When, in future years, historians and scholars and cultural gourmets look back at Television 1999, what they'll probably say is--
Whoa. Wait a minute. What they'll probably say is nothing, because they'll have a lot better things to do than look back at Television 1999. Even at this time of year, when duty and tradition rather demand that sort of thing, it's hard to summon much enthusiasm. In 1999, television continued to ensue.
Networks lost more viewers, basic cable gained a few, the Internet appeared to lure more and more people away from their television sets, and the biggest programming sensation was a retread from an era that brought the networks infamy, embarrassment and disgrace.
Is that our final answer? Yes. TV 1999 was notable mainly for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," ABC's super-surprise smash-hit game show, which the network used baldly and blatantly to plug up low-rated holes in its schedule, of which there were many. "Millionaire" was the first prime-time programming sensation since "Seinfeld," and though it hardly took as much cleverness or wit to create it (it was in fact based on a British series), just the notion of having a big, blazing, talked-about national hit was fun for viewers and morale-boosting for ABC executives.
It evoked memories of halcyon days when huge splashes were made by such diverse, much-discussed entertainments as "All in the Family," "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," "The Cosby Show," "Mary Tyler Moore" and, of course, the still-lamented "Seinfeld," which in syndicated reruns seems only to get better and better. The network era was still over, but suddenly everybody was talking about a network show again, and you were just out of it if you didn't know about the three "lifelines" or make fun of some of the geekier contestants (fat white computer programmers seemed to dominate the contestant pool) or witness for yourself the night an IRS employee became the first player to win the $1 million pot.
Regis Philbin, a sassy, leprechaunical charmer who daily proves his ad-libbing prowess on the syndicated "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee" talk show, earns a reported $250,000 for hosting each episode of "Millionaire," but undoubtedly Philbin measures the triumph in terms other than fiscal. It turns out there is an art to everything, even hosting a quiz show, and Philbin brought just enough mischief and playfulness to "Millionaire" to heighten the entertainment value without in any way compromising the suspense of the contest.
While ABC could take pleasure and even pride in the "Millionaire" phenomenon, network executives managed to besmirch themselves thoroughly in another cranny of the prime-time schedule. "Once and Again," a syrupy prime-time soap about two divorced people finding each other and attempting a courtship, got poor ratings but good demographics (that is, it appealed to young viewers) in what was supposed to be its temporary time slot, Tuesday nights at 10.
The plan was to relocate "Once and Again" when the network's gritty hit cop drama, "NYPD Blue," made its seasonal return in October. But then something funny happened, and "NYPD Blue" producer Steven Bochco was not laughing. ABC announced that "Once and Again" would stay in the time slot; the plight of "NYPD Blue" was akin to an airplane circling Los Angeles International Airport waiting for permission to land.
Salient points: ABC is owned by Disney. A Disney subsidiary produces "Once and Again." Without question, the show was getting special treatment because it was an in-house production. This was exactly the type of thing that worrywarts warned us about when rules restricting network ownership of programming were relaxed. ABC couldn't have been more flagrant or shameless.
As for "NYPD Blue," a proven hit that's about 25 times better than "Once and Again" on its best night, the series still hasn't had its fall premiere. That will occur Jan. 11, in its old Tuesday time slot. "Once and Again" moves to Mondays at 10 on Jan. 24.
Elsewhere on the vast flat plain of prime time, little of interest was happening. The most critically acclaimed show of the new fall season, Fox's "Action," was doomed from the start and now lies in the mammoth media morgue with a tag on its toe. The satirical sitcom was developed for HBO, where rough language and nudity are not only permitted but virtually required in original programming. When HBO passed on the show and it went to Fox, the dirty words were bleeped and the nudity trimmed--and that seemed to symbolize a decline in gutsiness and irreverence.
This was a pity--and certainly not because there are too few vulgar and ugly shows on the air. It's just that "Action" was so bravely and bitterly satirical about the entertainment business itself, about the kinds of people--the show biz executives with cell phones all but surgically attached and social conscience all but surgically removed--who decide what gets on the air and what doesn't. The people who insult Steven Bochco and all the millions of fans of "NYPD Blue" because they are more concerned with long-term profits from a draggy, dreary series that has their own label on it.
