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Lessons learned from Katrina benefits

Millions raised, but the networks could have worked together better
/ Source: The Associated Press

While nearly $100 million was raised through televised benefits for Hurricane Katrina victims, the producer of the most prominent event believes more could have been done if networks had worked together.

Besides the “Shelter From the Storm” benefit shown on the six biggest broadcast networks and several cable networks Sept. 9, there were separate benefits run by NBC, BET, the MTV Networks, Madison Square Garden and CNN.

The networks (with the exception of CNN, which had no immediate count) said they raised an estimated $94.9 million for various Katrina charities. One of their prime beneficiaries was the American Red Cross, which said that $65 million of the $1.2 billion the organization raised after Katrina could be attributed to the televised appeal.

That stood in contrast to the $150 million raised by the single multi-network event, “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” that aired after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Joel Gallen, who produced the 2001 tribute, was asked to pull together “Shelter From the Storm” this time. This year’s event was seen on fewer networks, lasted one hour instead of two and raised one-fifth of what the 2001 tribute did.

Gallen said that was disappointing, and attributed it to the failure to work together.

“Certainly if somebody had asked me how I would have done it, I would have chosen to do it the way we had done it four years ago,” he said.

NBC networks host most successful event
The Matt Lauer-hosted NBC telethon on Sept. 2, which also aired on CNBC, MSNBC and Pax, was best known for rapper Kanye West’s remark that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” But since it was rapidly put together less than a week after the storm hit, the $40.6 million it raised for the Red Cross was more than any other single televised event.

(MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)

Sept. 2 was also the Red Cross’ single biggest day of donations, said Sarah Marchetti, a Red Cross spokeswoman.

“The sooner you do a telethon after the actual event, the more money you’re going to raise,” she said.

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CNN’s Larry King anchored a three-hour special that same night on CNN, which interspersed appeals for various charities with performances by Eric Clapton, Celine Dion and others.

The following weekend was clogged with events, some in direct competition: BET did its own telethon at the same time “Shelter” was on the air. Gallen said he originally thought BET would break to simulcast his concert, but it didn’t.

“We probably lost some viewers who wanted to go check it out,” said Debra Lee, BET president. “It was only an hour and it was really targeted to a different audience.”

BET’s feeling was that “the more (benefits), the merrier,” she said. BET, which said it raised $13 million in pledges to various charities including network founder Robert Johnson’s $1 million donation to the Red Cross, was interested in its own event because Katrina hit the Gulf Coast’s black community particularly hard, she said.

MTV Networks tried to reach a younger audience for its Sept. 10 event that raised $2.3 million. For the most part, the networks did completely different shows, although there was some crossover. Alicia Keys sang on the BET event after doing “Shelter.”

Concerts held on Sept. 20 at New York’s Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall were televised on pay per view and raised $9 million for various charities, organizers said.

Congress, meanwhile, has provided $62 billion in emergency relief, and Louisiana lawmakers have proposed another $250 billion in federal outlays.

The understated format that Gallen pioneered in 2001, with somber performances interspersed with celebrity appeals, risked rapidly becoming a cliche four years later. Gallen said that was his fear when he saw all the other events.

“I do believe that a lesson was learned here,” he said. “I hope that if, God forbid, we do this again, everyone will work together for a common vision.”