Disney is now unquestionably the principal storyteller of American life.
The corporation built on the animated image of a talking mouse has long been a Scheherazade of fables, fairy tales and myths containing the core values of our overly commercialized national culture.
But with its takeover of ABC this year, Disney's audience has increased exponentially, and Disney-ABC is now teaching its values to tens of millions of viewers sitting in front of their television sets every night. On Friday nights alone, the audience for ABC's T.G.I.F. lineup -- which starts with "Family [See TV, 8K] Matters" and extends through "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" -- is 20 million viewers under the age of 16.
The Disney-ABC takeover has been mainly reported as a business story. Even in that limited sense, it is probably still the television story of the year -- taken with other mega-mergers and takeovers like Westinghouse-CBS.
But the impact such business developments in the media are having on our culture is the big, big story. For example, already we are starting to see what academics call a paradigm shift in the business of network news as a result of the Disney-ABC takeover.
Since their earliest days, the main business of network news divisions had been their nightly newscasts. But when the first wave of corporate owners took control of the networks in the mid-1980s -- Capital Cities at ABC, Laurence Tisch at CBS, General Electric at NBC -- a more profitable way of doing news was demanded. As a result, the main business of network news divisions became their prime-time newsmagazines, like "Dateline NBC."
Now the even-bigger corporations, like Disney, believe they have yet a better way to make money with television news -- and ABC and NBC say they will put all their resources behind the launch of 24-hour cable news channel this year to compete with CNN.
We'll have to wait to see what effect this change will have on the kind of information and images we get from our television sets. But if the shift to newsmagazines is any indication, the end result probably isn't going to be a better-informed citizenry.
If that seems downbeat, so be it. Any way you slice it, 1995 has not been a great year for television viewers. There has been more loss than gain, more flops than hits.
The biggest loss. At the network level, take your pick. Mine is the cancellation of "My So-Called Life" in the spring by ABC. I still mourn the silencing of the rare girl-coming-of-age voice heard from Angela Chase (Claire Danes). Adolescent girls learn what's possible in their lives, in part, from television. The range of role models and options they are now offered in prime time is a disgrace.
I also still miss Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), who left "Northern Exposure" last spring before the cancellation of the series by CBS. But that's a more personal or subjective call.
On the local level, the death of anchorman Al Sanders made for a huge loss not just at the WJZ anchor desk, but also within the community of thousands of viewers who had counted on Baltimore's Walter Cronkite to give them the news of the day.
Sanders' replacement, Vic Carter, joins WJZ's lineup starting at 6 and 11 p.m. Tuesday. But it is likely that no one at WJZ or anywhere else will ever fill the place in Baltimore's heart left by Sanders' death.
Biggest hits. Were there any? Sure, there was "Friends." And then there was "Friends," and, um, "Friends." Did I mention "Friends?"
Even though the conventional wisdom is that there were no new network hits this fall, "Caroline in the City" has better ratings than "Friends" did last year at this time. So I think it's safe to say that "Caroline" is going to be a hit, too.
The good news is that we are not going to have to read a million stories about what great hair the actors on "Caroline" have.
By the way, in case you haven't kept up on psychoanalytic media criticism, hair equals sex in American culture. Hair is TC socially acceptable way for the media to talk about sex, which is what all the hair stories on "Friends" are really about.
The biggest flops. ABC's "Murder One" comes back on the air Jan. 9, so it is not yet a genuine flop. But it sure stiffed in the ratings this fall against NBC's "ER." I think it might be too late to save this series, for which ABC is committed to paying Steven Bochco $30 million.
And what about ABC's "The Beatles"? Did anyone except those critics and media "analysts" who got sucked in by the hype think it was the "Television Event of a Lifetime" or a "Second Wave of Beatlemania," as ABC's ads proclaimed?
Most encouraging development. Some of the year's best news came from PBS, which not only won its national debate with Newt Gingrich about whether it should receive federal funding but also sharpened its programming focus. "The History of Rock 'n' Roll," "The Buccaneers" and Wynton Marsalis' "Marsalis on Music" were winners.
The excellence of non-fiction programming from such sources as cable's Discovery Channel is cause for celebration, too. From "The Fall of Saigon" in April to last week's "Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation," Discovery has more than filled the void left when the networks shut down their documentary units in search of better profit margins.
Most discouraging. Television's greatest failure this year was in its coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. Between telling us the trial was the most important story of our lifetime and then covering it as if it were a sporting event in which only the conflict mattered, the coverage diminished us all as we watched.
The industry's great and final disservice to the public was to reduce the verdict to black and white. Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings fared no better than Kathleen Sullivan and Geraldo Rivera when it came to the Simpson trial. And now no one in the television industry wants to go back and talk about their performance. I wonder why.