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COVER STORY : 91 YEAR IN REVIEW : The Year of TV News : For sheer whiz-bang drama, nothing beat the reality of epic events. But beyond the images, how many viewers got the whole picture?

<i> Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic. </i>

Murphy Brown got pregnant in 1991, and Roseanne Arnold stopped looking pregnant. Doogie Howser lost his virginity, and “L.A. Law” lost half the firm.

“Beverly Hills, 90210" found a youth cult, “Designing Women” found peace without Delta Burke, “Who’s the Boss?” protagonists Tony and Angela found each other, and cryptic “Twin Peaks"--after becoming the talk of the media, if not the nation--found cancellation.

Very interesting.

What viewers found in 1991, though, is that the one thing Hollywood-driven TV can never hope to match--no matter how much money is spent or how freely the creative juices flow or how big the stars are--is the sheer power of the real event. Nothing beats dramatic, mesmerizing, whacks-you-in-the-face, sticks-in-your-mind, magnetizes-you-to-the-set, pins-you-to-your-chair reality.

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Thus, as it turns out, the epic television events of 1991 were the epic events of 1991:

* The Persian Gulf War that unified most of the nation in flag-swirling, baton-twirling, patriotic fervor against a ruthless dictator who decisively lost the battle but, apparently, not his capacity for dangerous mischief and adventurism in the Middle East.

* The failed coup against Mikhail S. Gorbachev, signaling a chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union that continues to rumble and reverberate.

* The polarizing Clarence Thomas-Anita Faye Hill hearings that gave Americans a heavy dose of ugliness along with a new associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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* The videotaped savage beating of motorist Rodney G. King by Los Angeles police officers, which symbolically bronzed the age of the camcorder and stigmatized law enforcement agencies everywhere.

The late NBC News correspondent Douglas Kiker once equated what he and his colleagues in television news did with “making little movies.” What viewers saw in the above cases, however, were Cecil B. DeMille-sized extravaganzas, the first three stories ironically pulling network news back onto center stage precisely at a time when the once-brawny news divisions at ABC, CBS and NBC were undergoing seemingly irreversible shrinkage. Their future continues to be uncertain.

News inevitably trickles out on TV as a series of melodramas, small and big, momentary trivia burned into our memories alongside history-defining spectacles. Flash back to the witch-hunting Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, the pivotal Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963, the Watergate hearings and President Nixon’s subsequent resignation and emotional departure from the White House in 1974, rebellious fervor building in China’s Tian An Men Square in 1989, the Berlin Wall’s undoing and East Europe’s revolutionary rebirth in 1990.

More than any previous 12-month period, however, it was 1991 that became the year of televised tumult. Sex, violence, political upheaval: TV news had it all, and on a scale and intensity that humbled Hollywood’s efforts to engage us.

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Yet great theater does not necessarily equal meaningful, substantive communication, and there remains a real question whether viewers, beyond seeing a good show, were able to distill and fully comprehend the experiences that evolved before their eyes. Equally uncertain is how long the major networks, with their hemorrhaging news budgets, can continue to provide such mammoth coverage.

The television year began with the Gulf conflict, the first war substantially covered by TV in continuous or real time, and one that dramatically illuminated the value of CNN as a global network of record the way night bombing and antiaircraft fire lit the skies over Baghdad.

The Vietnam conflict was America’s first TV war, but the Gulf conflict was its first live-TV war, even though “live” too rarely applied to coverage of combat in the field.

Tensions, which began soaring with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait the previous August, culminated Jan. 16 with a U.S.-led air bombardment of Iraq whose initial hours were stunningly reported by CNN’s Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman from their room in the Al Rashid Hotel. Deprived of video, the three correspondents told their story through old-fashioned radio techniques, the way Edward R. Murrow, half a century earlier, had used his microphone as audio witness to the German bombing of London.

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These harrowing moments--along with live coverage of Scuds falling on Israel and scenes of scraggly Iraqi soldiers meekly surrendering to both allied troops and pool-busting network reporters--were the times when TV was able to convey a sense of the war.

All too few times. Effective as they were, the CNN trio’s audio reports that first evening were to become at least a partial metaphor for 40 days of Gulf War coverage that, despite TV’s ability to transmit instantaneously from practically anywhere, was so tightly controlled by the military that viewers got far less actual footage than repetitive analysis and speculation.

As Bill Moyers was to observe later, what America saw on TV was “not the war, but the official report of the war.” And as William F. Fore, a visiting lecturer in communications at Yale University Divinity School, has noted: “Never was so much stock footage used to convey so little.” Polls showed that, overwhelmingly, Americans were getting their news about the war from TV. But although the medium’s technology was greater than ever, the public’s knowledge may have been smaller, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who found that those who watched the most war coverage on TV tended to know the least about the war and its causes and consequences.

And no wonder, for with some dramatic exceptions--headed by Arnett’s oft-scorned reporting from Iraq, the later work of ABC’s Forrest Sawyer and CBS’ Bob McKeown and human-interest stories monitoring the impact on the home front--the war coverage was inadequate and often misleading.

