The Not-Quite-So-Idiotic Box: Television’s Triumphant Return

Has any industry enjoyed a bigger post–Sept. 11 reprieve than

television? Just four months ago, television as we had known it was presumed to

be in its final lap, gray and limping-staggering-for the home stretch, soon to

be surpassed by delivery via the Internet, by broadband, by service on demand.

So certain we were of the medium’s imminent obsolescence that the very act of

watching TV the old-fashioned way-sitting down on the couch for the early

evening news or, heavens, a Thursday-night sitcom-had taken on an air of

ritualized retro-quaintness, like drawing a bath or listening to a record by

phonograph.

And then suddenly there we were, riveted, like we thought we’d

never be again. News, of course, was the catalyst. Had anyone thought they’d

see another moon walk, another television event that would match that 1963

bulletin from Dallas? Television felt as important as ever; the vaunted “shared

experience” had returned. It also was in better shape than expected: Today’s

networks and correspondents, considered vapid underachievers compared to their

forebears, managed to perform capably under trying circumstances. Stars

arose-Ashleigh Banfield of MSNBC, CNN’s Nick Robertson. Tribal elders were

reborn. Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings added to their sheen; Dan Rather, who had

angrily rattled through the Simpson-Lewinsky-Condit era like a newsroom version

of Marley’s ghost, seemed resurrected. Mr. Rather even got back to Afghanistan,

a triumphant bookend if he wants one. Of course, why hang them up now, when

work matters again, perhaps as much as ever?

A couple weeks back, Tim Russert had Jack Welch on his CNBC

program, and television’s reinvigoration came up. Mr. Welch, the former C.E.O. of

General Electric, the owner of NBC, had been a noted television hand-wringer:

He was someone who could remember Edward R. Murrow’s ashtray, and yet was

utterly convinced of the medium’s frailty. He had embraced the Internet, and

rumors were persistent that he would have sold NBC to someone for the right

price. And then there he was, three or so months after the attacks on New York

and Washington, rhapsodizing the cathode.

“Television has a real place. It brings-it tells a story in a way

nothing else does,” Mr. Welch said. “Now, obviously, the Internet’s going to

have an enormous impact on regular communications and on other things, but it

will become tied together. But you need the content, you need that to tell that

story. You need to let people feel the emotion of what’s happening when real

stories break. And that’s what television can do better than anything else.”

It wasn’t just him. Suddenly everyone wanted to be in the

television business again. And no element of business was reborn like news. A

few months previously, the debate had been over which network would be the

first to jettison its sagging evening newscast to cable; now network presidents

were blowing cash like sailors on leave, inflating budgets and dispatching

correspondents abroad as if they were carrier pigeons. Entire network missions

were scuttled-remember CNN’s peacetime plan to get jiggy and lighten up its

news coverage? AOL Time Warner chief executive Gerald Levin told CNN president

Walter Isaacson to stay the course and spend what it took; Islamabad,

apparently, was now as central to the corporate core as Harry Potter. The game

had changed midstream; amid an era of empty hype, an earnest new age of

seriousness dawned.

This is not to say that TV news is a changed beast. For the most

part it remains a loud, brutish, indelicate business, with far too much

inferior product. Even now, in the most complicated of news stories, it

continues to place great emphasis on the shrill quick hit-the “get”-and

stylistics (witness the ludicrous chest-thumping at the cable networks about

the “flag” chyrons on their screens) as opposed to thoughtful analysis. On

cable news in particular, there continues to be too much aimless chatter and

speculation; can we bear two more minutes of a paid network consultant on CNN,

MSNBC or Fox News blindly ruminating on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, or

the origin of the anthrax envelopes? In the absence of hard reportage, highly

nuanced issues are speedballed into black-and-white-or worse, into us-versus-them

jingoism. It’s not surprising that as the bombing in Afghanistan progressed,

some viewers took refuge in the measured, noncommittal tones of BBC Television.

Still, television-the medium-is unquestionably more vital than it

was just a few short months ago. Entertainment-wise, it made a distinct swing

toward sobriety. Not long ago, television appeared to be sinking fast into the

mire of reality-tainment;  it seemed

only a matter of time before we were going to be gazing at the kind of brazen

stunts you see in other countries-people licking frosting off of each other’s

privates, cruelty to animals, etc. But while the nastiest of the U.S. shock

shows, NBC’s Fear Factor , continues

to prosper-look for a fat rating early next month, when NBC schedules it

against Fox’s Super Bowl half-time show-the edge seems to be off the mania for

verisimilitude. Survivor, now in its

third campaign, has begun to skid; Lost got

lost; The Amazing Race proved to be

less than advertised. Another much-anticipated reality series, The Runner -from pretty boys Matt Damon

and Ben Affleck, in which viewers would track mystery fugitives across the

country for cash-was deemed inappropriate post–Sept. 11 and yanked altogether.

