Reality overwhelmed entertainment in 1991

December 30, 1991|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

THINK BACK a year ago. As 1990 drew to a close, chances are, unless you were a close follower of America's military affairs, you had never heard of Norman Schwarzkopf.

Only those who kept tabs on conservative judges recognized the name Clarence Thomas. And outside of the University of Oklahoma Law School, Anita Hill had zero name recognition.

You had to be a Kennedy buff to know that there was a William Smith with that famous name in the middle. And you had to hang out at the right places in Palm Beach to know Patricia Bowman, our lady of the blob.

Now, of course, these are some of the most recognizable faces in our country. After the success of Desert Storm, Schwarzkopf started making so many public appearances at Disney outlets it looked as if he were Mickey Mouse's new best friend. Clarence Thomas and spouse wound up on the cover of People magazine.

These were the television stars of 1991. Schwarzkopf was on his way to being a successful general, but hardly a superstar, when he gave the now famous "Mother of All Briefings" as the ground war in Iraq wound down.

Here was a classic American hero. He was John Wayne and Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper all rolled into one Willard Scott-size figure.

He was tough, giving the enemy no quarter, representing a country that has grown increasingly soft and fat and out of shape. He was compassionate, willing to shed a tear for his troops' sacrifices, in a country that at once desired to feel that emotion but felt embarrassed by it. Above all, he was competent in a country desperately trying to prove that it can work as well as the rest of the industrialized world.

And, like Scott, he was telegenic, a natural for the tube. That briefing stamped his image into the American consciousness. Huge book deals and a lucrative tour on the lecture circuit soon followed.

Now, while there is hardly an American alive who doesn't know Schwarzkopf and Thomas and Hill and Smith and Bowman (or at least recognize her blue blob), plenty haven't heard of Tim Allen.

Who?

Tim Allen. He's the stand-up comedian who's the star of the hottest new show of the current TV season. That would be "Home Improvement."

So, maybe you have seen it. It's on Tuesday nights, right before "Roseanne." But have you heard anyone talking about it? Certainly not in the way they talked about Schwarzkopf and Thomas and Hill and company.

Television in 1991 was dominated by reality. It still is primarily an entertainment medium, but reality was providing a lot of the entertainment, whether it was the titillating details of Smith's account of his night on the beach or the cop-show-come-to-life brutality of Rodney King's videotaped beating.

Moreover, the entertainment part of television is getting more and more segmented, the inevitable result of cable's multi-channel environment. The kids have a channel, the teens have a channel, the moms have a channel, the dads have a channel, the young, single, disco-dancers have a channel, the retirees have a channel.

It's almost impossible for an entertainment program to have a large impact on the American consciousness because, inevitably, so much of America will not be conscious of its existence.

By contrast, news events cut across this diverse television spectrum. The networks cover them, CNN covers them, PBS covers them, C-SPAN covers them, Court-TV covers them. They are reported at all hours of the day and night, unlike an entertainment show that appears once a week at a certain time. One way or the other you're going to be aware of them. And a war, or a trial or a hearing has an immediacy that is lacking in the I'll-tape-it-and-watch-it-later environment of entertainment programming.

The networks, because they were the big winners in the previous environment, have the most to lose in the new one. And they are losing it in the form of a dwindling share of the audience. They still have much, much, much larger audiences than any of the cable channels, but every one of those channels has done its share of damage. They are Lilliputians who are financially tying up the Gulliver-like networks.

This past year, the networks reacted to their peril with predictable shortsightedness. They hunkered down, canceling such daring shows as "thirtysomething," "China Beach," "Shannon's Deal" and "Twin Peaks" in favor of a conservative spate of retreads.

The interesting new shows -- "I'll Fly Away," "Brooklyn Bridge," "Eerie, Indiana" -- were given tough time slots, while the more lucrative locations went to mundane programs starring the likes of Robert Guillaume, the late Redd Foxx and James Garner.

And the networks continued their attempts to capture the public's interest in reality and put it in a series as the quasi-reality shows continued to sprout like weeds.

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