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We saw gas-masked media in jeopardy, sanitized briefings and military-supplied footage of bombing raids that reduced death to computerized abstractions. And onto TV, direct from the nation’s think tanks and retirement homes, trooped the “suits"--the so-called military and foreign-policy experts, most of them armed to the teeth with maps, pointers, euphemisms and sound bites. The networks, and numerous local stations, rolled out the yellow ribbon for these academic GI Joes who bore the accouterments of authority that television so desperately craved.

Overwhelmingly, these were unquestioning soldiers who lined up behind the U.S. war effort and, in doing so, joined their TV hosts in enlisting in the cause just as surely as if they had personally been recruited by George Bush.

Whatever the results, the networks do deserve credit for swiftly mobilizing and often putting aside financial and commercial considerations to cover a war that, it was said, made Americans feel good about themselves.

And in doing so, they temporarily stunted unrest over a worsening recessionary economy that was undermining their own industry as it was the rest of the nation.

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After their budget-breaking coverage of the Gulf War, the last thing the money-strapped network news divisions needed--and just about the first thing they got--was another international crisis.

The unexpected ouster of Gorbachev by Soviet hard-liners in August was the coup heard--and seen--around the world. Taken by surprise, the networks this time mobilized less swiftly, initially filling the airwaves with more rumors than reality. Ultimately, what ABC’s Ted Koppel had charitably termed “constructive speculation” was supplanted by surges of first-rate reporting and vivid pictures that defined--as the written word could never do--a condition of dangerous, leaderless pandemonium inside a nation with the nuclear capacity to destroy the world.

It was CNN and CBS that first aired dramatic reports from within the Moscow government building where Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and many of his supporters were holed up in anticipation of an assault from military forces supporting the coup.

In the days that followed, you could hardly believe the pictures beamed into your home: Muscovites erecting barricades at the government building; Yeltsin standing atop a tank and defying the coup, which would soon collapse; hundreds of thousands of Russians spilling into the streets; a politically crippled Gorbachev returning and meeting the international press; Gorbachev and his political rival Yeltsin sitting side by side in Moscow while taking questions from U.S. viewers via satellite during a town hall telecast on ABC.

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This was Soviet history in the making, delivered live to America.

Yet what did it all mean? The pictures and sounds were riveting and enthralling, narrowing a physical gap between us and them. But typical of a medium that communicates essentially through emotions, TV made the experience a visceral one. It was “Masterpiece Theatre” without Alistair Cooke to provide political and historical context.

Even as a show, it was all too fleeting. Except for reliable CNN, which reaches only about 60% of the nation, TV only fitfully covered these historic days that so dramatically crystallized complex upheaval in the Soviet Union. And in limiting coverage of this evolving revolution almost exclusively to their regular nightly newscasts and the fringe viewing hours of early morning and late night, the networks made prime-time television off limits to a prime-time event of epic proportion.

Thus, relevance and responsibility joined Gorbachev as casualties in these remarkable times.

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In terms of human drama, though, not since the Watergate hearings and Richard Nixon’s departure from the White House had TV delivered a live event as remarkable--or enthralling--as October’s duel between Supreme Court nominee Thomas and Hill, the law professor who accused him of sexual harassment.

Nor has there been a single televised event that has evoked so many grotesque demons or polarizing “isms,” as in racism, sexism and political cynicism. To say nothing of flat-out deception, for either Thomas was lying or Hill was lying. It was a given that the politicians were lying. That’s their job.

Although somewhat less interested in Thomas’ earlier appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the big three networks joined CNN, PBS and C-SPAN in televising broad chunks of this new testimony, which became a battle of imagery while capturing the attention of the public.

Lowest on the credibility barometer was the committee itself. Undoubtedly, the “blinding light” of publicity, as the committee’s chairman, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), characterized the TV coverage, shone harsher on the political process than on either Thomas or Hill. Facing this black man and this black woman was a panel of senators who were not only white and male but who also appeared more intent on playing politics than on playing fair.

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Bush’s appointment of Thomas in the first place notwithstanding, the television coverage begged responses to three questions: Was this an appropriate way to evaluate a Supreme Court associate justice? What this an appropriate way to probe serious charges brought by an apparently credible complainant? Was this an appropriate way for senators to behave? No, no and no, a preponderance of viewers surely would have answered.

Although the Thomas-Hill hearings caught the public’s fancy on many levels, no doubt some viewers tuned in solely to hear those lurid details that now seem almost quaint compared with the salacious testimony in a more recent televised spectacle, the trial of William Kennedy Smith on rape charges. That trial, and Magic Johnson’s revelation about his having contracted the AIDS virus, are the televised real-life dramas that most recently have turned our heads.

Yet nothing in recent years has been more shocking--and revolting--than the King video.

It’s been estimated that as many as 14 million Americans now own camcorders. One of them is George Holliday, the amateur cameraman who videotaped the King beating from his balcony in the wee hours of March 3 without knowing quite what he was recording.

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First aired on KTLA Channel 5 and then repeated ad infinitum on TV just about everywhere--to the extent that many viewers may have become desensitized to it--the King video launched a wide-ranging probe of the Los Angeles Police Department that, rightly or wrongly, has thrown a dark shadow on other law enforcement agencies as well.

