CBS "9/11" documentary draws big ratings
Mar 11 2002 4:01PM
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The CBS telecast of "9/11," a documentary account of the World Trade Center attacks from the perspective of firefighters on the scene, drew nearly 39 million viewers, making it the most watched non-sports program this season, early ratings showed Monday.
A full third of all households whose TV sets were turned on during the two-hour broadcast Sunday night tuned in to the special, which aired on the eve of the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Hosted by actor Robert De Niro, "9/11" was compiled from footage shot by French filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet from inside the north tower of the trade center after it was struck by the first of two hijacked airliners, and from scenes of chaos and terror outside.
The program was shown without commercial interruption, except for public service messages from sponsor Nextel Communications and from U.S. homeland defense chief Tom Ridge.
Preliminary figures from Nielsen showed the program drew an average audience of 38.98 million viewers, more than have watched any non-sports broadcast in prime time so far this season. By comparison, the Super Bowl pro football championship last month averaged 86.8 million viewers, and the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City drew 46 million. Nearly 32 million viewers tuned in to the season premiere of "Friends" on NBC.
The Naudet brothers who shot "9/11" had been making a documentary about a rookie fireman and other members of the New York Fire Department's Engine 7, Ladder 1.
The morning of Sept. 11, Jules Gedeon rode along with firefighters on a routine call to a reported gas leak blocks away from the Trade Center when he captured the only known footage of the first plane plunging into the north tower.
He then rushed with the first group of firefighters to the scene and continued to roll tape inside the lobby, while his brother shot scenes on the surrounding streets.
The documentary contained rough language that CBS aired unedited, but no footage of actual deaths or carnage was shown. A CBS executive said the network had made the decision not to show "gruesome, unkind or difficult" images.
But the program had no shortage of gripping moments, notably the off-screen sounds of bodies of those who had jumped from the towers slamming into the pavement outside the lobby. The film showed the faces of veteran firefighters, normally stoic, but on this day experiencing almost overwhelming bewilderment at the devastation unfolding around them.
Some 3,000 people -- more than 10 percent of whom were firefighters -- were killed in the attacks and subsequent collapse of the towers.
Some victims' family groups and politicians recently wrote to CBS urging the network to exercise sensitivity in airing the documentary and expressing concerns that graphic footage might prove especially disturbing to survivors.
CBS executives said other family members acknowledged the documentary would be hard to watch but said they felt it was important that it be aired because of its historical significance.
"We've done everything we can to produce the show with the greatest respect for the event and the people who died, as well as for those who survived," a CBS executive said.