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TV and the Gulf War : Is Television Fighting War With Big Shtick? : Media: Separating the trivial from the significant becomes increasingly difficult when news and entertainment blend.

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

On television, where pictures and experiences are the same size, everything is ultimately rendered equal.

Separating the trivial from the significant becomes an increasingly hard task in this cluttered milieu, leading to a strange, surreal uniformity. After all, TV is where news and entertainment tightly embrace like breathless lovers. So. . . .

--Channel 4 personality Kelly Lange spends her mornings co-hosting “Kelly & Gail"--a trashy talk show that manages to make Channel 7’s “A.M. Los Angeles” look like “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour"--and her afternoons and evenings co-anchoring newscasts that dwell somberly on war.

--Phil Donahue weighed in across the nation Thursday with a show on Persian Gulf coverage (which Channel 4 preempted for its own expanded news), sandwiched between Wednesday’s syndicated “Donahue” on “Kids Who Killed Their Parents” and today’s scheduled episode on “Football Heroes in Tutus.”

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--NBC picked Thursday to rerun a Sept. 4 episode of “The Marsha Warfield Show” that treated war almost as a joke. Toting a pink and green toy rifle, Warfield opened her daytime talk show this way: “Do we want women in combat? Guests Kim Coles of ‘In Living Color’ and Nancy Grahn of ‘Santa Barbara’ will be back to talk about it.”

Huge applause.

The topic was still pertinent, the tone putrid. Warfield, to a woman in the studio audience who felt females should stick to reproducing, not fighting: “If all the men are dead, who are you gonna reproduce with?”

--Ever-topical “Entertainment Tonight” this week advertised “controversial inside stories” while showing fragmentary pictures from the Persian Gulf on the screen. Oh, great, gulf gossip.

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Just as it pumped enough helium into those Baghdad warriors Bernard Shaw and John Holliman of CNN to sail a blimp, TV continues to confer glittering celebrity on everyone it touches. Hence, those daily televised briefings by Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams and regular TV appearances by now-familiar war experts will surely earn them all profiles on “Entertainment Night.”

If People magazine doesn’t get them first.

--Taking their cue from President Bush, many newscasters and TV reporters now refer to Iraq President Saddam Hussein merely as Saddam, pronouncing it Sahdum as if to emphasize the name association with Sodom and Satan.

The one-name reference also personalizes the Persian Gulf War in a way that makes Hussein sound more like a mythic TV villain with bulging green eyes than the crafty thug many think he is.

--While cutting to a commercial at one point this week, ABC slipped in an unrelated factoid--"It’s reported that one of Saddam’s bunkers has a swimming pool and a tanning machine"--as if Hussein were starring in “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

--Using huge, bold letters, the networks have glitzily titled their gulf coverage as if introducing entertainment shows.

On CNN, in blazing graphics recalling promos for that 1988-89 ABC miniseries “War and Remembrance,” it’s “War in the Gulf,” accompanied by irritatingly loud whomp-de-whomp-de-whomp music now instead of the earlier thundering drums.

On ABC, it’s either “Operation Desert Storm” or “The Gulf War,” amplified by music featuring drums and strings. On NBC, it’s “America at War,” with tingly suspense music. And on CBS, poignant piano music softens “Showdown in the Gulf.”

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--The war tie-in is also alive and well, from freshly made commercials with patriotic themes to tabloid shows that feed on exploitation. “Inside Edition” on Thursday: “A veteran’s wartime tragedy brings a lifetime of romance.”

Yes . . . tragedy, romance and war, merging on TV like runny watercolors.


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