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About that haircut ...

Who would have thought that a little haircut could cause such a big uproar?

Well, it did involve an actress (Keri Russell) who stars in a relatively high-profile television show ("Felicity," which is one of the WB's signature series). And it wasn't such a little haircut -- Russell went from long, flowing locks to something akin to the hairstyles effected by the male actors on the show.But still . . . The Haircut has been discussed at the highest levels of the network and is even being blamed, in part, for some of the ratings decline "Felicity" has experienced this season

"The e-mail alone was so overwhelmingly negative about that haircut," said WB Entertainment president Susanne Daniels. "Do I think it affected the show on some level? Yeah, I do -- however superficial that seems, unfortunately."

"It was so distinctive," said WB CEO Jamie Kellner. "It was part of what created the uniqueness, visually, and I think we cut off our distinctiveness a little bit."

For her part, Russell is more than a bit bemused and befuddled that her hairstyle has become a matter of such importance to so many.

"Yes, it's weird that it's such a big deal," she said.

And perhaps stranger still is the fact that it all began as a joke she played on the show's executive producers. Last summer, Russell sent J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves a picture of herself with extremely short hair -- even shorter than it ended up being when the fall season began. And she attached a note that said, "They say it will grow back by fall. I hope you don't mind. I'm having the best summer ever."

As it turns out, she was wearing a wig in the photo and she was hoping to throw the producers for a loop. "At the time, I just thought it was really funny," Russell said.

But she wasn't really expecting the reaction she got.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh!' " Abrams said. "And we just started talking about, 'Wait a minute -- what if she actually did that? Would Keri be open to it?' Obviously, Keri is beautiful enough to carry off being bald. It doesn't matter.

"But it was a question of -- would this character, who is so relatable because of that hair -- you could see her from a mile away and know it was Felicity -- would she survive that? It made me look at the character in a different way. In a weird way, it was a tough thing to do. But it sort of forced us to really evaluate who the character was as well."

In the show, Felicity had just gone through a break-up with a boyfriend when she decided to chop off her locks.

"It's something a sophomore girl would do after a break-up," Abrams said. And Russell agreed.

"I think it was a good idea," she said. "For the character, I think it was a brave, crazy, sudden, extreme thing to do. But those are things a girl in college might do. I think it was quite appropriate."

And she said it was much the same for her -- that it moved her out of a "comfort zone."

"Definitely, that long hair was how I was identified," Russell said. "It's nice to move in and out of that and try new things. It was really good and liberating for me in a lot of ways."

But then came the anti-haircut backlash from fans of the show. And the lower ratings. (Although, to be fair, those may have had more to do with the series moving to a tough Sunday time slot than anything else.)

"The network said, 'OK, go ahead and do it,' but it was a risky thing," Abrams said. "Did it pay off because our ratings are huge? No."

The network executives weren't surprised that Russell cut her hair -- the idea was run past them before it took place and they made no move to stop it. But they were surprised at the overwhelmingly negative reaction to it.

And both Daniels and Kellner accepted some of the blame for hair-gate, agreeing that they, too, had made a mistake by not preventing it. "We're not blaming the producers," Kellner said.

But they are, nonetheless, determined that nothing like this will happen again.

"Nobody is cutting their hair again on our network and our staff," Daniels joked. "That's my new stance. No more haircuts!"

What's surreal is that high-level meetings have taken place within the network and the studio that produces the show (Disney-owned Touchstone) about Russell and her hair.

Daniels discussed the hair problem with the actress herself, and Russell was somewhat nonplussed by it all.

"It will grow back, Susanne," she told the network programmer. And viewers can expect to see it get longer in upcoming episodes.

"We did talk about extensions," Daniels said.

Not that this is anything unique to "Felicity," the WB or network television in general.

"I've worked at two other networks," Daniels said. "We don't do it more than the other networks. Every single network focuses on and cares about who their actors are and what they look like. It's just part of the business."

And it's not just the networks -- some producers are absolutely notorious for their attention to every detail of their stars' appearance.

"You can't touch a hair on your head if you work for Aaron (Spelling) without him supervising," Kellner said.

"I think, most of the time, the producers deal with it directly," Daniels said. "That's not something, actually, as network executives we tend to deal with -- unless we see a problem." "It's getting longer," Russell said a bit forlornly.