Every year is a television year, and each year seems more televisionistic than the one that preceded it. One of the most penetrating and lasting images of 1985 is one all America saw on its TV screens last summer: the pilot of TWA Flight 847 interrupted, while speaking to reporters from the cockpit of his plane, by the hand of a gun-wielding terrorist,who emerged from the shadow behind and pulled him out of sight.
Television means access, access means power, and in 1985 the networks and the public grappled with the horrors that can result when attempts are made to seize that power. No manufactured fantasies could compete with the chilling impact of those images from Beirut. The networks were heavily criticized during and after the crisis for excesses or misjudgments, but nobody came up with a better plan for dealing with whatever the next such televisable calamity might be.
Of course, the manufactured fantasies also managed to cast certain spells during the year, among them: the persistent affirmative success of "The Cosby Show" on NBC; the addition to the sitcom ranks of "The Golden Girls," an NBC hit that took the rare step of putting older characters in the foreground; "The Equalizer," a comparatively civilized vigilante fantasy, which also featured a mature, graying hero, on CBS; opulent if often ponderous mini-series epics like "Space" and "Christopher Columbus"; the beguiling late-night looniness of NBC's David Letterman; topical TV movies on such troubling issues as child abuse, rape and AIDS; and a contrasting happy explosion, mostly on cable TV, of rediscovered innocent pleasures from television's past, most notably long-lost episodes of "The Honeymooners," with Jackie Gleason, Art Carney and Audrey Meadows, timeless and funny and evocative.
The '85-86 season that arrived in the fall had been celebrated in advance for its revival of the anthology series, once a TV mainstay, but before the year was out one of the anthologies, "George Burns Comedy Week," had been canceled by CBS, and the other two, "The Twilight Zone" on CBS and Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" on NBC, proved disappointing, particularly the overproduced and underinspired Spielberger.
Besides, when it came to amazing stories, what could top the persisting spectacle to which TV played helpless host again in 1985: "Ronald Reagan, The Presidency Continues." Whether waving folksily from the window of his hospital room, chasing his later-exiled dog across the White House lawn, or triumphantly facing a joint session of Congress after a big gig in Geneva, Ronald Reagan kept the presidency first and foremost among escapist American television shows.
Among many dramatic news pictures on television in 1985, perhaps the most painfully memorable were those from the area ravaged by a Mexico City earthquake in September that left more than 10,000 dead. The stories of some survivors trapped under debris, just out of rescuers' reach, became continuing dramas played out on the week's newscasts, brilliantly caught by news crews on the scene. Whether flashing back formal studied images of a nascent peace process, or transmitting the haunting glows of small lighted boats floated down a Japanese river to memorialize those who died from the atomic bombs dropped 40 years earlier, or revealing bloody violence in South Africa before the curtain of government censorship fell, television news continued to log milestones in what well could be considered its global golden age.
But television may have made as much news as it reported in 1985. Much of it seemed to involve CBS News, which spent another turbulent year in the spotlight. It began well, from a CBS viewpoint, when retired Army general William C. Westmoreland dropped, well into the 11th hour, his $120 million libel suit brought against the network for its 1982 documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception."
As has become virtually an annual ritual, CBS News was attacked for alleged liberal bias. The most colorful assault came from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and a euphemistically named pressure group called Fairness in Media, which distributed a red-white-and-blue bumper sticker reflecting the group's singular preoccupation: "Rather Biased," it said, with the CBS eye to the left.
While Jesse Helms and, later, Ted Turner failed to take over CBS News, some CBS News insiders made a bid to do it themselves. "60 Minutes" Executive Producer Don Hewitt proposed to CBS Inc. management that the news division be sold to him and a band of allies (including Dan Rather and Diane Sawyer) who would then sell CBS News programs back to the network. Apparently the proposal was made as a symbolic gesture, designed to express displeasure with the status of the news division in the corporate scheme. Some time after the offer was made, and refused, CBS News President Edward M. Joyce, who had provoked some of the ire, was replaced with former News president Van Gordon Sauter.
Television was news on the financial pages as well, mainly because of a wave of merger and takeover attempts, most dangling price tags on the mind-boggling side: ABC's $3.5 billion takeover by Capital Cities Communications (completed Friday); Rupert Murdoch's $1.4 billion purchase of Metromedia's seven lucrative TV stations; Ted Turner's flailing attempt to scrape up the wherewithal, $4 billion or so, to acquire CBS Inc.; and General Electric's buyout, to a $6.2 billion tune, of RCA, which owns NBC, in December.
Television means power indeed, and yet no one in official Washington -- certainly not the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which operates now according to a "let's party" philosophy, nor even Congress, which has shrunk timidly from comment -- registered alarm or concern over this heightened concentration of media ownership. Only scattered consumer activists appeared to regard the trend as a threat to the diversity-of-voices principle by which American broadcasting has traditionally operated.
Network viewing levels, which had been eroding in preceding years, seemed healthier and more stable in 1985, bolstered by the rousing, warming success of "The Cosby Show" -- a breed of television entertainment that only the commercial networks, as the balance of power in television now exists, could produce. "Cosby," a 1984 starter, also seemed the show of the year in 1985. Reruns of the program occasionally score even higher ratings than the episodes earned when first shown.
This emphatically wholesome hit seemed to spearhead the new ratings dominance of NBC, which in all the years that ratings have been kept has never finished in unchallenged first place for a season (it tied once with CBS). NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff and NBC Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Grant Tinker will, by the end of this season, have brought this off, and without stooping to the kinds of genre junk with which ABC unseated CBS for first place in the mid-'70s.
