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1993 Year in Review : TELEVISION : The Top--and Bottom of the Barrel

December 26, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic. and

What did 1993 bring television viewers in Southern California? Our search was both thorough and relentless. We looked high and we looked low, and this is what we found.

High--The ouster of John Lippman as KCBS-TV Channel 2 news director on April 30, after lasting less than a year. Recruited from Seattle, Lippman was a catastrophe, managing to alienate or enrage much of his staff while guiding the trickiest, trashiest, most irresponsible, least trustworthy local news coverage in memory. Under his tumultuous tenure, there was hardly a scam that Channel 2 wouldn't deploy to sucker viewers into watching.

Lippman did all of this, presumably, with the blessing of his CBS corporate bosses, whose own integrity and journalistic blurriness are reflected in the fact that Lippman was kicked out primarily because of his ratings, not his behavior or tactics.

Low--The hiring of Mark Hoffman as KNBC-TV Channel 4 news director on March 1. Operating in a manner so Lippman-esque that he deserves to be dubbed Son of Frankenstein, Hoffman has used tabloid techniques--dishonest teases, screaming graphics and a preponderance of titillating sleaze news a la Michael Jackson and Heidi Fleiss ( see related story, Page 5 )--to transform a bad news product into an infinitely worse one. Call it Son of "Hard Copy."

In advertising titillating upcoming stories, Channel 4 has redefined the word next as meaning in a future millennium. Meanwhile, a reader sent in a snapshot that visually captures the low road that Channel 4 news has traveled under Hoffman. In the foreground is a KNBC billboard that boasts: "When it happens at Mission and Central, it happens on 4." In the background is another billboard--for a nude girlie bar.

High--"Prime Suspect 2." Arguably, the best American television of 1993--and without a doubt the best miniseries--was British, as the very gifted Helen Mirren reprised her role as tough, ruthless Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in this gripping, complex thriller that PBS aired as part of "Mystery!"

Mirren and her supporting cast were extraordinary, as were Allan Cubitt's script and John Strickland's direction in this powerful Granada Television production that interwove racism and sexism through a tale of crime and intrigue. Tennison addicts take heart, for 1994 brings "Prime Suspect 3."

Low--"Daddy Dearest." You feel like using coat hangers on the creators of this mercilessly bad, first-season mongrel, and on the Fox executives who endorsed it. Richard Lewis is the suffering son and Don Rickles the trash-talking father who has moved in with him. An extension of the Cro-Magnon insult rantings that made him a popular performer in the Stone Age, Rickles' raunchiness here is the sitcom version of a flint tool being scraped across a blackboard.

High--Brian Lamb's "Booknotes" interviews with authors on C-SPAN, Sundays at 5 p.m. In an age when the ghost-assisted author of a pamphlet on liposuction can get camera time, this is book-talking heads at their addictive best, for four reasons:

(1) Generally related to public affairs, the books discussed on C-SPAN are meaty and worthy of dissection.

(2) There's no rush, for time on C-SPAN is seemingly endless.

(3) Lamb, who is C-SPAN's chairman and CEO, appears to have actually read what the authors have written.

(4) Lamb's utter lack of pretentiousness diverts attention from the host to the author. A revolutionary concept.

Low--Howard Stern's book tour. Oh, that's what it was. Not only is Stern peerless at offending the multitudes, but he also has a gift for self-celebration that rivals even the narcissism of that other UFO of the airwaves, Rush Limbaugh. Stern's autobiographical "Private Parts" has at once made him a best-selling author and a regular on the TV talk show circuit in a promotional blitzkrieg whose ultimate message is that, when it comes to the camera, a micro dab of Stern can last a lifetime. After all of this, is there anything left to know about Stern? And if there is, does anyone really want to know it? Beam him up, Scottie.

High--Charlayne Hunter-Gault's recent lengthy interviews with Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank on that PBS centerpiece, "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report." Remarkable for their balance and intelligence, these candid sessions provided insights into the thinking of ordinary people on both sides of this conflict and insights into why Hunter-Gault herself is so quietly good at what she does.

She was sensitive and informed, carefully listening to responses and asking pointed follow-up questions while never--ever--occupying center stage. A TV messenger smaller than the message? Utter heresy, and also an impressive performance from an impressive journalist.

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