Learning Lessons From ABC’s 9/11 ‘Path’

Sep 18, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The fact-fumbling controversy surrounding ABC’s airing of the miniseries “The Path to 9/11” last week could have been avoided, according to industry heavyweights.

As TV producers weighed in on ways networks can avoid such flaps in the future, however, one of the key creatives behind the miniseries stood by “Path to 9/11” in its original form.

The two-part “Path” faced a firestorm of controversy leading up to its Sept. 10 premiere after politicians, security analysts and key figures portrayed in the film attacked certain scenes as misleading and fictionalized despite the fact that the network and the film’s creators had described “Path” as being based on the 9/11 Commission Report and other sources.

Originally a six-hour film that covered the historical span from the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 to the air attacks in 2001, “Path” had hundreds of speaking parts and was shot in multiple countries. The final product was cut back to five hours, and ran with no commercials or network promos over two consecutive nights.

“There’s no question it’s a challenge,” said David Gerber, who produced the Emmy-nominated TV movie “Flight 93” for the A&E cable network. “They undertook such a big horizon.”

Noting the “Path” team did “a hell of job producing and directing,” Mr. Gerber said, “I would never fictionalize anything. That’s too close to the source. There was no reason to fictionalize it.”

In the case of “Flight 93,” which profiled the hijacked 9/11 flight that crashed in Shanksville, Pa., after a passenger uprising, Mr. Gerber relied on phone records, transcripts and interviews with family members plus months of research.

Besides doing extensive character analyses on the flight’s passengers and crew, Mr. Gerber kept dialogue he could not verify to a minimum.

Despite the care taken, “no one would touch it” except for A&E, he said, noting that ultimately “Flight 93” was embraced by viewers and critics, which, considering the subject matter, was a huge feat.

“We went through the gauntlet of family and critics and didn’t get hit,” Mr. Gerber said.

But as Mr. Gerber admitted, covering one flight on a single day is a very different film than one profiling all the elements that led to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

The multiple Flight 93 films and World Trade Center-focused projects “have a very narrow focus dealing with moments of tragedy and heroism on those days, and they focus on the day 9/11,” said Cyrus Nowrasteh, the “Path to 9/11” writer and one of the miniseries’ producers. “Our movie is how we got there; the mistakes, the failures and the people on the ground who were warning us. No matter how you approach it going back to the first attack on the World Trade Center in ’93, we’re going to focus on touchy, sensitive areas.”

Instead of focusing on the heroic moments from the day, “Path” could have “benefited from some distance,” said Gerard Bocaccio, president of Silver Pictures Television, who called “Path” “fairly well-rendered and pretty straightforward about our failures.”

But Mr. Bocaccio noted he shied away from a number of 9/11-themed projects when he was an executive at cable network FX.

“The story is so important, so defining for our nation, that to create a composite character or truncate dialogue or posit someone said this or that, that’s really where the blowback came from,” he said.

Considering ABC announced its 9/11 project at the same time NBC announced its own rival project, Mr. Bocaccio wondered if the initial “run to the finish line” accelerated the project, even after NBC canceled its production.

“They deserved a slow bake in an environment of television that is `get it out there quick,”‘ Mr. Bocaccio said.

“Path” was not developed on the fly without network involvement, Mr. Nowrasteh said. “Quinn Taylor [ABC’s senior VP of motion pictures for television and miniseries] was involved at every stage, as he should have been,” he said. “It was his baby. He initiated it.”

ABC declined to comment for this report.

The “Path” controversy was the topic of much conversation last week with TV insiders of all stripes, including CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves. ABC’s decision to run the miniseries was a “tough call,” he said during an interview at a Hollywood Radio & Television Society luncheon Tuesday, noting that “networks have to be very, very careful, especially with something as sensitive as 9/11.”

CBS’s decision to not run the miniseries “The Reagans” in 2003 after receiving criticism that the story was not accurate is not an “apples-to-apples” comparison, Mr. Moonves said, but in terms of the two networks handling the situations, “we made one call, they made another.”

`Lasting Damage’

While any negative impact on ABC from the film “for now is over,” according to veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman, “it definitely has some lasting damage.”

In terms of ratings, “Path” does not seem to have been a drag on the network. The second part of the miniseries won ABC the night in adults 18 to 49 last Monday, and on Tuesday ABC premiered its reality show “Dancing With the Stars” to series-high numbers. And The Walt Disney Co. stock price was on the rise from Sept. 11 through the end of last week to more than $30 per share.

The ratings success didn’t impress the Democratic National Committee, one of the film’s more vocal critics before it was aired.

“America has now seen the film, parts were complete fabrication, and it’s a disgrace that ABC would try to pass off right-wing propaganda under the guise of poetic license,” a DNC spokeswoman said in a statement Thursday.

Sandy Berger, national security adviser to President Clinton, and Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeline Albright-who were both portrayed in “Path”-said the docudrama not only made up dialogue, but that some scenes totally misrepresented known details of what took place and conflicted with the 9/11 Commission’s own account.

An aide said Mr. Berger is sticking to his “We’ll see” answer about whether he will sue ABC over the docudrama’s claim that Osama bin Laden was surrounded by U.S. agents and Mr. Berger failed to act.

Both Mr. Berger and Ms. Albright complained to Disney-ABC CEO Robert Iger before the show aired. Mr. Berger’s aide said the complaint prompted a response from ABC, though not from Mr. Iger himself, but wouldn’t detail who wrote the letter or what it said.

If he could start the development and writing process over, “I would do it exactly like I did it,” Mr. Nowrasteh said of “Path,” noting that dramatic representations of some scenes were necessary to show the government had up to 13 chances to get Mr. bin Laden but failed to do so.

“The solution would be to do all 13, one after another,” he said.

It would be a “tragedy” if the “Path” experience scared off broadcasters from presenting fact-based dramas, Mr. Nowrastreh said.

But according to Mr. Bocaccio, that shouldn’t be a concern, as long as producers follow specific guidelines for overly emotional events concerning living principals who can challenge their portrayal on film.

“If we are going to do things that are seminal, or with people who are still living and breathing, we better get it right,” he said.

Ira Teinowitz contributed to this report.