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Independence show is ‘news,’ ABC says

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NEW YORK — Perhaps the program note slipped by with little notice because blurred lines between news and entertainment have become commonplace.

Tonight, ABC televises an hourlong, patriotic special with Mel Gibson, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Whoopi Goldberg and others reading excerpts from the Declaration of Independence. Garth Brooks will sing. Fireworks will bring everything to a booming conclusion.

All brought to you live from Philadelphia . . . by ABC News.

"What this is about is the ultimate reality TV," said executive producer Tom Yellin, drumming up enthusiasm like a seasoned Hollywood pro.

He's not, though. He's a newsman. This week, he's a newsman collaborating with veteran sitcom producer Norman Lear on a staged event with movie stars and a country singer.

Any news that breaks out here will be strictly accidental.

"Independence Day 2001" is just the latest reminder of how often broadcast news seems like just another revenue-producing arm of a network's entertainment division.

Morning news shows double as concert promoters and bridal advisers or, in the case of CBS, the daytime tout sheet for "Survivor." "Dateline NBC" airs murder mysteries like pulp novels where readers can choose what chapter to read next. ABC News has packaged its impressive "Hopkins 24/7" series into a video consumers can buy, just like a movie.

ABC, of course, was where actor Leonardo DiCaprio snagged a part-time role as a journalist interviewing President Clinton.

Andrew Tyndall, who runs a company that catalogues the content of network news programs, verbally shrugged when asked if it seemed ABC's July 4th special was an unusual project for a news division.

Not if you look at what most morning news programs air, he said. Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer, the co-hosts of "Good Morning America," should have little trouble shifting from last week's 24-hour karaoke marathon into their roles as hosts of the Independence Day special.

The show echoes last year's round-the-clock New Year's coverage, and the same production team is involved. The millennium special mixed entertainment and on-site reporting to mark a moment in history.

"The best thing that they've done in the last two years is the millennium special," Tyndall said. "This is a scaled-down, cheap version of that."

ABC considered whether its news or entertainment division should put on the July 4th special, Yellin said.

"What makes it an ABC News show from our point of view was that this was something that was happening whether we were there or not," he said. "Technically speaking, we're covering an event that is occurring."

Philadelphia annually celebrates the Declaration of Independence but this year, for the document's 225th anniversary, political activist Lear decided to get involved. He recently purchased an original copy of the Declaration and intends to make a movie about it, and approached ABC with the idea.

"Part of the goal of the organizers is to reawaken an appreciation for the founding principles of democracy," Yellin said. Yellin doesn't buy the notion that an event like this softens the reputation of a news division. All media, including newspapers, evolve with the times, he said.

Besides, he said, few documents say more about what the United States of America stands for than the Declaration of Independence.