Originally created 12/30/98

TV deaths linger as old year dies



NEW YORK -- Bobby Simone died in November -- heart trouble -- and broke the heart of every "NYPD Blue" fan. "Seinfeld," after suffering a painful decline in funniness, offed itself last May.

Calista Flockhart looked like she was starving herself to death, even as the "Ally McBeal" star denied reports of anorexia. And ABC's "Good Morning America" seemed ever closer to flatlining, as the once-dominant wakeup program continued to be clobbered by NBC's "Today."

Meanwhile, TV was showcasing real-life carnage. Viewers watched bombs pound downtown Baghdad right as it happened. "60 Minutes" aired a video provided by Dr. Jack Kevorkian that seemed to document a terminally ill patient's demise from drugs "Dr. Death" was administering.

Those are just a few memories of 1998 as TV pictured it: Hazardous to someone's health.

Even yours. That is, if you watched Jerry Springer, who enjoyed a virulently prosperous year. Or Howard Stern, who grossed out anyone tuning to his new TV edition.

Or Barbara Walters. With the success of her latest endeavor, ABC's weekday "The View," she solidified her reign as the queen of news-as-celebrity-worship. That's a toxin Walters helped create -- which, in turn, created her.

Only Walters is celebrity enough to have landed Monica Lewinsky for her first TV interview. Walters is also celebrity enough to be interviewed about an interview that hasn't taken place (it is scheduled for early 1999). Disclosing for TV Guide readers a pre-interview session with the former First Intern, Walters confides, "I told her, `You are very alive."'

Too true. It was Monica's very aliveness combined with President Clinton's very aliveness that gave life to the story that wouldn't die.

As if you needed reminding, 1998 began with unearthed video of Lewinsky flirting with the president, and it ended with gavel-to-gavel coverage of Clinton's impeachment.

In between, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the scandal accounted for 1,502 stories, consuming just under 43 hours of air time. And that reflects only the three networks' half-hour evening newscasts, up through Dec. 15.

The 43 hours doesn't measure newsmagazine stories or special coverage. Or the cable news channels: MSNBC in particular seemed hellbent on cramming at least 43 hours of Monica into every 42 hours it broadcast.

Not that you minded, if you were honest with yourself. You who could set aside your civic dismay and righteous indignation binged on the story's multiplying guilty pleasures. A story this good could make you go, "O.J. who?"

If only TV still knew how to attract viewers without a squalid assist from the White House.

The major broadcast networks are the only TV outlets that have ever been able to rally a mass audience for entertainment series. But the renewal rate for last season's crop was the lowest on record, and now in 1998-99, the networks' freshman class has failed once again to generate a breakout hit.

Cable alternatives continue to siphon off viewers. The 4-year-old "boutique network," the WB, skims the demographic cream: teens and young adults. The old-line, mainstream networks watch their audience's further erosion. Since the new season began, three of six networks lost or fired their programming chiefs. Their replacements came from cable and the WB.

The New York Times' Frank Rich recently referred to the "accelerating collapse" of the broadcast networks, "until now the single most constant power in American cultural life since World War II."

As networks struggle to find new series with old-time mass appeal, what they end up broadcasting is their own indecision, fear, even lack of resolve. What you see then seems to shrink before your eyes, with no hope of recovery -- at least, not in any form you now recognize.

According to December's Wired magazine, NBC "has conceded that television is not dying, but dead.

"Alone in the industry, NBC has staked its entire future on convergence -- on the assumption that unlimited choices in entertainment, information and transactions, in video, audio and text, are moving inexorably onto a single home appliance ...."

But that's next year, or the next, or the next, if ever. Right now, NBC has no "Seinfeld," nor does anybody else. Viewer, is that the death rattle you hear? Or just a New Year's noisemaker?