-dispensing with introductions and even on-screen titles identifying the celebrities' names.

This change in tone is not limited to the decision makers and stars themselves. Entertainment Weekly, a publication that thrives on the ability of the entertainment industry to be absolutely relevant on a weekly basis, has published a series of articles on its website that would have been unthinkable just weeks ago. The articles feature headlines like, "Fear Factor: ... Reality Shows Suddenly Seem Less Real after America's Crisis," "Armed Conflict: Why Violent Entertainment Should Change," and "Trivial Pursuit: Is Entertainment Relevant Anymore?" This last story gives a surprising answer to the question-surprising from a publication that depends on the answer being an unequivocal yes.

"The answer," writes Ty Burr, "is: No. Of course it isn't. Everything that has anything to do with the entertainment industry that is this country's primary ideological export-the new TV season, hit movies, Michael Jackson, this website and magazine-suddenly appears as trivial as, in fact, it is. Worse: Entertainment itself seems obscene."

Of course, this chorus of modest self-awareness and moral sensitivity is not universal. John Rockwell, arts editor for The New York Times, digs in his heels and refuses to budge: "This country has a history of linking arts with moral uplift, and the pressure to do so now may prove debilitating.... [A]rt has its own importance; it stakes its own claim. We are told that in times of crisis, we need to rely on faith. Art can be a faith, too, from which some of us draw the deepest solace."

Right now, Mr. Rockwell and others like him seem to be in the minority. But it will be interesting to see how long an industry built on self-importance continues, with newfound clarity of vision, to see itself as "small potatoes."

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