Even so, the year hardly overflowed with important or imposing network programming. Theatrical movies, already overexposed on cable TV and the cassette rental market by the time they got to the networks, were largely replaced on the air by made-for-TV films, and while many of these were competently done time killers, they almost all seemed produced within a bland spectrum hostile to surprises or astonishments. Most simply banged the same gongs sounded in pulpy weekly series.
One resounding exception was a new filmed production, adapted from a successful stage revival, of Arthur Miller's grim American classic, "Death of a Salesman." Although Dustin Hoffman had miscast himself as Willy Loman, the quality of work that went into this event was luminous. Surprisingly, considering the audience's predilection for fluffy puff, ratings for "Salesman" were highly respectable, better than anticipated; CBS Research later estimated that some 31.5 million people in 19.8 million households had seen all or part of the three-hour play.
Prestige counts for little in teleision any more, however, and CBS management could not have been amused by its topple from the No. 1 position in prime-time ratings. CBS programming seemed sluggish and dotty compared to the zippier offerings of NBC ("Miami Vice" the zippiest example), while ABC pathetically attempted to tap bone-dry reservoirs of visceral fantasy. As predicted, Lewis Erlicht, president of ABC Entertainment, was relieved of his position in the fall, replaced in the programmer's chair by the seemingly more imaginative Brandon Stoddard, previously in charge of ABC movies and mini-series.
Executive realignment at CBS, meanwhile, threatened to go beyond the ouster of Joyce as president of CBS News. Reports continued to circulate that CBS Inc. Chairman Thomas H. Wyman might also be poised on the runway for departure, having disappointed the man who chose him for the position, former CBS chairman and cofounder William S. Paley. Wyman, however, was said to possess a protective "golden parachute" as big as a circus tent, and at year's end, remained on the job.
At ABC, where sportscaster Howard Cosell was departing in a blaze of fittingly acrimonious glory (chiefly the result of broadsides fired in his feisty book "I Never Played the Game," a triumph of truth-in-titling), it seemed only a matter of time before News and Sports President Roone Arledge would relinquish one, if not both, of his titles. Near the end of the year, he became entangled in a messy controversy over his decision to cancel, just prior to airing, a "20/20" segment that dwelt on alleged affairs between Marilyn Monroe and John F. and Robert F. Kennedy.
At NBC, it was clear that Chairman Tinker was growing bored with the administrative duties of his position, bored perhaps even with NBC's unprecedented success, and that his cool management style would conflict with the bulldozing approach of incoming boss and General Electric Chairman Thomas Welch. Network television was passing into new generations of management that seemed at least one step removed from broadcasting; ABC Inc. founding father Leonard Goldenson prepared to step down from his chairmanship as the Cap Cities takeover proceeded.
The changes in network ownership, and the relaxation of almost all the old federal broadcasting regulations, made television look more and more like just another big business, one no longer charged by Congress or the FCC with special responsibilities toward, as the old official language stated, "the public interest, convenience and necessity." As old rules fall, broadcasters bear the burden of the profit motive and little else. It is a new world.
Thus 1985 was another decisive year -- perhaps the most decisive of the decade -- in the transformation of television from good neighbor and public servant (however well or poorly it has filled that role over the years) into merchant and financier. Something good about the way television works appears to be dying.
It was the second-best of times, it was the second-worst of times. As always, there was no shortage of things to deplore. One could hope, though, that two ill-advised experiments in TV news were not going to constitute a trend. NBC's "Today" show gave conservative spokesman Terry Dolan editorial control over a segment purporting to profile Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, while the Public Broadcasting Service, ever more nervous about pressures from the Reagan administration, handed a chunk of broadcast time to the Accuracy in Media group for a clunky rebuttal to the award-winning PBS series "Vietnam: A Television History."
Both these gambits represented folly and the abdication of responsibility by the broadcasters who engineered them.
Ted Koppel and "ABC News Nightline" traveled to South Africa for a riveting week of reports, and all three networks observed the 40th anniversary of the first uses of the atomic bomb and the 10th anniversay of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. The Vietnam broadcasts tended to be unfortunate and the Hiroshima broadcasts tended to be unforgettable. The networks traveled to Bitburg, West Germany, where President Reagan had become embroiled in a controversial cemetery wreath-laying, and where he also gave a moving speech. The ability of the networks to globe-hop via satellite was dazzling and at times, as during coverage of terrorist hostage-takings, frightening.
The state of TV entertainment was not so impressive as that of TV news. No new entertainment program approached the level of kinetic finesse and creative innovation achieved by "West 57th," a kind of news variety show that got a six-week trial run in the summer and that seemed to infuriate old-timers within and without the CBS News organization. The program is still in production; CBS claims it will return. Ironically, the sorry state of CBS' prime-time ratings makes it less likely the network will risk airing the potentially low-rated newsbroadcast, and yet the very healthy state of NBC's prime-time schedule makes it less likely that network will want to throw an hour a week away to the NBC News magazine show "American Almanac," for fear of losing precious momentum.
Networks don't want to put on news broadcasts if their entertainment ratings are good, and they don't want to put them on if their entertainment ratings are bad.
These and other dilemmas will carry over from 1985 into 1986, and possibly from the '80s into the '90s. For all the swelling popularity of home video, of purchased and rented cassettes and home-programmed television, the three commercial networks put up an admirable rally, and while all three braced for an industrywide recession (some mercilessly trimming manpower and expenses), all that old talk about the death of the networks seemed, at least momentarily, fantastic.
What technological changes remain just around the corner, and what corporate machinations will change the shape and size of the broadcasting business, remain, obviously, to be seen. Sprawling sagas are still big on television, yet no saga seems to sprawl quite so big as that of television itself. The adventure, perilous and frivolous and now and then glorious, continues.