Was Paris burning? It looked that way. But the smoke and flames spewing from the Eiffel Tower were just part of the last day of 1999, which was also being celebrated as the last day of the century and the last day of the second millennium. And it all made for a head-spinning, globe-trotting day of don't-stop television.
As it does too seldom, television showed us the world, made us feel part of the "global village" envisioned by 20th-century philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who sadly didn't live to see it. The technology for originating broadcasts from almost anywhere in the world has been with us a long time but it's usually used only for hard news events, not to bring the flavor of other countries and cultures into American homes.
The day belonged to ABC News. By far, ABC devoted the most time, personpower and imagination to the event, with Peter Jennings doing a nearly superhuman job of anchoring for hours and hours on end. Jennings did everything from helping a magician pull a string out of his stomach to having a chat with Dame Edna, a mauve-haired transvestite comic from Australia.
Jennings sort of turned into Ed Sullivan. But he did a tremendous job at playing electronic ringmaster. NBC and CBS had seriously underestimated the potential in the event. NBC did a few hours in prime time and CBS had Dan Rather popping up for quickie updates between prime-time programs.
Not even CNN could equal ABC's effort because CNN stuck to its regular schedule. "Larry King Live" aired, for instance, instead of live coverage or a roundup of the day's events. At least CNN's "Talk Back Live," earlier in the day, had a millennial theme, and one of its guests was author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke. He was beamed in via Intel "Video Phone" from Sri Lanka, where midnight had already touched down.
Meanwhile, back at ABC's Times Square headquarters and vantage point in New York--what on earth did magicians and transvestites have to do with the celebration of the new year/century/millennium? Well, not much, but it was just meant to be celebratory. And as it happens there were hours and hours of other events that were inspiring, poignant, moving, funny or, most of all, spectacular, with France taking the honors in that department for nearly launching Mr. Eiffel's tower into space.
It was early evening here but midnight in France, where Barbara Walters was stationed and more or less silenced by the fantastic French fireworks display. The base of the tower began to erupt in fireworks, then stage by stage they proceeded up to the top. Soon the whole thing was spewing fire and smoke and sparkles. It was astounding.
Hours later, of course, the Washington Monument would light up in stages similarly as the crowd counted down the seconds to midnight. But it wasn't as festive as the French production, and in fact much of the Washington ceremony seemed excessively solemn. It didn't help that it was burdened with another Bill Clinton speech full of platitudes and seeming longer than it was.
England had billed its fireworks as the most spectacular in Europe, but they really couldn't top the French display. And promises that the Thames would turn into a "river of fire" never materialized--perhaps just as well. ABC viewers got to see Queen Elizabeth II at very close range trying to light some sort of fuse that then lit some sort of green laser beam that then lit another one and, oh who knows? It was all very pretty.
Charlie Gibson had been deployed to England by ABC, with Morton Dean in Moscow and Cokie Roberts in Rome. Well after midnight in England, Gibson said that no event like this is complete without a "silly hat" so he wore one that lit up "2000" and Jennings laughed--which doesn't happen often. Earlier, though, in the afternoon, things got too silly. Roberts decided to start a meaningless fight among the European correspondents over who got the best assignment.
She said Italy was the best and dared Gibson and Walters to disagree. This led to much pointless and specious bickering. Everybody was bored to tears by it but Roberts. Cokie is getting kookier all the time. Her little visual essay on the wonders of Italy was good, but credit for that probably goes to her producer and a terrific video editor.
Dean got little air time in the afternoon considering that Boris Yeltsin had resigned earlier in the day. Jennings didn't seem to want to talk with him. He gets peevish a lot on the air, but Jennings came across as more human yesterday than he often does during marathon event coverage. A wireless concealed mike allowed him to stroll around the ABC studio, touring a map that followed the midnight line toward North America as the new century began here, there and everywhere.
In Newfoundland, it for some reason began on the half-hour, because of its weird time zone. Jennings was filled with affection and praise for the country of Canada. He's from there, you know.
Jennings and the ABC producers delighted in the juxtapositions. And they kept the program from becoming either too grim or too jolly. Thus Jennings went directly from a talk with singer Billy Joel to, without a blink, a telephone conversation with Princeton professor Theodore Rabb. As a sign of the hopefulness in the air, there were many questions on all the networks about the future but nobody appeared to doubt that there will be one.
NBC embarrassed itself by having Katie Couric do a self-promotional interview with Jay Leno, who complained that the day had been "very dull" because no catastrophes had occurred. "Nothing has happened," he grumped. Would he have preferred a plane crash or some sort of Y2K-precipitated disaster? Leno mentioned Jennings, however, thus reminding NBC viewers of how little coverage NBC had been offering.
Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York, finished an interview with Brokaw by sucking up to the anchor and saying "great coverage." He must have been watching some other network. Or just lying.
Nearly a half-century ago, Edward R. Murrow wowed us by sitting in a CBS control room and having director Don Hewitt punch up two remote pictures at once--the Golden Gate Bridge and a shot of the Atlantic Coast. It was the first time, Murrow said, that people could sit in their homes and see both oceans at the same time. As yesterday proved again, television technology has gone way, way beyond that. And still one wonders if the wonder couldn't be put to more wondrous uses--like it was on Dec. 31, 1999.
Jennings said the most moving thing he saw was an electronically linked performance by two choirs--one in Northern Ireland and the other in Dublin--both singing "Londonderry Air" or, as it's more commonly known, "Danny Boy." A bit of this was shown. It was a touching gesture of peace that could well have brought tears to one's eyes. But not for long. ABC rushed off to some other spot and some other celebration. Sometimes, it would have been a good idea just to sit still and let us watch.
The 20th has often been referred to--by Americans of course--as The American Century. But the very way it ended and the new one began--with celebrations in the Far East, Russia and Europe all preceding the telecasts of domestic partying--could have been an early portent that the next century will be somebody else's. If so, American broadcast journalists are going to have to face that fact and widen their sights.
And if they do, they'll widen the sights of the audience at home--we, the people who watch TV. NBC and CBS reporters seemed so preoccupied with security measures and the possibility of terrorism that they almost ignored the celebrations themselves. On this day, that was the story, and for once the story had an element of hope in it.
CAPTION: Peter Jennings anchored for hours and hours for ABC's millennium coverage.