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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Re: Ratings System--Who Wants What?

May 21, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"Guns, knives and violent acts on television" are dangerous to kids, a citizen of Peoria, Ill., proclaimed at Monday's town hall meeting there to hash over the industry's infant program rating system with entertainment leaders and a congressional subcommittee. Most Peorians who were present appeared to share her sentiments.

So, obviously, viewers are fed up with television violence.

Yes, so fed up that an average of 22.4 million of them per night tuned in to see "The Last Don," a three-part CBS miniseries that was one of the bloodier spectacles--replete with numerous beatings, shootings and garrotings--to splatter prime time this season. And one of the network's biggest commercial triumphs.

Also, note the lead-in. The May 11 premiere of "The Last Don"--opening at 9 p.m. here and at kiddie-accessible 8 p.m. in some time zones--followed one of TV's gentlest, most spiritual hours, "Touched by an Angel," building significantly on the audience of that hit series. On this night, according to the national Nielsens, Godfather topped God at the box office.

Either the great masses who watched the menacing Clericuzios were self-flagellating masochists or devoted fans of ferocious hoodlums who suffer angst, unable to resist a family of criminals that, when threatened, circled its black limos like wagons and systematically picked off its foes. Or an even more frightening scenario: Perhaps many viewers sat mesmerized in front of their sets thinking "The Last Don" was about a guy named Don.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 22, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 67 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Misspelling--A photo caption accompanying Howard Rosenberg's Wednesday column misspelled the last name of actor Joe Mantegna.

In any case, based on the whopper audience, how would TV's severest critics have CBS respond? Ignore ratings that, all kidding aside, indicate a ravenous hunger for graphic criminal savagery emersed in high-pitched melodrama? Or heed those who keep insisting, despite contrary evidence from the Nielsens, that there is a national consensus for tranquil TV?

There isn't. Not that many viewers don't oppose TV violence almost across the board, only that, despite their sincere concerns and the noise of their opposition, they may be in the minority.

The question is moot when it comes to "The Last Don," actually, for the mob's ratings already have registered indelibly, ensuring that prime time will hear more from mafiadom in stories that feature coexisting family and homicidal values.

Packaging--the humanizing of criminals--is the key. Who didn't feel a pang of regret when Marlon Brando's aging Don Corleone keeled over while playing with his grandson in "The Godfather"? Or in "The Godfather III," when the daughter of Al Pacino's scarred and weary Mafia kingpin was gunned down even as he was attempting to detach himself from crime?

The essence of "The Last Don," too, was that even a murderous despot like the Super Mobster played with glowering stoniness by Danny Aiello can have Solomonic wisdom worthy of any great patriarch. Also, that he will need it to tackle seemingly insoluble family troubles that evoke sympathy for him, despite his second-guessing of his top assassin's decision to spare the don's own daughter in a wedding-night massacre that took the life of her groom. The don had ordered the slaughter to avenge the murder of his youngest son.

See, Mario Puzo seemed to be saying in the teleplay that he based on his best-selling 1996 novel, the suffering don and his extended brood are just like us when it comes to the heartache of personal relationships and getting whacked by those you trust. Bring out the tissues, and book them for Sally Jessy.

*

NO MORE MR. NICE GUY. Charles Gibson, the usually amiable co-host of ABC's "Good Morning America," gave Ronald Kessler the kind of grilling Monday rarely aimed at guests on the show, accusing the "Inside Congress" author of inflating and distorting the dysfunction on Capitol Hill.

Gibson, a former congressional correspondent for ABC, repeatedly questioned Kessler's conclusions about mass malfeasance in Congress. "You and I find different bodies," he said, finally.

On the one hand, credit the show for giving Kessler a TV shot. On the other hand, damage control appeared to be in the air.

It was Kessler's controversial book that was the basis for an unaired "20/20" story killed at the 11th hour by top ABC News executives who maintained that its charges could not be substantiated. That decision has brought the network public relations grief, with ABC News Chairman Roone Arledge and the division's president, David Westin, now accused by some of snuffing the "20/20" story for fear of offending Congress, which is deciding several regulatory issues affecting ABC's corporate parent, the Disney Co.

The fallout is still settling upon this incident, which underscores anew the potential peril of mega-bigness. In other words, giant, widely tentacled media conglomerates sometimes may be too incestuously interlocked with those they cover to inform the public honestly, and inevitably may favor their own financial interest over the wider public interest.

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