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'92 YEAR IN REVIEW : Television's Ocean of Nonfiction Mostly Shallow : Programming: 1992 highlights include Werner Herzog's 'Lessons of Darkness,' Robert Reich's 'Made in America?' and some campaign coverage.

January 02, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For sheer volume of campaign reporting, of course, CNN was unmatched. On most days in '92, whole hours of CNN's airtime were devoted to every nuance of American politics, but the attention to details was often better than the broader picture. Its ongoing "Democracy in America" series proved mostly flabby and obvious, its forays into high-tech poll-taking absolutely wacky and sometimes misleading, and its pairing of "Crossfire" opponents truly scandalous (on the left, real journalist Michael Kinsley; on the right, non-journalist and professional Reagan-era apologist John Sununu).

Reporting on the Big Three networks--except for ABC's "Nightline"--made even CNN's worst campaign day look brilliant, possibly because the whole realm of journalism appears beyond them. They issued a nightly stream of info-snippets, while over at PBS' "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour," news with analysis was still not a dirty phrase.

In a year when chat shows like Larry King's continuous Ross Perot show and the pundit programs created news, worthwhile information in documentaries--"Frontline's" investigation of "The October Surprise," for instance--tended not to be picked up by TV and print journalists. Perhaps the networks' continuous blurring of fiction and nonfiction, with the Amy Fisher saga being the latest example, was also blurring everyone's attitude toward those principled corners of the airwaves where the line between the two still isn't being crossed.

And yet, even some of the biggest PBS documentaries reveled in crossing it. David Maybury-Lewis' 10-part "Millennium" oddly blended cinema verite with restagings of action in the lives of tribal people around the world, as if these pre-industrial folk needed juicing up with movie-like effects.

"Millennium" highlighted the current rule of nonfiction TV viewing: Expect little from the "event" shows, and keep a lookout for the Little Programs That Could. While the usually astute William Greider drearily examined the body politic like a bored coroner in his "Frontline" opus, "The Betrayal of Democracy," late-night "P.O.V." works like Marlon Riggs' history of blacks on the tube, "Color Adjustment," or Pamela Yates' and Peter Kinoy's vital look at homeless activists, "Takeover," burned with passion.

Some of the biggest of the big shows were the multi-part biographies, all of them tributes to the dirty work of groping through the film archives, not all of them worth taping. Time devalued "Frontline's" "Who Is David Duke?," while the massive "De Gaulle and France" will stand proud in the video library years from now. Some, like "Elizabeth R: A Year in the Life of the Queen," were state-approved portraits; others, like "The Kennedys," were a little too glowing by half; still others, like "Franco: Behind The Myth" on the occasionally surprising Arts and Entertainment channel, told a powerful story while ignoring the story's relevance.

Back home, the most important story--the Rodney King trial and the unrest that followed--received the most interesting coverage on the Court TV channel, with its edited version of the taped trial, "What The Jury Saw." The final cable test is if your carrier has Court TV; if so, you're ready for TV in the '90s.

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