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Critical Mass Kids lose out, but adults get good drama; Television

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The season of joy has passed, and the more somber season of review is upon us. In arts and entertainment, 1996 was marked by many a going (Horn & Horn lunchroom, Shakespeare on Wheels, the announcement of David Zinman's departure) and an important staying (the Lucas Collection). Bad guys (Jack Valenti with his Hollywood-friendly TV ratings system) were as likely to make news as angels (John Travolta in "Michael"), and personalities (the Michael Jackson marriage saga) got more attention than performances (Alanis Morissette's best-selling album). Here's a closer look at the year's highlights and low lights, courtesy of The Sun's critics.

It was a good year for Rosie O'Donnell, Dennis Franz, Andre Braugher and Bill Cosby. But no television performer had as big an effect on the medium (present and future) in 1996 as computer wizard Bill Gates, Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti or President Bill Clinton.

The most important story this year took place in Washington, and the co-stars were Clinton and Valenti -- a very odd couple to be so concerned with television reform.

Clinton was running for re-election and had found a gold-plated family-values issue in his promise to help parents protect their kids from media messages they did not want entering their homes. But how to crack down on television without calling for government regulation, driving away traditional sources of Democratic campaign money in liberal Hollywood and looking more conservative than Bob Dole?

Enter Valenti, the man with the plan, president of the Motion Picture Association of America and the highest-paid lobbyist in Washington. Valenti became the highest-paid lobbyist by getting the motion picture industry out of a similar fix in the mid-1960s, when he devised the current self-regulated ratings system for films.

So, in February, the crown princes of the television industry came to the White House with Valenti and promised to have a ratings system ready to go by the end of the year if Clinton would ease up and get the rest of Washington off their backs. Clinton could take all the credit he wanted for the plan; all they wanted was complete control of devising and administering the system.

That's how the foxes got the keys to the henhouse in an election year, and that's why no one should have been surprised Dec. 19 when Valenti and the same princes of Television Land unveiled a ratings system based on age rather than content. It's a plan that a vast coalition of advocacy groups ranging from the PTA to Children Now immediately blasted as being nothing short of a sellout of America's parents.

(Lest anyone think I am being revisionist when I say that no one should be surprised, a Sun headline back on Feb. 21 asked, "Is the television industry really ready to monitor itself, or is Washington about to give Fox and the other networks the keys to the henhouse?" Another Sun headline on March 1 read, "Voluntary TV rating plan proposal criticized: Analysts question move as empty ploy to answer public outcry.")

The saga continues in 1997. The ratings system goes into effect this week, followed by two months for public comment at the Federal Communications Commission and what looks like a yearlong public-opinion battle directed at parents -- pitting the industry's age-based system against the advocates' calls for one that flags parents to sex, violence and coarse language on a show-by-show basis.

At stake is nothing less than whether we will control television or television will control us.

Parents, kids, Clinton and Washington regulators came together for another big story this year in July, when Clinton, threatening to order his FCC chief Reed Hundt to enforce the Children's Television Act of 1990, got broadcasters to agree to carry three hours of educational kids' programming a week.

There was White House talk of a "historic agreement" on this one, too. But, again, the watch is on to see if it will mean genuine reform or whether it is just another bit of blue smoke in an astonishing 45-year history of Hollywood coming to Washington and talking its way out of government regulation.

News views

Also making big news in July was Bill Gates and his Microsoft marriage with NBC to create MSNBC, a 24-hour, all-news cable channel. With the combined audience for network news now measured at only 42 percent of American adults (down from 60 percent in 1993), NBC finally gave up the game of denial and joined the chase to cable and the Internet in hopes of winning back and/or finding new audiences.

Fox, too, went to an all-news cable channel this year -- if you want to call it news. CBS also decided at long last to go cable in 1996. Its Eye on People channel will launch in the spring. For its part, ABC makes more money from part ownership of ESPN than it does from the network on an annual basis.

While MSNBC at this point is mainly an insult to the intelligence of Generation X with its often mindless chatter and calculated coffee-bar-and-computers motif, this was the year that network news moved full tilt into cable and cyberspace, suggesting a future when all media are on one screen and they are all still owned by the General Electrics.

High drama

As for what we saw on our screens this year, the level of weekly adult drama remained remarkably high. "NYPD Blue," "ER," "Homicide," "Chicago Hope," "Law & Order," "The X-Files" and "New York Undercover" really do deserve to be called "Television's Second Golden Age," as Robert Thompson, who teaches television at the University of Syracuse, collectively called them in a book of that title.

The series have created their own discourse on American life, allowing us to explore in a meaningful way everything from our feelings on race today to the "lone gunman theory" of what happened in Dallas in 1963.

Two of the most important performers in that regard are Dennis Franz and Andre Braugher, who made Andy Sipowicz and Frank Pembleton into so much more than the angry white and angry black males their characters might have become in less talented hands. Sipowicz, wrestling with deep-rooted feelings of racism, and Pembleton, battling just to remember how to spell pizza after his stroke, were transformed by these two actors into the stuff of the Hero Quest.

Finally, one of the most pleasant surprises of the year is the success of Rosie O'Donnell in daytime and Bill Cosby during what once was known as the Family Hour of prime time. "Cosby" wins its time period and regularly cracks Nielsen's Top 20 with a bigger audience than such established sitcoms as "The Drew Carey Show." "Rosie O'Donnell" is simply the hottest show on daytime television, shredding the likes of Jenny Jones and Geraldo Rivera.

Neither has been on long enough to spark any sort of overall

reverse in the long slide to sleaze in daytime and family-hour television. But both of these go-their-own-way performers prove you can be a ratings winner without sinking to the lowest common denominator.

TV's best

Mini-series: Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" on A&E;

Limited run series: Robbie Coltrane's "Cracker" on A&E;

Episode of a weekly series: Sipowicz uses the "n" word on ABC's "NYPD Blue"

Newcomer: Rosie O'Donnell on daytime television

Comeback: Bill Cosby in "Cosby" on CBS

Acting: Andre Braugher in NBC's "Homicide"

Writing: Chris Carter for "The X-Files" on Fox

Kids' programming: Still PBS' "Sesame Street" after all these years

Documentary: "Harlem Diary" on Discovery

Local production: "The Morgan Choir: A Silver Celebration" on MPT, with the Morgan State University Choir celebrating 25 years under the direction of Dr. Nathan Carter

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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