2003’s Last Belches: Michael Talks to Ed, Local Anchors Sleep Through Balldrop

2003’s Last Belches: Michael Talks to Ed, Local Anchors Sleep Through Balldrop

Wednesday, Dec. 31

It was the last belch in TV’s 2003 news cycle: Ed Bradley interviewing Michael Jackson for a soft-focus double-segment on the Sunday, Dec. 28, edition of 60 Minutes . After futile resistance, television’s most venerable 20th-century news program gave in to its own adversary: the tabloid superstory, the kind of thing which now courses through the veins of cable TV everywhere.

NYTV heard a voice. Was it undigested kugel? It was something a 60 Minutes producer told us last November:

” 60 Minutes is a haven where you can still respect the audience. You look at stuff like that Elizabeth Smart interview on Sunday”-the producer referred to Katie Couric’s Dateline NBC exclusive that aired on Oct. 26-“that’s embarrassing shit. And we don’t do that.”

That’s embarrassing shit. And we don’t do that … we don’t do that ….

Oh, well-roll the tape:

Michael Jackson : Once I went in the restroom, they locked me in there for like 45 minutes. There was doo-doo, feces thrown all over the walls, the floor, the ceiling. And it stunk so bad ….

Ed Bradley : For 45 minutes?

And it worked: An alleged child molester and known moonwalker divulging his personal indignities for blatant legal advantage improved the ratings of the newsmagazine that night, making 60 Minutes the highest-rated program of the week. It also made 2003 the year that Mr. Jackson-if not tabloid journalism itself-finally swallowed the last of the news business whole.

Of course, you can’t blame CBS News. After all, we would have taken the interview. And when was the last time you associated the word “dignity” with TV anyway? That’s Bill Moyers’ niche. In 2003, after the news business did its public duty in reporting the war in Iraq-and network TV did a damn fine job, we might add-it went right back on the roller-coaster, sucking up to celebrities and ogling true-crime scandals. While show business continued to roll out more reality-show flypaper to attract hot young bods, newsmagazines went to the trough to report on Ben and J. Lo appearing on Dateline NBC in an Access Hollywood special. In exchange, Washington, D.C., politicians got to meet George Clooney and be seen by all their friends on the HBO reality hybrid K Street . Now canceled, by the way.

All the while, the old guard at 60 Minutes grappled mightily with the imminent departure of 81-year-old founder and executive producer Don Hewitt, as the yearning to turn back the demographic clock reached a fever pitch. In the end, they Botoxed the show with a giant two-part porn exposé-a really smart one, to be sure-and a half-hour of Mr. Jackson.

But if there were any regrets over at West 57th Street, they could always find solace in the words of the woman who actually broke the Jackson story, Court TV diva and old tabloid hand Diane Dimond, who told NYTV earlier this year that tabloid journalism was inevitable. “It’s not something they should be ashamed of,” she said. “News isn’t news if nobody watches. If you get on the air and start boring people with a script that makes them fall asleep, what good is that?”

And that’s exactly where The Daily Show with Jon Stewart came in. When Mr. Stewart re-aired Fox News’ own unedited segment of Baghdad bombings set to a triumphant musical score at this year’s Emmy Awards, he showed how transparent and shameless the whole TV news enterprise can be-and he also made us laugh out loud, by the sheer act of point and smirk. As a result, he made himself a required supplement to mainstream news, giving context without tipping his hand. As for Saturday Night Live , it was surprisingly unfunny in 2003. It’s as if a built-in self-parody inoculated most celebrities and politicians against SNL ‘s form of irony, which every man, woman and child knows by heart. To wit: Ashton Kutcher on Punk’d was funnier than Justin Timberlake pretending to be Ashton Kutcher on Punk’d on SNL ; Al Sharpton was better in a CNBC Presidential debate than he was guest-hosting SNL . And even though SNL contortionist Darrell Hammond didn’t do an impersonation of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in 2003-as he told NYTV last October that he so wanted to do-it was O.K., because Howard Dean was a good Howard Dean in his own self-inflicted turn on K Street .

