Life Takes Starring Role on TV Screens Year's non-stop sensations gave mass audiences plenty of razzle-dazzle

December 30, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The Persian Gulf war and all those welcome-home parades and concerts. The Clarence Thomas hearings, with the all-night, for-and-against testimonials in the final hours. The William Kennedy Smith trial and the details of what allegedly happened between Smith and Patricia Bowman on a night in March in Palm Beach.

A large part of the year in television, 1991, involved real-life events experienced as TV spectacles -- the real presented as a non-stop parade of video sensations.

To understand what exactly is meant by spectacle, start by thinking of the bread and circuses Roman officials provided to placate the citizenry as the society was crumbling. Or think of parades -- ranging from those of medieval kings to May Day "festivities" in what used to be the Soviet Union. The key elements here are one group of people staging an event or presenting it with lots of razzle-dazzle and a mass audience sitting passively enthralled by what it is seeing.

Is there anything new about some of us relating to television this way?

We have long heard warnings about America becoming a "nation of spectators," though the warnings are usually linked to the fact that millions of us watch football games on TV instead of going out in the back yard and throwing a ball around on Sunday afternoons. Barry Levinson advanced the argument in his film, "Avalon," by showing a family watching holiday celebrations on TV instead of actually celebrating the holiday themselves at their family gatherings. That's not new.

But there does seem to be something different about the way some of us this year just sat and sat and sat in front of our TV sets while the Persian Gulf war played out for the first few months of the year. The term "CNN Syndrome" was coined to describe that kind of viewing, and the void some viewers felt in their lives after the war ended.

The TV presentation itself was full of razzle-dazzle: computer screens with images of smart bombs exploding, generals cracking wise like stand-up comics at daily briefings, reporters standing on rooftops as air raid sirens warned of incoming Scud missiles. It was easy to be mesmerized by all the action on the screen.

And then it was all wrapped in red, white and blue bunting and presented as a parade in Washington or an HBO concert in Norfolk with Whitney Houston singing. One network celebration was even produced by the same Roger Ailes who produced campaign commercials for Republican presidential candidates. Spectacle squared, and then cubed, straight through to the ABC made-for-TV movie this fall, "Heroes of Desert Storm," which blindly celebrated the administration's version of events.

The same held for some of the year's other notable news events. "Designing Women" has already done a show based on the Thomas hearings and the issues it raised; can the made-for-TV movie titled "Scandal in Palm Beach," based on the Smith trial, be far behind?

Television's presentation of these events and our reaction to that presentation need to be singled out from the mass of images that rolled non-stop across our TV screens this year. The events involved some of our most important institutions -- the military and the presidency, the judicial and legislative branches of government, the legal system.

Many of us feel more alienated than ever from government and such institutions. The depth of that alienation is indicated by declines in voter participation year after year. And yet, we watched TV coverage of events involving these institutions in record numbers in 1991. How can that be?

There are lots of possible answers. There's technology, for example. Cable TV networks stay with such stories non-stop, and thus we saw on CNN a 24-hour-a-day war as we never saw one before. Watching it was a different and more involving experience. It was much the same situation with the Smith trial on Court TV.

But, maybe, we've changed too. And, maybe, TV has helped that happen. Maybe we've come to relate to our government primarily as passive viewers, watching Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf or Sen. Joseph Biden or Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas perform in action-adventure, lawyer-drama or soap-opera story lines presented as spectacles. That didn't start in 1991, but it's playing a bigger part in the TV highlight reel each year.

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