"Action" never really belonged on Fox, never fit comfortably into the schedule and, no matter how much critics reveled in it, was never going to find a big audience among network viewers. Perhaps it'll be revived someday by, oh, let's say Showtime, a pay-cable network that seems to thrive on the discards and detritus of competitors. Jay Mohr, who played the show's strangely sympathetic antihero, at least deserves an Emmy for his effort. He was a magnificently ruthless creep.
Ironically, Showtime's own attempt at a TV business satire, "Beggars and Choosers," though well-written and -acted--and based on an idea by the late Brandon Tartikoff--never seemed as savagely spleeny and on-target. Showtime had a bad year generally, forever trumpeting its own alleged cutting edge while producing shows that were about as sharp as Slurpees.
HBO, however, had managed to come up with arguably the hottest item of the year, "Millionaire" aside, in its shocking, funny, dark and wicked serialized mob drama "The Sopranos," about a New Jersey mobster named Tony Soprano wading slowly through the Big Muddy of a midlife crisis. His wife wants him honest, his nephew wants him tougher, and his mother wants him dead. James Gandolfini as Tony led a cast that was the best of any new series on any network of any kind, and the scripts were smart and snappy.
As one measure of its success, tapes of "The Sopranos" turned out to be the most borrowed of any show in memory, at least in the office of this TV critic. The tremendous strength of its appeal is perhaps a topic for anthropologists to address, but whatever the root causes, "The Sopranos" seems right now the ideal show for its time. Thirteen new episodes will premiere on HBO Jan. 16, about a year after the first baker's dozen made their debut.
"The Sopranos" should have mopped up at the Emmys in September, but the TV Academy, which doles out the trophies, is still dominated by broadcast networks, not cable (which had its own awards, the CableAces, until 1998). And "Sopranos" scared the networks as perhaps no other cable success story has, because it so thoroughly trounced the networks at what had been their own game, the weekly dramatic series.
It's one thing for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox to be clobbered by, say, the HBO premiere of "Titanic" or some other movie blockbuster, and another to be shot full of holes by an original new series. And to add a savory soupcon of irony, the networks all passed on "Sopranos" themselves.
Night in, night out, little about TV '99 seemed remarkably different--pivotal, epochal, revolutionary--from previous years. But there were plenty of shadows on the walls, including the almost perpetually imminent HDTV, or high-definition television, a new standard of TV picture that will make today's look almost primitive. It will also mean a change, literally, in the shape of television--from the long-reigning 4-by-3 aspect ratio of the screen to the more movielike 16-by-9. The year 2000 could be, after many years of false starts, the decisive one for this more vivid, intense and commanding television picture.
What will it mean? That the quality of programming will automatically improve? Surely you jest. But it will mean changes in the way we watch, in the way TV impacts our senses and our lives. It will likely hasten the rezoning of the home along television-defined lines--a small, utilitarian TV in the kitchen or laundry room or workroom for utilitarian programming like news and weather and how to make the perfect latte. And a big fat monster of a TV in the living room for watching team sports played in giant arenas, and movies, and anything else with an air of spectacle to it.
Meanwhile, in another room of the house, the TV set and the computer will have linked up for who knows what nefarious (or benign) purposes. Teenagers may insist, as teenagers are wont to do, on having not only computers but also linked TV sets in their own rooms, so they can dig up Internet interdirt on the Backstreet Boys even as MTV is unveiling the group's latest oh-so-cool-it-hurts video.
It may be that we are in the waning years of television as a stand-alone medium, that all television of the future will be linked to something else, be it the home computer or the DVD player or that old-fashioned, increasingly dated VCR. Does this mean we'll be less TV-dependent? Forget it. We'll be more TV-dependent. That's one of the crazy things about television: Even as it seems to wane, it continues to reign.