Each year of television is the sum of many experiences. Instead of the routine, however, it's the highs and lows that we recall. In that regard, heading the list for 1997 is a topic that should be no surprise:
HIGH--Princess Diana: Her death in Paris on Aug. 31 and subsequent memorializing turned out to be not only the biggest television story of 1997--what even approached it?--but also in some respects among the best covered, as that movable swarm, the U.S. media, jetted to Europe en masse to chronicle her extended eulogy and the investigation into the crash that took her life.
A kadzillion words were written about it. But it was TV that most vividly captured the regal, Old World pomp of her funeral amid royal decadence and the profound grief of Britishers everywhere over her death. As spectacle, it was simply first-rate, lacking only Alistair Cooke in an armchair to properly interpret it.
LOW--Princess Diana: Instead of dear old Alistair, unfortunately, we got fawning TV anchors and other smarmy, opportunistic journalists and commentators, most of them born-again Anglophiles who, as if the U.S. were still the Colonies, wrapped themselves in the Union Jack while trying to out-sob and out-grieve one another on the air.
As if the real Diana were insufficient, she was posthumously elevated by the media to unearned sainthood, forevermore to be linked with Mother Teresa, whose own death shortly after and reputation for good works flickered dimly beside the 1,000-watt halo granted the now mythic "princess of hearts."
As these things do, Diana-mania acquired a heartbeat of its own that thumps mightily even today--witness her canonization in a current TV commercial for Time magazine that recalls her wedding, "when all the world was glad to be her subject." That world would be Pluto, right?
HIGH--Ennis Cosby: There was no shortage of overblown coverage, either, regarding the Jan. 16 murder of Bill Cosby's son, Ennis, just off the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. The media, by the tone and sheer weight of their reporting, tended to value his life more than those of other murder victims merely because of his lineage.
Yet mitigating that was one fleeting, frozen moment captured on TV, when Cosby turned to reporters who had waited for him outside his residence in Manhattan and gave a four-word eulogy of Ennis that resonated a distraught father's simple, honest, heartfelt eloquence: "He was my hero." Nothing else needed to be said.
LOW--Marv Albert: It wasn't enough that much of TV turned the titillating footnote of sportscaster Albert's forceable sodomy trial into another trial of the decade, if not quite the century. Still worse: After Albert pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of assault and battery, he and his attorney embarked on a spin-control campaign that took them to the friendliest outreaches of the airwaves, where the usual celebrity-doting suspects, from Barbara Walters to Larry King, were only too happy to oblige with soft questions. It was the traditional TV symbiosis, with Albert getting to fuzz the facts of his case and reinvent himself as a solid citizen, in exchange for the TV hosts using his notoriety to attract viewers. The mutual back-scratchers' deluxe.
HIGH--The KCBS-TV Channel 2 food fight: Long a bad seed of local news, Channel 2 this time made effective and appropriate use of hidden cameras to expose in November both intolerable conditions inside the kitchens of many Los Angeles-area restaurants and apparent laxity by the county health department in bringing offenders to heel.
It was a rare expose whose effect was felt immediately, making such a splash that one of Channel 2's competitors, KABC-TV Channel 7, tried to cash in by running its own (feeble) story, "L.A.'s Cleanest Restaurants." And another station, KTLA-TV Channel 5, sought to embarrass Channel 2 by throwing a spotlight on KCBS' own eating facilities.
Critics accused Channel 2 of clobbering an easy, obvious target. If it was so easy and obvious, however, why didn't other Los Angeles stations tackle it?
LOW--The KCBS-TV Channel 2 food fight: Unwilling to be burdened by integrity, Channel 2 reverted to character by constantly congratulating itself on the air and dragging this story out in such a cynical, opportunistic way that you'd think its intent from the start (gasp) was less public service than self-promotion during a ratings sweeps period.
HIGH--Program content ratings: Although much of the public seemed not to notice, the introduction of these program labels, ranging from TV-G (general audience) to TV-MA (mature audience)--with only NBC later failing to add further designations for sex, violence, suggestive dialogue and coarse language--was a landmark event. The ratings allow viewers to make more informed decisions about what they and their children view, and their effect will probably grow when they're used in conjunction with the coming V-chip for TV sets.