Networks dazzle with sweeping versions of history

Accuracy aside, dramatic license sure boosts a show during this key month


November 02, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Who knew that they got it all wrong at the Iran-Contra hearings -- the 1987 Senate investigation into the illegal sale of arms to Iran by President Ronald Reagan's administration? Reagan did authorize the sale of arms to Iran during his presidency, but he was tricked into it by aides in a moment of dementia when he couldn't even remember the name of the senior defense adviser to whom he was speaking.

Or that all the landmark legislation and deregulation that came to be known as the Reagan Revolution -- a political and social movement that reshaped America (in the opposite direction) as profoundly as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal or Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society -- was actually Nancy Reagan's doing? It was Nancy as Lady Macbeth, plotting late at night and firing aides left and right as she manipulated an increasingly confused commander in chief.

Who knew that Pfc. Jessica Lynch was joking about condoms just before her convoy was attacked in Iraq? Or that at the very moment her American rescuers arrived, Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen were wheeling her into an operating room to amputate one of her legs even as the Iraqi doctor in attendance passionately argued against it?

Believe it. Because facts are whatever TV wants them to be -- particularly during sweeps.

The November sweeps -- a 30-day period that began Thursday, during which audience measurements determine future advertising rates -- have just begun and the networks are scrambling to bolster viewership numbers. Among the month's most highly publicized productions are several programs of dubious historical distinction, including The Reagans, a four-hour mini-series starring Judy Davis and James Brolin, airing Nov. 16 and 18 on CBS; and Saving Jessica Lynch making its premiere Nov. 9 on NBC.

CBS offers more voodoo history tonight at 8 in a three-hour salute to its own past, CBS at 75, which it modestly describes as a "live entertainment extravaganza commemorating CBS' monumental anniversary." What's missing from the press packet suggests a highly doctored corporate history that eliminates any television show or character that might remind viewers of the darker side of CBS founder William Paley and the broadcasting empire he built. Even if one of those deletions, a sitcom called The Goldbergs, represents a seminal moment in the history of CBS comedy.

History as entertainment

Each show presents American history as entertainment -- our national past brought to us as docudrama by the nation's oldest and most powerful television networks. If journalism is the first draft of history, docudrama is the first reckless rewrite by filmmakers and network executives willing to sacrifice truth for ratings. And at no time are they more willing to distort facts to meet the show-biz demands of prime-time entertainment than during "sweeps" ratings periods.

Of course, November sweeps will also feature their usual stupid TV stunts -- big-budget specials and high-visibility guest stars popping up on regular sitcoms and dramas. In a season defined thus far by failed new series and an overall drop in audience, the networks need to get viewers back in the big tent.

The guest stars started arriving Thursday night with Dylan McDermott and John Cleese on Will & Grace (NBC), Bob Newhart on ER (NBC) and Nicky Hilton on the Jamie Kennedy Experiment (WB). Specials this month will include Fox's American Idol offering a program Nov. 25 featuring its winners and runners-up performing holiday chestnuts.

But guest-star one-upmanship and such "specials" have been with us for years and are, at worst, only silly or excessive. Turning our shared past into melodramatic tripe is a deeper and more troubling cultural matter.

The Reagans, Saving Jessica Lynch and CBS at 75 will all air on Sunday evenings, the night of highest viewership, during which an audience of 10 million is considered small. What does such pseudo- history do to us as we watch by the millions -- particularly to younger viewers in a country where many college seniors can no longer identify former presidents like Roosevelt or Johnson, let alone explain how such leaders shaped the world in which we live?

By any historical or journalistic standard, Saving Jessica Lynch is a joke.

The film is based primarily on the book Because Each Life Is Precious by Mohammed al-Rehaief, the Iraqi credited with helping to lead American troops to Lynch. Rehaief, a divorce lawyer who was running a kung-fu school in Iraq when the war started, says in the very first sentence of his book that he was always known as a "wise guy or big mouth."

That may be the truest bit of information he offers. Nonetheless, NBC takes him at his word, because he's the one with whom the network has a deal. And his version of events has no shortage of danger, risk and narrow escapes -- the stuff of melodrama -- in which he is prominently featured.

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