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America, get ready for ‘Category 7’

Disaster flick depicts a massive ‘superstorm’ that decimates the country
/ Source: Reuters

The mother of all hurricanes is brewing on CBS as the nation’s most watched TV network prepares to broadcast its mini-series “Category 7: The End of the World” during one of the most devastating Atlantic storm seasons on record.

The two-part movie airs Nov. 6 and Nov. 13, a little more than two months after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and left as many as 1 million people homeless along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

A blowout disaster movie, “Category 7” depicts a series of massive cyclones ravaging a swathe of the United States from Las Vegas to Chicago, ripping apart the Eiffel Tower in Paris and decimating the Great Pyramids of Egypt.

The hurricanes then threaten to converge into a single apocalyptic Category 7-strength storm over the United States. A newly appointed Federal Emergency Management Agency director, played by Gina Gershon, scrambles to forecast the furies of the unprecedented “superstorm”.

The movie, a sequel to last year’s “Category 6” catastrophe flick, was conceived by CBS well before real-life disaster struck home with Katrina on Aug. 29. But the Viacom Inc.-owned network stuck with plans to air its mini-series during the key November “sweeps,” a monthlong Nielsen survey when broadcasters go all out to boost the ratings used by local stations to sell advertising.

“When Katrina struck we sat down and we talked about the timing of airing it,” CBS spokesman Chris Ender said. In the end, network executives decided viewers would see the film for the escapist entertainment it was meant to be, he said.

“When you see the Eiffel Tower being blown over, people understand this is an over-the-top popcorn adventure,” he said. ”This isn’t about anybody trying to take advantage of recent events in which so many people suffered.”

CBS is not the only network dealing with disaster-themed programs in the aftermath of the real thing. Rival ABC, owned by the Walt Disney Co. , temporarily pulled promos for its new drama series “Invasion,” which centers on strange events in a small Florida town hit by a hurricane.

Fictional FEMABut viewers may find eerie parallels between the fictional FEMA response in “Category 7” and the true story of government agencies that found themselves unprepared and overwhelmed when Katrina struck.

The movie also touches on related hot-button themes, from questions about the role of the U.S. energy industry in causing global warming to the wiles of an evangelical leader capitalizing on public fears to expand his flock.

“The fact these shows are airing while hurricane season is still going on seems insensitive, but on another level it’s what gives them juice,” said Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television.

“Now when you see the promos for ‘Category 7,’ everybody knows what that title means, everyone knows what FEMA is.”

Hollywood has long juggled concerns about good taste and sensitivity with commercial imperatives in deciding how long to wait after a disaster to air programs with a similar theme, or to reference actual calamities in entertainment.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on America, movie studios and TV networks bent over backward to avoid terror-themed subject matter, though a handful of TV shows aired special episodes incorporating 9/11 references.

Now four years later, filmmakers and television producers are clamoring to dramatize events surrounding the suicide hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people, with several features and made-for-TV projects in the works.

And to some extent, the public’s appetite for fictionalized disaster is fed by news coverage of real-life events, Thompson  said.

“The coverage we saw on Sept. 11, and in that first week of Katrina, not only won’t make this stuff go away, it ups the ante,” Thompson said. “You don’t want to just see the Hollywood sign fall, you want the Statue of Liberty along with it.”