TV violence moves to the front burner of public interest THE YEAR 1993 IN REVIEW

December 26, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Prime-time news magazines multiplied like rabbits. David Letterman hopped off the late-night farm at NBC to the greener pastures of CBS.

Congress' idea of consumer rate relief arrived, and it was spelled i-n-c-r-e-a-s-e for almost half of all cable subscribers. And, instead of trying to straighten out the mess, the Federal Communications Commission, cable operators and various congressional sponsors of the bill spent the rest of the year pointing fingers at each other.

Bell Atlantic merged with TCI, and some reports made it sound as if we were all going to wake up tomorrow and find workmen in our living rooms laying down that information superhighway leading to 500 channels of guaranteed bliss and unimaginable interactive delights.

Those were the major TV stories this year in programming, government regulation, and business and technology. Each was large enough that it set off a chain reaction of other, smaller stories.

For example, the arrival of inexpensive network news magazines, such as NBC's "Now With Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw," meant the death of more costly hourlong dramas, such as NBC's "I'll Fly Away." Letterman's defection to CBS resulted in the "discovery" of Conan O'Brien, as well as the birth and death of Chevy Chase as a late-night TV talk-show host.

But one development in 1993 cut across all three continents on the TV landscape. And it could become the TV story of the decade.

It had been building for months, maybe years. But if you had to pick a moment when it found its way to the front burner of public interest, try May 3, when ABC aired Part 1 of a docudrama called "Starkweather: Murder in the Heartland," based on the 1958 killing spree in Nebraska by 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate.

The May "sweeps" made-for-TV movie was relentlessly, mind-numbingly violent. Worse, it made absolutely no attempt to redeem all the gunplay and death through psychological insight or sociological analysis.

"Murder in the Heartland" was nothing but four hours of two teens blowing away victim after victim with shotguns and then feeling nothing. It glamorized the kind of indifferent teen violence so many had come to deplore.

"Murder in the Heartland" was part of a particularly bloody network-programming lineup that received its worst reviews on Capitol Hill.

By the end of the month, hearings were convened in both the House and Senate to examine TV violence. Scenes from "Murder in the Heartland" were played and replayed in the hearing rooms, as the presidents of each the four major TV networks came before the committees to denounce their violent ways and promise reform.

On June 7, in direct response to those hearings, a press conference was held in Washington to announce the Citizens' Task Force on TV Violence. Participating groups include: the National Parent Teacher Association, the American Medical Association, the National Council of Churches, the Children's Defense Fund, the National Educational Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, to name just a few.

It is the largest and most prestigious TV-reform coalition ever assembled. Its members are convinced that TV violence is directly linked to antisocial behavior, especially in children and adolescents, and they are dedicated to change.

Their impact can be seen in the loud public debates that surrounded ABC's series "NYPD Blue" and MTV's "Beavis and Butt-head" this fall. But perhaps the best indication of their clout is that Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton in recent weeks have supported the coalition's position and promised a reduction in TV violence.

There are tough debates ahead for us on issues of TV content and censorship. But even as the communications megacorporations begin their great dance of merger and acquisition with the singular goal of controlling how TV programs are distributed, we can hope 1993 will be remembered as the year when thousands of viewers organized to change what flows over those channels.

YEAR ON TV

It was not a great year for TV programs. Can you name onstand-alone hit show from the 36 new ones that debuted this fall? Can you remember shows ever being axed faster than the likes of Glenn Frey's "South of Sunset," Bronson Pinchot's "The Trouble with Larry" or "The Paula Poundstone Show"?

As Pinchot's Cousin Balki used to say, "Don't be ridiculous."

Still, there were a few bright spots. Here they are, the 10 best new TV shows, limited-run series or made-for-TV movies in '93:

1. "The Late Show with David Letterman" (CBS). What late-night war? Letterman blew everyone away -- except in Baltimore. But that's another story.

2. "The John Larroquette Show" (NBC). Funny sitcom, brilliant metaphor for our multicultural future. Our what? Isn't it about a bus station?

3. "Barbarians at the Gate" (HBO). Lanced the excess of the '80s with wicked satire.

4. "Inspector Frost" (A&E). Most interesting TV detective since the old Columbo.

5. "Homicide" (NBC). You're just too good for network TV, Barry. Maybe you should have gone the sex and violence route of Steven Bochco.

6. The new, improved "Sesame Street" (PBS). Reinvented itself for another 25 years.

7. "Rod Stewart Unplugged" (MTV). A reason to believe in MTV.

8. "Healing and the Mind With Bill Moyers" (PBS). He can be a pedantic pain, but no one can use TV to point us toward our potential better.

9. "And the Band Played On" (HBO). Made AIDS real for millions of viewers.

10. "Prime Suspect II" (PBS). See Jane. See Jane bust the big boys' chops when they try to cut her legs out from under her.

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