For years, TV has awaited its marriage to broadband, when interactivity would vacuum out the last vestiges of its one-way broadcasting monocultural legacy. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s almost there, and it’s as if the Web can’t wait to grab TV’s power. Forget Dr. Dean’s persona on those boring Democratic Presidential debates; he raked in cash and voters through sophisticated Friendster-like matrices on the Internet- that’s his persona. Or consider gossip-hustler Matt Drudge, who took the purloined script of a CBS biopic about Ronald Reagan and beat the living hell out of Les Moonves. Now that’s power! With a Web site.

Meanwhile, with the whims of 18-to-34-year-olds solidly at the helm of programming now, TV’s Webcam-ish reality fare is primed and ready for the big broadband plug-in, when the final boom will be lowered on anything that resembled TV as it was 20 years ago. That Paris Hilton’s Internet sex tape helped Fox sell Ms. Hilton’s tepid reality show The Simple Life was an extraordinary one-two punch of pure synergy that probably pointed the way to the future, as porn often does. In the future, for instance, we can cut and paste Ms. Hilton’s pants on and off at will, if that’s what we want.

It’s little wonder that NBC’s Bob Wright is buying up cable channels like so many Web domains, awaiting the day when people will click over to HBO/NBC/Bravo/Sci-Fi and program their own hybrid channel, for a fee, complete with built-in Web groups and blogs and instant-messaging and shopping. Think of the possibilities: We could form entire voting blocs around the fact that we think Tony Kushner’s six-hour HBO epic Angels in America is the most subversive, transcendent and hopeful thing on TV in years and years. It was powerful-and entertaining!

With that old Ed Sullivan–Archie Bunker–Bill Cosby network nirvana a faraway, fuzzy thing of yore, we’re breaking up into fan clubs. And the club for fans of three networks and a sense of national coherence is a small, lonely club indeed. As Sir Howard Stringer, chief executive of Sony and former head of CBS and CBS News, told the Observer in October, considering the fragmented, tabloidy future of TV news: “We don’t sit around the hearth and share the same thoughts any more, so it’s a perfect world for this kind of environment. Is something lost? Yes, I think taking your facts as presented and coming to your own conclusions felt like a healthier environment, but it’s a thing of the past.”

Tonight, Dick Clark, the last constant in American life, heralds the arrival of the future: Ten! Nine! Eight! … Dick, are you there? Whew! Seven! Six! Five …. [WABC, 7, 11:30 p.m.]

Thursday, Jan. 1

Which poor souls will have to get up this morning and report the news to all you stumbling, slurry revelers?

Over at WCBS, it’s Shon Gables, co-anchor of CBS 2 News This Morning . The woman hasn’t celebrated New Year’s Eve since 1995.

“It pretty much puts a damper on any fun,” she said. “Dick Clark and I have become pretty good friends-if I even stay up that long.”

To better serve you, the viewer, Ms. Gables will be in bed by 8 and wake up at the full-throttle party hour of 2 a.m. “I’m at the station by 3, and I’m in hair and makeup by 4 and on the air by 5,” she said. “If we’re lucky to have any viewers, we just hope they’re sober and they have a Nielsen meter and they’re watching.”

At WNBC, Rob Morrison will have the thankless task of being fill-in anchor for Today in New York .

“I had it off last year,” he said. But Mr. Morrison won’t be prevented from ringing in 2004. He figures that he doesn’t have to work again until Friday night, so you’ll see Mr. Morrison on about two hours’ sleep. “I’ll go to a party, stay until midnight, and then if I can get a couple of hours before Thursday morning, I should be O.K.”

Will he be imbibing?

“Maybe a glass of champagne, but that will be about it,” he said.

His counterpart over at Fox 5, Lyn Brown, said that she had a nice hybrid of the two plans: “My husband and I are having a party from 6 until 8, then I’m going to bed,” she said. “Usually what happens is, I go to bed and my husband will wake me up at midnight, we’ll watch the ball drop, say “Happy New Year,” kiss and go back to sleep. You know, you have to do what you can do.”

