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This is the year for mega-events to aid big causes

Nineteen-eighty-six is shaping up as the year of star-studded, fund- and consciousness-raising mega-events. ``Sport Aid'' will have famous runners on seven continents May 25 to raise money for African famine victims; ``Comic Relief'' will showcase comedians for America's homeless Mar. 29, as will ``Hands Across America'' by linking humans from Los Angeles to New York on May 25; ``The Concert That Counts'' will be broadcast to over 100 countries April 26 to heighten awareness of drug dangers.

But in trying to follow the model of last year's super-successful ``Live-Aid'' -- the global rock telecast that raised $50 million for African famine relief -- some of the clones and variations have registered only mini-success. Even last fall's ``Farm Aid'' fell far short of its goal, and this year's ``Great Peace March'' -- a nine- month cross-country walk for nuclear disarmament -- is stalled 100 miles from point of origin.

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Thus the new catch phrase, ``compassion fatigue,'' has already gone from vogue to established usage. And the mention of each new project is greeted by some skepticism as to the motives of both organizers and celebrity participants.

But behind these larger-than-life projects -- successful or not -- is more than an endless parade of ego at one extreme, or wholehearted commitment to a cause at the other, say sociologists. The very proliferation of mega-events underlines the trend toward a single world culture, born in an information society dominated by the video image. And in America, the huge projects are seen as a logical extension of '60s activism rekindled on a global scale with the increased savvy of mass marketing.

``One of the characteristics of an information society is that everybody -- network, newspaper, audience -- develops a short attention span that must be wowed immediately or lose interest,'' says Dr. Dennis Showalter, a cultural historian at Colorado College, who has studied popular culture and mass events. ``Therefore there is an overwhelming tendency to top what has been done before to attract the same amount of attention. If you start with hundreds of rock stars singing to three quarters of the globe, what are you going to do for an encore? So you have a thousand marchers stuck out in the Mojave Desert in late winter, freezing in their tents . . . .''

``The element of `bigger is better' is so much a part of the American way that the element of spectacle dominates, whether or not people will participate,'' says Paul Verden, a professor of sociology at Santa Clara University. ``The international flavor of the larger events adds to the spice so strongly that the TV viewer can have the feeling he is participating in history without having to leave his living room. He can feel good about his phone pledge of $10 and not move a muscle.''

Both Mr. Showalter and Mr. Verden feel that anything that brings people together in a positive spirit is probably a good thing. ``Young Americans are becoming more aware of the world as interdependent by making statements that are, in essence, non-political,'' says Verden. ``They see the need for cultures to get together and that the arts and music are sort of neutral turf to try and do that.''

Mr. Showalter sees the growth of mega-events as a natural pattern of imitation that he thinks will soon wane because of consumer burnout. ``It's only logical that what one might call entrepreneurial do-gooders would try to copy the same pattern [set by successes like ``Live-Aid'']. But with each succession of gimmicks and shticks that try to capture the imagination, organizers only get closer to the time where the next project will be too big to get off the drawing board,'' he says.

Both Verden and Showalter are quick to caution that the events now planned or underway are too big and varied for any blanket assessments of individual or collective motives to be accurate. Each is unique. Here is a update on five upcoming or ongoing events:

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Comic Relief. Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams will host a three-hour, live broadcast via the Home Box Office cable channel this Saturday. It will feature over 100 other performers, including George Carlin, Carl Reiner, Martin Mull, Steve Allen, and Sid Caesar. (A 90-minute version will be aired later, as well.) The idea is that of screenwriter/producer Bob Zmuda, and the format will include pleas for phone-in pledges to benefit America's homeless.

The Great Peace March. The original sponsors of this Los Angeles-to-Washington, D.C., demonstration for nuclear disarmament pulled out of the project March 14, unable to meet debts. A new corporation, the Great Peace March On Nuclear Disarmament Inc., was formed, and about 600 of the original 1,500 marchers vowed to continue. A thousand more were said to be ready to march, and organizers were making public pleas for contributions of supplies. Cimaron Productions Inc. in L.A. filed suit against the original sponsors, PRO-Peace, to recover $150,000 it gave for exclusive movie and televison rights to the march. At this writing, the marchers were stalled 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles awaiting supplies.

Hands Across America. Since the announcement Jan. 16 of this project, which aims to create a Los Angeles-to-New York chain of people with hands linked, publicity has been minimal, and stories have circulated about a rift between songwriter Lionel Richie and organizer Ken Kragen. But attention should be refocused on the event March 28, when organizers go public with the project's new song, originally intended to be released on Super Bowl Sunday. Marty Rogol, executive director of USA for Africa, says the number of companies participating is now 30, with 800 celebrities endorsing, but no numbers have been kept as to the needed six million participants for the serpentine line.

The Concert that Counts. Headliners on the list of 21 confirmed acts for the 11-hour anti-drug concert include Mr. Mister, John Denver, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown. Groups will either appear live or will contribute pre-taped performaces for an international telecast intended for 75 percent of the world's television sets.

Race Against Time. A Bob Geldof idea that has received more attention in Britain than the US so far, the project is jointly sponsored by UNICEF and Sport Aid, an umbrella of sports figures including Sebastian Coe. In the week preceding the first UN conference on Africa (May 26), a series of 10 kilometer races will be sponsored on as many as seven continents to raise money for African famine aid.

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