On a broader canvas, though, Holliday’s video has become the centerpiece of a video revolution that finds the camcorder evolving into a modern-day Brownie camera, seemingly ubiquitous. Thus, even globally, no newsworthy event, large or obscure, is now beyond the eye of television. With Abraham Zapruder’s home-movie footage of the John F. Kennedy assassination as pioneering prototype, everyone with a camcorder is now a potential news stringer. If not the King video, it’s political turbulence in a far-off land or a car falling through a hole in the Oakland Bay Bridge after an earthquake or jets crashing or tornadoes menacing towns in America’s Midwest. Moreover, home video footage--whether a baby-sitter abusing a child or a homophobic thug pummeling a gay man--is increasingly finding its way into courtrooms.

Squabbles over copyrights and other legal issues are the inevitable side effects of the camcorder revolution, and the possibility of story fraud or fakery becomes every news executive’s nightmare.

From the perspective of TV, however, the more eyes watching the world the better, especially if those eyes come cheap. That’s especially so in an age of budget slashing and personnel reductions that has put the network news divisions through a sort of liposuction and has them wobbling on bird legs while trying to cover the same ground as before.

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In the network news business, only the amazing CNN is building and growing, as Ted Turner’s golden creation continues to solidify its position as a global behemoth that’s almost as familiar to viewers in Poland as in Peoria. It’s primarily in response to Turner’s 24-hour CNN and Headline News that NBC on Nov. 3 launched its own overnight news titled “Nightside,” that ABC will follow on Jan. 6 with its own “World News Now” and that CBS has announced plans to replace its long-running “Nightwatch” program with an overnight news service starting in February or March.

Beyond this middle-of-the-night expansion, however, the message from the news divisions is “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

At a time when the demands for news coverage are growing, network news resources are shriveling. According to industry sources, the ABC News roster now totals about 1,100--down 100 from the end of 1990, about the same number of positions that NBC and CBS each cut this year in trimming their staffs to the present 950. These near-10% reductions in personnel for 1991 came on the heels of previous cutbacks.

People weren’t the only thing to go. ABC now has nine foreign bureaus after closing its Hong Kong, Rome and Frankfurt, Germany, bureaus in 1991, and eight U.S. bureaus after dropping St. Louis and Boston. CBS closed its Hong Kong bureau and now has seven foreign bureaus; its domestic bureaus dropped to six after it closed its Chicago bureau (although it continues to maintain a correspondent and producer there). CBS had closed its Denver bureau in 1990.

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NBC closed its Frankfurt and Budapest, Hungary, bureaus in the last year, leaving it 11 foreign bureaus, including one in Barcelona, Spain, that is expected to be shut down after the 1992 Summer Olympics are shown on NBC. “World hot spots change, and you move your people where you think they are needed,” said an NBC spokeswoman, who added that the network’s Budapest bureau was a temporary one specifically established in response to political upheaval in Eastern Europe.

Domestically, NBC now has seven bureaus, after 1991 closures in New York, Miami and San Francisco, which the network had described as a “satellite office.” Personnel from the New York bureau were folded into the division’s New York headquarters, the spokeswoman said.

NBC’s news division appears to be in the most peril, as the network has projected shocking losses of $60 million to $70 million for 1991 and continues to plod on under a cloud of rumors that General Electric has it up for sale. To partially neutralize its personnel drain, NBC has already begun sharing news gathering with its owned-and-operated stations; Keith Morrison and Bill Lagatutta of KNBC Channel 4 in Los Angeles are among 10 correspondents doing occasional double duty between their local stations and the network.

In fact, all three networks have begun relying more on their local stations everywhere for breaking stories, often replacing the local voices with those of network correspondents in New York, as if a network voice alone enhanced the quality of the story.

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Given their bleak state of affairs, it’s no sure thing that any of the network news divisions would now have the inclination, to say nothing of the resources, to again mobilize for a momentous international story and continue to cover it on an ongoing basis.

Well, you ask, who needs them with good old CNN around to blanket the globe? The nation needs them. To say that one national TV news source is sufficient is like saying that the only paper Los Angeles needs is this one, or that the New York Times renders all other New York newspapers redundant. On the contrary, the more news sources the better.

This is not a time for optimism, however. Although the future of the news divisions remains a question mark, continued withering seems a good bet, and slow, agonizing death remains a possibility. It’s not pleasant envisioning their traditional hard-news roles being even partially usurped by local stations, too many of which regard journalism the way dogs do fireplugs.

But does the public care? Do the TV babies reared on local newscasts that chip away at news with entertainment really care that they’re being amused more than they’re being informed? Do viewers increasingly exposed to tabloid programs and tabloid components within news programs really care about anything beyond funny anchors, funny weathercasters and funny sportscasters? Anything beyond Tom and Roseanne or Donald and Ivana?

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When the Dallas Times Herald folded recently, one of its reporters wondered on TV if anyone were reading anymore. The bigger question, as you ponder the state of TV news, is whether anyone is even thinking anymore.


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