On MTV, R.E.M., the rock group, is singing a perfect farewell to 1987: "It's the end of the world as we know it -- and I feel fine."
What an appropriate way to kiss off a daffy, mixed-up, inside-out parody of a year in which the fictional creations of television producers could scarcely begin to compete with the fun and frolic of reality as detailed on TV newscasts.
What was this -- a year, or a cartoon?
When Jim and Tammy and Fawn and Ollie and Gary and Donna are starring on the news shows, it presents a real challenge to those who concoct the fantasy escapist stuff. No wonder "Dynasty" looks tame, "Dallas" looks flat and the nightmare postapocalyptic world of the ABC mini-series "Amerika" looked absolutely tedious.
Of course, "Amerika" would have been tedious even without lively competition from the Gary Hart campaign and the Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker show. But ABC's arduous and slow-moving mini-series that conjured a Soviet occupation of the United States did prove one thing: left-wing nuts can be just as hysterically paranoid as right-wing nuts.
Members of various leftist groups denounced "Amerika" weeks in advance of airing for the alleged irreparable damage it would do to American-Soviet relations. A few months later, of course, Ronald Reagan was there on the same television screen signing a historic nuclear treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. With irreparable damage like that, you don't need glasnost.
When the $40 million "Amerika" flopped in the ratings, it had another effect. It sounded a sick knell if not a death knell for the mega-mini-series. Once, these enormous, usually glittery productions were thought to be a way the networks could hang on to their dwindling share of the total audience. But this gimmick, too, has worn out from overuse.
And that three-network share continued to decline in 1987, with the fall '87 premieres registering a sharp drop in viewership from the previous autumn's. Each summer the networks chase the audience away with lazy, tired reruns and then are mystified when progressively smaller numbers of viewers return for the new season in the fall.
If television's West Coast -- the entertainment divisions -- created little that was daring or bright in 1987, its East Coast -- the news divisions -- brought vital and riveting events into the American home, chief among them the euphoria-inducing rapprochement between Ronald Reagan and the Evil Empire. When Gorbachev came to visit, talk and sign a treaty, television coverage brought the story extraordinarily close.
One saw not just the pageantry of public events, but more intimate moments between the two leaders (and their wives).
Earlier in the year, millions of viewers watched in helpless fascination as Congress staged the sort of spectacles only manufactured in Washington. First, a Senate subcommittee investigated the Iran-contra affair, and Lt. Col. Oliver North gave the nonfiction (if it was nonfictional) performance of the year during his days on the witness stand.
North cowed the committee and wowed the country on the first day of his appearance. At lunchtime, members of the committee perceived that North was emerging a hero and they looked like persecutors on the air. So they came back playing it cooler; it was as if, said CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer, they had taken "nice pills."
In the fall, Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into the fitness of Robert Bork as a Supreme Court nominee also gripped the public attention. What brought Bork down is still being debated, but it's usually mentioned that on TV he looked pompous, cold and eccentric, and that can't have helped.
Momentous events like these dominated TV news coverage for days, but the great eye can also magnify the tiny human moment and make it as earthshaking as a superpower powwow or a collective congressional tantrum. On Oct. 14, that eye turned to Midland, Tex., where a little girl named Jessica McClure had fallen down a well. She was trapped there, out of reach, for three days until, on the following Friday evening, the networks could cut live to Midland for her jubilant rescue.
Prime time stopped. "Beauty and the Beast" and "Rags to Riches" and all the other shows stopped. Wherever you were, you may have stopped, too, until you saw that Jessica was safe. The earth may not be a global village yet, exactly, but when a little girl falls down a well, America can become one big national neighborhood.
In the quixotic world of television, there were two particular items that could be called Things of the Year. What were they? Condoms and people meters. The birth control devices, once unmentionable on the air, were now spoken of freely, almost everywhere.
WTBS, Ted Turner's Atlanta SuperStation, began accepting commercials for condoms (although the networks refused) and the word entered the TV vocabulary, which meant that Johnny Carson and David Letterman could do jokes about condoms and characters in sitcoms could mention them. Ron Reagan, the president's son, held one up on a PBS special about precautions to be taken against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. All this would have been unthinkable five years ago.
No, "people meter" is not another way of saying "condom." The people meter is a complicated audience measurement device introduced by the A.C. Nielsen Co. and one competing ratings service in the fall. The 1,900-or-so Nielsen households newly wired for people meters began providing Nielsen and its clients with much more detailed, instant demographic information than they got under the old system of "black boxes" (a less sophisticated meter) and diaries.
