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Nets need a disaster plan.

THE ABC SERIES "Invasion" premieres this week, featuring a hurricane that wreaks havoc in a fictional Florida town as the apparent first wave in an alien infiltration. And somehow, despite the proximity to real-life events, the republic will continue to stand.

The reality-intrudes-on-fiction dynamic is quite familiar by now, having occasionally helped ("The China Syndrome") and sometimes hurt ("Collateral Damage") the commercial fortunes of movies and TV shows that uncomfortably overlapped the nightly news. What's strange, frankly, is why networks and studios always seem caught off guard, as if no fabricated disaster ever ran afoul of a real one before.

Rather, the showbiz community frequently behaves defensively, as if nobody considered the possibility of a real storm hitting when the networks schedule a movie about hurricanes in the midst of hurricane season. With this kind of preparation, one might think the federal government was involved.

Whatever the explanation, given all the mayhem on the networks' upcoming lineups it's time to draft some kind of orchestrated response--one that makes more sense than shelving projects at the last minute (as the Hallmark Channel did with its movie "Landslide"), yanking on-air promos (as ABC did on "Invasion") or postponing movie release dates (though Warner Bros. cited f/x delays as the principal reason for pushing the terrorism-related "V for Vendetta" to next spring).

The key point to convey is that there's no ill intent or callousness in presenting such fare, and my guess is that the public genuinely gets this. After all, it's their morbid appetite for make-believe death and destruction that has made these productions so viable.

CBS, for example, aired a goofy hurricane disaster last year, "Category 6: Day of Destruction," which the network will follow in November with "Category 7: The End of the World." And if that attracts nearly 20 million viewers, as its did expect "Category 8 but Your Frigg Survive This One sometime next fall.

Californians don't know much ab hurricanes, but NBC successfully mined fear of earthquakes with its sweeps melodrama "10.5,"

whose high ratings spawned the upcoming sequel "10.5: Apocalypse." (As in "This Is Spinal Tap," apparently the Richter scale won't go up to 11.)

Having lived through a half-dozen major temblors, I can speak first hand about the insensitivity of the subject matter. Indeed, at the end of the original "10.5," a swath that I'm pretty sure included my house had been dumped into the ocean as part of California's reshaped coastline.

NBC is no doubt readying its next exercise in moving and shaking for fun and profit, "10.5: Take Your 'Housing Bubble' and Shove It."

The fidgety reaction of ABC to Hurricane Katrina would be easier to understand if this script hadn't played out when the Sept. 11 attacks happened shortly before three spy-themed programs--ABC's "Alias," Fox's "24" and CBS' since-departed "The Agency"--were set to make their debuts. The fact that "Invasion" and "The Agency" both come from producer Shaun Cassidy invites the question of whether he is prescient or slightly snake-bitten, perhaps being punished by some higher power for all those hours we spent humming "Da Doo Ron Ron."

Those unsettling weeks after 9/11 came and went, and "24" and "Alias" are still here, bringing us the threat of wholesale slaughter--as much a part of life as the regiment of cop shows that inevitably presage some appalling crime.

What this requires, then, is a form response that can be quickly amended whenever something unfortunate transpires--one with a bit more conviction and compassion than the customary "So-and-so is leaving to pursue independent production" press release.

"The producers wish to convey their sympathies to all those who have suffered due to the natural disaster/act of barbarism/alien invasion," the statement would read. "Our production was initiated before these recent events and is meant to be enjoyed strictly as a work of fiction. If it is painful or uncomfortable for anyone to see these scenarios acted out, we urge them not to watch, and to exercise discretion in letting their children watch."

In an age where news of inexplicable acts of God and man arrive at unprecedented speed, beaming horrifying pictures from any corner of the globe into living rooms, a disclaimer is about the best anyone can hope to serve, short of recasting every menace to humanity as a siege against mythical lands occupied by hobbits and elves.

However peculiar it sounds, occasionally we need a little mayhem and disaster to take our minds off all the mayhem and disaster.

And if that answer doesn't work, the biz can always stage another telethon.
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Title Annotation:TUNING IN; death and destruction productions on TV
Author:Lowry, Brian
Publication:Variety
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 19, 2005
Words:766
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