And with that, NYTV raises a toast to our hard-working local anchors: Happy New Year! And good night to Bill Beutel and Roger Grimsby, wherever you are! And Jim Jensen! And Chris Borgen! And Tom Snyder! And Bill Jorgensen! [WCBS, 2, 5 a.m.; WNBC, 4, 5 a.m.; Fox, 5, 6 a.m.]

Friday, Jan. 2

Regrets-you’ve had a few. Especially after last night’s … incident . Gosh, what are those crumbled dog biscuits doing in there? But this evening, you can wash all that away by unplugging the phone and flipping on the old Kurt ‘n’ Goldie classic, 1987’s Overboard . Don’t you like the scene where Ed Herrmann comes back? [TBS, 8, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, Jan. 3

If you can believe it, Nick at Nite has produced a pilot called Alf’s Hit Talk Show , which is slated to air sometime in 2004. Yeah, that Alf, the snouty muppet thingy who ate cats and spat out Catskill jokes back in the 1980s.

“We were pitching this for a while,” said Paul Fusco, Alf’s 50-year-old creator and voice. Mr. Fusco got over 7,000 Alf fans to sign a petition and save the character-and, subsequently, himself-from the indignities of 10-10-220 and 1-800-COLLECT commercials. Alf’s run on NBC ended in 1990, and Mr. Fusco been trying to revive him ever since. “We got a lot of near-bites, but nobody could really visualize it,” he said.

Comedian Drew Carey and actor Dennis Franz are the guests in the pilot. And get this: Johnny Carson’s former muppet, Ed McMahon, is the announcer. Alf’s Hit Talk Show hasn’t been scheduled yet, but Mr. Fusco said executives at Nickelodeon were “very excited about it.”

When pressed, Mr. Fusco wasn’t comfortable talking about whether Alf, otherwise known as Gordon Shumway, was currently residing in a closet or something. He said he lived in an apartment complex in L.A. “We don’t like to use the ‘P’ word,” he said, meaning, you know, puppet . But when pressed, he did let NYTV have a word with Alf.

“Alf, come here! Someone wants to talk to you!” he yelled, away from the receiver.

“Who is it?” a voice in the background said. Next thing we knew, Alf was on the phone. He wanted to know the circulation of The Observer .

“I think you should see a doctor-you’ve got poor circulation!” he said.

What happened to Willie, the Tanner family cat that Alf was always trying to eat?

“He was on The Norm Show for a while,” said Alf. “He’s working in a theater-I heard he’s an usher.” Alf started riffing: “The golden years are over for Willie. He’s at the Pasadena playhouse with Bernie Kopell.”

Alf said he liked science-fiction movies. “Anything with Angelina Jolie. She looks alien to me for some reason. She’s my type.”

We thought Alf was gay.

“I like women,” he said. “But I can’t find any woman who would date outside of her species. Although Julia Roberts did a couple of times, with that musician guy. I hope this talk show goes well. If these people don’t move quickly, I may have to take it somewhere else. By the time it airs, it’s going to be older than Mister Ed .”

He wanted to know if NYTV was going to review his show.

“If you give it a good review, there’s a fiver in it for you.”

That was enough. Mr. Fusco got back on the phone. It was kind of disturbing.

“It is disturbing,” said Mr. Fusco. For now, we still think of The Cosby Show as sophisticated late-night fare. [Nick, 6, 10 p.m.]

sunday, Jan. 4

Every Sunday night, it’s TV Land Legends: 60 Minutes Interviews . Now you can make your 60 Minutes night a whole 60 Minutes longer. Tonight, Mike Wallace interviews Larry King, Oct. 18, 1992. That’s 100 years of broadcast history in one interview. And that’s as of 1992! [TV Land, 85, 10 p.m.]

Tuesday, Jan. 6

If you missed the big New Year’s Eve countdown, VH1 has other countdowns. Tonight, 100 Hottest Hotties . With Mike Wallace and Larry King. [VH1, 19, 9 p.m.]