The Gulf War on TV -- ''Donahue'' and MTV respond quickly to cover the war in Iraq

The outbreak of war in the Middle East caused a swift reaction in the entertainment industry. Television and radio stations, movie studios, and production companies made dramatic shifts in programming that were designed to address — or capitalize on — the sudden national obsession.

TV was particularly quick to react to the drama. On talk shows early in the crisis,war was on everyone’s lips. Hours before the first bombs even fell, Phil Donahue replaced his usual format with a roundtable discussion by Senators Alfonse D’Amato (R.- N.Y.) and Paul Wellstone (D.-Minn.), and Representatives Barney Frank (D.- Mass.) and Robert G. Torricelli (D.-N.J.). Says Donahue producer Debby Harwick, ”We felt it was our obligation to educate our audience about the war.” And last Monday, Donahue held an open discussion with his audience on the topic of war. Larry King and Oprah Winfrey quickly followed suit. King interviewed the Iraqi ambassador to the U.N., and Winfrey brought on a child psychologist who discussed coping with war fears.

Even the breezier morning gab queens, Sally Jessy Raphael and Joan Rivers, altered their shows. Rivers draped the studio in yellow ribbons and cut all Iraq jokes from her opening monologue. ”At this point people don’t find Saddam Hussein very funny,” notes Rivers’ executive producer Larry Ferber. Raphael producer Burt Dubrow is brainstorming battle-related ideas for the future. ”If we do a wartime show, it would probably focus on women’s issues, like the wives at home,” he says.

Producers of sitcoms and TV specials are also eager to keep up with events. Variety reported that Designing Women, Under Cover, Major Dad, and A Different World all have or will feature episodes on the Gulf crisis. Radio and MTV meanwhile attempted to stay attuned to the country’s desire for peace.

During the first week of battle, the cable channel and most stations added a slew of antiwar songs and ’60s standbys (Marvin Gaye’s ”What’s Going On”) to their playlists. ”We feel like we have an obligation to be uplifting,” says Bill Richards, programming director for L.A.’s KIIS-FM. One of the most frequently played songs on radio and MTV was Give Peace A Chance, Sean Lennon’s remake of his father’s 1969 hit. MTV first aired the video version, which features Lenny Kravitz, Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt, and LL Cool J, on Jan. 15. By the next day, as war began, it was playing the song every hour on the hour (cassette and video versions from Virgin Records will hit stores on Jan. 28). A cursory survey of Top 40 stations indicates that George Michael’s melancholy ”Mothers Pride,” Bette Midler’s sentimental ”From a Distance,” and Ray Charles’ ”God Bless America” have been getting heavy airplay.

Those who want still more war coverage will be able to catch the sequel at the movies, thanks to quick rewrites on several action-adventure films currently in production. Producer Menachem Golan’s Desert Shield, starring Rob Lowe (which was to have been shot in Israel), now focuses on two Navy seals trying to destroy a missile site in Iraq; it formerly centered on military actions in an unidentified Middle Eastern country. Shield of Honor, starring David Carradine, deals with an Iraqi plot to destroy Israel (the film used to focus on Libyan bad guys). And Target USA features an Iraqi terrorist’s plot against the United States.

Any advantage in using the war as a marketing tool, however, remains to be seen. The conflict has produced no boon for such current releases as Sally Field’s Not Without My Daughter and Danny Glover’s Flight of the Intruder: Both have been disappointing at the box office. — Additional reporting by Barry Layne

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