Haiti Telethon’s a Mass Media Event

Friday fundraiser stands to make TV and Web history. The celebs, for once, are bringing everybody together…

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“Hope for Haiti” will be seemingly everywhere Friday – even China.

The earthquake victims relief fundraiser is being billed as the most “distributed” telethon in history, and stands to show the power of celebrity, television and the Internet – too often forces of the frivolous – to help a good cause.

MTV and George Clooney are spearheading the two-hour event, which will be shown on every major network, PBS, HBO, Comedy Central and BET, to name a few, and will stream live on YouTube, Hulu, AOL, Yahoo, MSN.com, among other sites. MTV’s networks alone reach 640 million homes around the world – including China. In addition, social media powerhouses Facebook, MySpace and Twitter have signed on to help steer donations.

The event has its roots, in among other places, Jerry Lewis’ annual MDA telethon, which still raises tens of millions annually. There also are echoes of George Harrison’s 1971 The Concert for Bangladesh, the first major example of rock stars joining to raise money for charity.

While legal entanglements tied up the proceeds for years, lessons of the Bangladesh effort were applied as the MTV era brought us Live Aid and “We are the World” in the 1980s. Sadly, tragedies of recent years – 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami disaster – have given the entertainment community practice in coming together quickly to raise money.

The Haiti relief effort comes as digital technology is increasing pervasive, with much of the fundraising so far Web- and text message-driven – even the White House-backed effort is collecting money online. The Red Cross has raised more than $24 million from text messages alone, reflecting not only people’s desire to help but their growing comfort with the payment method.

Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti Foundation also used text message donations to great effect before questions about the charity were raised by The Smoking Gun website. Jean, who returned to his native country to help after the earthquake, took to YouTube to deny anything  amiss, and followed up with a more traditional news conference to defend the foundation.

Jean will co-host of Friday’s telethon from New York, along with Clooney in Los Angeles and Bono, the king of the celebrity do-gooders, in London, while CNN’s Anderson Cooper reports from Haiti. The proverbial all-star line-up of performers is set to include Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys.

On Saturday, iTunes will offer downloads of the various performances for 99 cents, with proceeds going to the telethon’s charities, which include Oxfam America, Partners in Health, the Red Cross, UNICEF, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund and United Nations World Food Program and Jean’s charity.

Friday night is generally a slow time in TV land. But the combination of multiple media, big stars and a worthy cause offers a rare opportunity in an increasingly segmented media world for a worldwide shared viewing experience.

The only mass audiences these days, at least in the U.S., usually are drawn by “American Idol,” the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards – probably the only other time this year we’ll see that many stars on the same show.

The telethon airs, of course, as the Hollywood awards season is getting into full swing. We’ll no doubt soon be back to the usual celebrity excess and self-important silliness.

But for at least one night, a shared concern about the earthquake that ripped Haiti apart will provide an opportunity to bring the much of the world together and do some good.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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