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Television Howard Rosenberg

No point, except for ratings

March 11, 2003|Howard Rosenberg

Bill, you gutless pig. Bob, you mindless jerk.

You're right, I'm hallucinating again. The debut Sunday night of Batman and the Joker (you decide which is which) on "60 Minutes" included no exchange of nasty insults like those once parodied by Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd on "Saturday Night Live."

Instead, America heard Bill Clinton politely address "Sen. Dole" and Bob Dole reply,

"With all due respect, Mr. President ... "

TV's newest pair of dark suits surely attracted a good number of curious drive-bys Sunday, including some of the crowd that slows down to gawk at fender-benders on freeways. No surprise, for ratings stories we run in this paper affirm that Americans today will watch just about anything. Airing color bars and calling them "reality" would get you 15 million viewers minimum.

Even before watching it, I had a pretty good idea what to expect from this new "Point/Counterpoint"-style segment designed to pump up the CBS show's audience. Even before seeing these onetime political foes disagreeing on the wisdom of a tax cut in possible wartime, I could have told you the ex-president and the former senate majority leader he kept from the White House would be ...


Not Ozzie and Harriet, but Ozzie and Ozzie, unremarkable performances by two good actors with lots of camera time under their belts trapped in a bad show with a predictable script.

Yup, and not only that, what they produced was entirely dispensable, even though Clinton last week spoke of his Sunday-night exchanges with Dole producing "light."

Separately taped segments for each totaling one minute, including 15 seconds for rebuttal? Oh, yeah, this was going to be real substance, real deep, a tax lesson delivered in less time than it takes Clinton to rev up his lower-lip bite and Dole to rehearse his lines praising Viagra.

What was it that Clinton said Sunday? Cutting taxes in a war atmosphere is "bad economics"? And what did Dole say? Invading Saddam Hussein would protect our "freedom to save or invest our own money instead of Washington taking it from us"?

Now there are a couple of headlines.

Everything connected to politicians is presumed to have layers of meaning, and this is no exception. Although they touched on Iraq indirectly Sunday, what is this about excluding the war from their topics during this initial run of 10 weeks? That's what Clinton has said would be the case, as if former national leaders commenting on the most troubling and volatile issue in years would be, what, disruptive? Unpatriotic? In bad taste? Disrespectful to U.S. troops who soon may be in harm's way?

Or do these silver tongues fear that any controversy or ill feeling they generate will rub off on their politically ambitious wives, Sen. Elizabeth Hanford Dole (R-N.C.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who many believe will make a presidential run in 2008?

In any case, the husbands are excess tonnage in a TV landscape that already features a conga line of professional chin strokers weighing in on everything from George Bush to Jockey shorts. Dole and Clinton are smart guys, and 10, maybe 15, years ago, a pair of ex-bigshot pols lecturing each other in TV pancake would have stood out, and perhaps even turned heads. But now they're just two more names on a marquee that is already crowded in a news environment that encourages even anchors and reporters to drop all pretense of objectivity and share their beliefs with viewers. These days, everyone is talking.

"60 Minutes" may think it needs the celebrity of Clinton and Dole, but does America need their opinions, in a format calibrated to a time clock attached to a series that was guided by the Bethlehem Star of Nielsens when it hired them?

This is unrelated to talk of Clinton being unpresidential and demeaning the office by joining "60 Minutes." Monica Lewinsky's blue dress already did that. Instead, the issue is gimmickry to drive up ratings.

Oh, well, it's a living. And who's to say that when Bush is no longer president he won't take a lucrative gig as center square on "Hollywood Squares"? Or co-host a talk show with Carrot Top? It's that kind of media cosmos -- where fame transfers, no one is considered a trespasser, Jesse Ventura can be a pro wrestler, Minnesota governor and TV talker in the same decade, and the road to the White House winds through Leno and Letterman.

You can understand "60 Minutes" looking for ways to freshen the product and recapture its former ratings luster, even though it remains widely watched and flat-out the best newsmagazine series on the air. Yanking Andy Rooney before he really snaps might help instead of slicing two minutes from a story in the middle of the hour.

"Point/Counterpoint," on the other hand, is the worst, thinnest, most mannered feature that "60 Minutes" ever tried in its storied history, from the 1970s self-mocking version, most famously with Shana Alexander and James J. Kilpatrick, to the redux clashes of 1996 with Molly Ivins and P.J. O'Rourke.

Signing up Mr. Bill and Mr. Bob doesn't make it any better. With all due respect.

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