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Entertainment, a year later

Pop culture bobs along the surface in wake of 9/11

Despite the adverse economic effects of 9/11, moviegoers still shelled out big bucks for the likes of
Despite the adverse economic effects of 9/11, moviegoers still shelled out big bucks for the likes of "Harry Potter," "Star Wars Episode II," "Lord of the Rings" and "Spider-Man."  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- Somehow, it should be a different world. The country -- the planet -- goes through a cataclysm like the September 11 attacks, and one expects everything to change.

But in the year since September 11, 2001, entertainment and pop culture don't appear to have changed much.

Consider: In 2002, as in 2001, many of the big summer movies were light, escapist, and heavy on the sequels. Last year it was "Shrek," "Rush Hour 2" and "Jurassic Park III"; this year, "XXX", "Star Wars II" and the third Austin Powers.

The songs on the radio, with a handful of notable exceptions, move to the same beats. The only differences -- less boy band, more rock -- are more a reflection of fickle audiences than changing attitudes.

The big TV hit of recent months is "American Idol," another spin on the reality-programming trend, and a year after Gary Condit and shark sightings dominated the airwaves, the 24-hour news networks have spent the last few months fixated on child kidnappings and West Nile virus.

And late-night talk show hosts are still getting in their digs.

On the surface, it still seems like the same old frothy entertainment world we remember from a year ago.

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But surfaces can be deceiving, says Paul Levinson, a communications and media professor at Fordham University in Bronx, New York. Yes, people want escape and fun and thrills, and they're finding them in entertainment, as usual. But there's also an awareness of terrorism, of weapons of mass destruction, of war, of life's fragility.

"I think froth serves a constructive purpose," he says. "Human beings need some time off from the contemplation of serious issues.

"But underneath that is the treatment of [those issues]."

Audiences gravitated to lighter fare

Besides, the entertainment world hasn't functioned in a vacuum.

Many movies were rescheduled or re-cut in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. TV series, particularly those set in New York, used September 11 issues as a backdrop. A couple dozen musicians united for a fund-raising concert aired simultaneously on more than 20 TV networks; some artists later released songs and albums related to the attacks.

Dozens of books -- about Islam, about terrorism, about international affairs and America's place in the world and the individuals caught in the crossfire -- were published and many became bestsellers.

Some reactions were as thin as the quickie magazines that popped up in supermarkets last September; others attempted to dig at deeper meanings. Given that it's only been a year, much of what's come out reflects only first impressions.

If lighter, more escapist fare re-emerged after September 11, it's only because that's what people gravitated to, says Robert Dowling, publisher and editor-in-chief of entertainment trade journal The Hollywood Reporter.

"If you look at the entertainment industry now, it's in disarray. The major [studios] are trying to figure out where they are, and where they're going," he says.

Given the uncertainty in both financial markets and audience desires, the business has played it safe. "They look at the business as a business," says Dowling. "They're out to make money."

Executives feared economic fallout

The star-studded
The star-studded "America's Tribute to Heroes" telethon was one of several events to raise money for victims of the September 11 terrorist attack.  

And, for awhile, September 11 hit the entertainment world where it hurts -- in the pocketbook. Broadway went dark. TV networks, airing commercial-free programming, lost tens of millions.

Some sectors are still trying to recover, hurt by the economic downturn that followed the double whammy of September 11 and Wall Street financial scandals. One showbiz manager, who represents a number of Las Vegas stars, says he's seen a drop in personal appearance bookings since conventions and corporations have cut their budgets. That's created a ripple effect, he adds, since convention cities have suffered a falloff in visitors, leading local clubs to cut bookings.

However, other entertainment areas have made a comeback, even as executives feared the worst.

"Historically, any time of serious domestic economic struggle has had negative effects on the entertainment industry, as consumers re-prioritize the expenditure of their discretionary income," says Wayne Martin, a former Sony Music executive who now runs a music marketing company, Sound Marketing Solutions.

But that didn't happen in the music business, he continues.

"The music industry (as a whole) was braced for a fallout that truly never occurred. ... We found that, in this time of change and grief, Americans were clinging to the variety of emotions that music often raises to the surface," he says. Sales of prerecorded CDs rose after September 11, he adds, particularly those with patriotic content.

In the movie business, total summer grosses set a record, and Sony has already had the best financial year in Hollywood history. TV viewership mostly held steady, and news networks generally saw gains.

Bryce Zabel is particularly proud of the way the entertainment world came together in the aftermath of the attacks. The head of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences -- the organization that presents the Emmys -- notes that the TV networks provided national unity right after September 11, and followed that effort with "America: A Tribute to Heroes", a musical tribute that aired on more than 20 networks. The ensuing CD was a joint project of the major labels.

"It showed us working together to put on a program to help heal the wounds," he says.

Entertainment industry is 'resilient'

The 2001 Emmys were postponed twice due to the September 11 terrorist attacks and ensuing U.S.-led retaliation on Afghanistan.
The 2001 Emmys were postponed twice due to the September 11 terrorist attacks and ensuing U.S.-led retaliation on Afghanistan.  

Zabel had his own challenges to deal with. The Emmys were postponed twice: first because of the terrorist attacks, then because of the invasion of Afghanistan. "It had become the cultural touchstone most dramatically affected," he says.

The show finally aired November 4, six weeks after its originally scheduled air date -- and against Game 7 of the World Series. Both provided their own kind of drama, and finally went off without a hitch.

"All of us [in television] wanted to do what we do as best we can," he says.

With the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks around the corner, observers are attempting to find trends amid the media currents. Some have made much of the number of family shows the broadcast networks are introducing this fall. Others tried to make something of the war movies released in the winter and spring (though all were in production prior to September 11).

Zabel is having none of it.

"I honestly think we err too much in [trying to determine] trends," he says. "We might not know the real impact [of September 11] for a decade."

However, the crisis showed that the TV business -- and the entertainment industry -- is resilient, he adds.

"We know we live in dangerous and uncertain times. Last year we proved we can be flexible, adjusting to any circumstance," he says.

Where is the industry going? The Hollywood Reporter's Dowling chooses to take an upbeat view of the future. September 11 proved that, truly, anything is possible, he says. "That can be a positive," he says. "It can force you into self-discovery, explode you into something else."

Fordham's Levinson agrees, saying that he expects the entertainment business to take a deeper look at issues raised by September 11 in coming years. "I think there will be a more serious, thoughtful treatment of September 11 [in the future]," he says.

But, he cautions, "If there's another terror attack, all bets are off."




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