Elsewhere, ratings for Smackdown, the

UPN’s skeezy pro-wrestling fest, have ebbed, and game shows have also plunged. ABC appears to have finally

strangled its golden goose with Who Wants

to Be a Millionaire ; after deluging the nation with four episodes a week in

2000, and two a week this fall, the network isn’t promising a returning Regis

in 2002.

Where were the eyeballs going? Well, to the news, of course. But

viewers also began to opt for sturdier, more reliable entertainment fare-old

favorites, really-to comfort them in the final months of the year. Tributes to

Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball became surprise hits; this year’s World Series,

no doubt helped by a dramatic seven-game series between the Yankees and the

Diamondbacks, reversed a downward ratings trend for the event. (One other

surprise hit, a CBS tribute concert to Michael Jackson, was incorrectly put

into this comfort-food category; that was more of a freak show than Fear Factor .)

It’s tough to tell whether this viewer appetite for cozy,

flannel-pajama’d fare is a temporary need or signals a return to simpler, more

straightforward tastes. Making any sort of broad judgment on viewer tastes has

been exceptionally hazardous lately. ABC gambled with Regis-mania, won briefly,

but shortchanged its other program development and now appears marooned; the

UPN similarly bonked its own head with wrestling; the WB nearly drowned itself

in a kiddie pool of teen-friendly fare. More than ever, networks must remain

nimble (though it’s probably wise not to get too nimble: NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker-he’s the man

who brought you “super-sized” episodes of Friends

to try and blunt the second season of Survivor- treats

his prime time line-up like a Chi-Chi’s taco bar, constantly tweaking, spicing

and cheesing up.)

Indeed, for all the clucking

about Gimmick TV over the past couple of seasons,  network entertainment divisions continue to be largely

risk-averse, middle-of-the-road operations. This conservatism is practiced in

the name of preserving numbers, of course: Faced with declining viewership, the

general network strategy has been to formulate shows that appeal to (read:

don’t offend) as many viewers as possible. If you ever want to irritate a

network entertainment executive, start yapping about the success of HBO’s

original programs; you’ll quickly be met with a terse explanation of why such

shows could never work on a broadcast network, since broadcast shows have to

appeal to a much broader spectrum-and plus, they can’t do all the swearing,

violence and nudity. HBO is for a niche crowd, they’ll tell you.

But there are ways to take a

niche crowd and make it work. Consider the cases of Bernie Mac and Emeril

Lagasse. Both of these men had independently established, promising niche

followings: Mr. Lagasse as a celebrity restaurateur and host of his own show on

the Food Network, Mr. Mac as a relentlessly touring stand-up comedian

highlighted in the concert film The

Original Kings of Comedy . Both men had sitcoms built around them-Mr.

Lagasse’s by NBC, Mr. Mac’s by Fox-and if you didn’t know either performer

terribly well, you’d probably guess they’d have an equal chance of survival.

(Actually, you’d probably give Mr. Lagasse the edge, since he was a proven TV

presence, and NBC seemed to be making a big deal about his show.)

But there was a critical difference in strategy. As NBC sought to

conform Mr. Lagasse to the standard sitcom template-surprise, surprise, he

played a guy with his own cooking show, hardy har-Mr. Mac and his producers

assembled a rather innovative single-camera show that played to the comedian’s

in-your-face dynamic (Mr. Mac spends a good deal of the half-hour addressing

the camera directly.) While the diluted-for-prime-time Emeril sank as executives struggled to revamp the show-an effort

hilariously lampooned by Saturday Night

Live’s Robert Smigel on his “TV Funhouse” cartoon-Bernie Mac embraced his

niche appeal and prospered. The Bernie

Mac Show is one of the surprise hits of the 2002 season.

Of course, Bernie Mac’s sitcom

is also about a family-he plays a character based on his real self, a comedian

raising a troubled sister’s three children. Unlike other hit comedies, which

often rollick around from jibe to cynical jibe, The Bernie Mac Show displays an unabashed, warm-hearted side. Mr.

Mac may threaten to beat one of his kids “till the white meat shows,” but most

times there’s also a tenderness to the program that seems brilliantly

appropriate, especially under current circumstances. Who would have thought it

six months ago, when TV seemed brain-dead, on life support, that the boldest

move in television would be to have a heart.