Some New Year's Hopes, Wishes and Dreams

Television wishes for the New Year:

* First of all, that all networks, and not just CBS, get the message that viewers are sending in their write-in campaign to revive the effectively canceled "Brooklyn Bridge."

Thus far, in the last few weeks, we have received about 150 letters from around the nation, plus a petition with 100 signatures in support of the CBS series, which the network will send packing after seven remaining episodes, barring a miracle.

But what is even more significant than the write-in campaign itself is the content and thrust of the letters, which, in sum, are telling the networks that they are driving away many intelligent, selective, financially comfortable viewers (and buyers of products) by failing to show them any respect.

They are telling the networks that they are committing suicide by failing to at least give worthwhile borderline shows the time and opportunity to prove themselves. And they are also telling the networks that they are painting themselves into a creative corner by catering more and more to the semi-literate audience, dragging TV's theory of lowest-common-denominator programming even lower.

These are messages worth heeding because they are true. And as shows like "Brooklyn Bridge" and "I'll Fly Away" become nearly impossible to sustain--like other fine programs before them, from "Frank's Place" to "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd"--many sophisticated viewers have come to the point where they simply don't give a damn whether the networks go under.

And no wonder.

* Second, let's hope that in 1993 other significant and disenfranchised segments of the TV audience--people of Latino, Asian and American Indian heritage--finally get some respect and a far more visible representation on the home screen.

Blacks have broken through in large numbers, although there are still far too many demeaning stereotypes and, just as bad, no regular weekly drama series on the major networks depicting African-American family life.

The other minorities, however, are barely visible. A woman reader writes passionately of "the dearth of Latinos, Asians and Native Americans on TV."

Early this month, in a decision that seems extremely odd, CBS broadcast a high-rated TV movie called "A Killer Among Friends," which was based on a true story of a mother's personal campaign to solve the murder of her child--and gave the woman an Anglo last name, Monroe, even though in real life she is Latina.

This was a case where the mother was a courageous, well-loved, positive role model, a popular person in her neighborhood. Depicting the mother with a name--fictitious or otherwise--that reflected her heritage could only, it seems, result in a favorable impression of a strong Latina character.

The mother was played, and played well, by Patty Duke. And just as Latinos--and all minorities--should be given more opportunities to play people of all backgrounds, there is no reason why Duke could not still have portrayed the character, but as a person of Latino heritage.

It was a film in which the woman's real name was not necessary. But surely, those in charge could not have thought that a Latina lead character would be less palatable and salable to television viewers and advertisers. Surely.

In an ironic twist, meanwhile, immediately following the movie the real mother and the slain girl's brother were presented on KCBS-TV Channel 2 in a news report recalling the story, and using the family's Latino name.

* Third, one has to hope that the New Year delivers the gift of good judgment again to NBC, which looked absurd, indecisive and distinctly minor league in its handling of the Jay Leno-David Letterman affair.

Instead of wavering and letting the matter get out of hand, with all kinds of scenarios emerging, NBC should have acted swiftly after Letterman's representatives presented the network with a huge offer from CBS for the new late-night king.

A well-oiled network should have, and would have, thought out just about all the possible options going in. It is, after all, not a new matter, and knowing the probabilities is what these executives are paid for. Thus, NBC should have said, within a day or two, that Letterman would take over "The Tonight Show" from Leno, or, conversely, that Leno would stay put and Letterman was free to go to CBS.

This was a case where the ongoing conjecture was good publicity for an awful lot of people, but it certainly wasn't for NBC. Faced with one of the most important decisions in its history, which would affect the only area in which NBC still reigns supreme--late-night--at a time when the broadcast organization is in dire straits, the network dilly-dallied, shilly-shallied and hardly looked the part of a great corporation as the country watched.

* Fourth, network officials and other TV executives might consider the view of Carroll O'Connor, the star and co-executive producer of CBS' "In the Heat of the Night," whether or not they are fans of the show. Says O'Connor:

"We just try to do stuff that has some kind of a meaning. I always say that the question viewers ask as they're watching is: 'Why are we watching this show?' We try to answer that question every time. That's our goal--not teaching a lesson. People don't like to be preached at. But answer that question. Sometimes when I watch movies, I say, 'Why am I watching this movie? What's the point?' You have to ask yourself, 'What are you doing this for?' "

* Fifth, viewers and TV executives might also consider these words from Ken Burns, producer of PBS' "The Civil War," upon accepting a USC journalism award last month:

"Television is rapidly eroding the strength of our republic from within, substituting a distracting cultural monarchy for the diversity and variety and democracy promised in its conception and unveiling. Instead of dozens of options on the tube, we now see nearly the same thing everywhere, always presented the same way, on dozens of clone-like channels.

"Television has equipped us as citizens to live only in an all-consuming, and thereby forgettable and disposable, present, blissfully unaware of the historical tides and movements that speak not only to this moment, but to our vast future as well. . . .

"But television can remind us too, if we let it. . . . As we gradually become a country and a society without letter-writing and diary-keeping, more and more dependent on visual signs and language, television will become more and more an important part of the making of history. More and more, we will be connected to the past by the images we have made, and they will become the glue that makes memories."

Some thoughts for 1993. Happy New Year.

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