Networks faced the people meter with trepidation. They thought it would be like getting a new alphabet. But once the system was launched, it proved less than cataclysmic. Programs did not go from hits to flops overnight, although "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather," which experienced two degrading months in last place under the old scheme, bounced back to No. 1 a few weeks after the people meters kicked in.
What's interesting about the people meter is not so much how it will change the TV business as how it reflects changes in viewer behavior that have already occurred. People meters are an adaptation to the new age of video: VCRs that record programs even when no one is actually "watching" TV (or play back rented movies with no advertising in them); cable that adds new channel choices; and the multiset home, wherein the young and old, and/or the male and the female, split up and watch their own programs.
It's much less often the rule than it used to be that a family huddles together obediently before the TV set in the living room. The audience and the medium have become more fragmented. With network shares continuing to decline, the prospect emerges of ABC, NBC and CBS going the way of the old mass circulation magazines like Colliers, Look and weekly Life.
The networks are failing to come up with event programming of such impact and magnitude that it can reunite the factions and bring them streaming back to that set in the living room.
All three networks appeared to be in bad shape as the year ended.
ABC's bold attempt to revive the variety series with "Dolly," starring Dolly Parton, fizzled, although the show will be moved to Saturday nights in an effort to prolong it.
NBC's Rock of Gibraltar, "The Cosby Show," is not the universally beloved blockbuster it was, and the network has not come up with innovations of comparable clout.
CBS lost its programming whiz, Harvey Shepard, when he jumped ship early in the year, and Shepard's former boss, CBS Entertainment President B. Donald Grant, was dismissed late in the year. CBS President Laurence Tisch, so busy pinching the pennies spent by the network's news division, hasn't been as attentive with the boys on the Coast.
On the plus side, there were bold strokes in programming, chief among them ABC's "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" starring Dabney Coleman and created by Jay Tarses, who also produced "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" for NBC. "Slap" and "Dodd" epitomize a new kind of comedy series, one made without the usual nudging laugh track, and offering the deeper pleasures of, say, a good novel or a thoughtful motion picture.
Not to mention the glories-bordering-on-ecstasy of such polished and inspired performances as Coleman's ruefully rumpled sap Slap. Coleman deserves an Oscar for the part, really; an Emmy isn't quite big enough.
"Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future" seemed innovative, too, when ABC introduced it in the spring, even though the pilot for the series about an electronic creature who exists only on TV screens was merely a copy of a British original done for Britain's ambitious Channel 4. But somehow the novelty of the program waned rapidly, and its promise to break rules and transcend genres -- a` la ABC's "Moonlighting" -- was never quite kept.
Another of the year's big TV stories took place off camera. It was a fight for truth, justice and the American way, but Superman wasn't there to fight it. The Federal Communications Commission, in its relatively new-found role as the liberator of commercial broadcasters, threw out the 37-year-old Fairness Doctrine, which had required stations to devote air time to issues of public importance and to balance their treatment of them.
The Reagan years have been a bonanza for broadcasters generally, with one regulation after another tossed into the briney, but this impertinence was a matter of going too far, and a major effort was launched in Congress to reinstate the doctrine by making it a law (the courts will eventually rule on its constitutionality, it is believed).
Reagan's love for commercial broadcasting is true and unyielding. He vetoed a bill to which the doctrine was attached, then threatened even to veto a spending bill when the Fairness Doctrine codification was attached to it. Some on the Hill thought Reagan was bluffing; but his allegiance to the industry has been dismayingly consistent.
The broadcasters whine about their First Amendment rights, but it's the First Amendment rights of the public that stand to be trampled if the Fairness Doctrine and related rules (equal time for all candidates, among them) are trashed.
Among those leading the fight for the Fairness Doctrine: Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Support for the doctrine comes from sources as disparate as Ralph Nader and Phyllis Schlafly. The Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ supports it and so do nine distinguished former FCC commissioners, including ex-chairmen Newton Minow, Charles Ferris, Robert E. Lee and Rosel Hyde.
May the Force be with them.
The battle for the Fairness Doctrine will continue in 1988. The networks will press on with their efforts to staunch the hemorrhage of viewers. Home video appears to have momentarily crested, and so the networks may have a year or two of grace ahead.
Cable TV has now surpassed 50 percent penetration of the nation, which makes it more imposing a phenomenon than ever, but the cable industry still suffers from critical image problems and an uncertain existence in regulatory limbo.
Television changed in 1987, but that's nothing new. It is constantly changing. One way it never changes is to diminish in impact and effect and pervasiveness. The video screen is a more omnipresent icon than ever, virtually impossible to avoid. Television's future is up for grabs and up for bids; there are bold new technologies like High Definition Television on the horizon, and entrenched old interests armed to resist them.
For now, it's the end of the year as we know it. And we feel fine. Sort of.