'92 YEAR IN REVIEW : Television's Ocean of Nonfiction Mostly Shallow : Programming: 1992 highlights include Werner Herzog's 'Lessons of Darkness,' Robert Reich's 'Made in America?' and some campaign coverage.

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Thumbing through a scrapbook stuffed with review clips from 1992 gives off a strange, giddy feeling of a year having whizzed by like a train off the tracks. It also gives off something even stranger: The hard, week-by-week evidence that television--be it network, cable, public--is obsessed with anything that doesn't have to be invented, that can be recalled, retold, retranslated.

It's why there are rabid fans of "Northern Exposure" and "Mystery!" and both generations of "Star Trek": They prize the island of fiction as a dwindling oddity in an ocean of nonfiction.

It's an ocean with mostly shallows and very few depths. Whether that will change as TV technology changes (such as when we'll have over 500 channels to select, potentially turning the tube into a massive box of video magazines for every interest) is going to be the big question of television's creative future. An early, snap answer? Unlikely, considering what is available right now.

The most worrisome indicator of that future in 1992 is PBS. Oh, there were many, many fine hours on the network this year. Its flagship series of serious documentary and investigative work, "Frontline," is staying afloat very well. (A good sign of its journalistic health is when both leftist critics like Jeff Cohen and rightist critics like David Horowitz go after it.)

But films aired on the network or made for "Frontline" or the "P.O.V." series of independent video seemed to steer to safe shores. Both the sheer gall of "Stop the Church" and epic nerve of Ken Burns' "The Civil War" were missing this year. (Instead, there were Burns wanna-bes, such as PBS' "Abraham Lincoln: A New Birth of Freedom" and ABC's year-end wallop of history, "Lincoln.")

But gall and nerve are what PBS is supposed to be a repository for. Originally planned as a place for gadflies, uncommercial topics and dissent of all sorts, public television cowered in 1992 from the war of 1991 against "P.O.V.," with the resulting fallout in the form of Congress' Public Telecommunication Act and possibly harsher governmental oversight of content. (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting's self-accounting to Congress is due in the next month.)

Imagine that this oversight already existed. Would it have forced "Frontline" to air a rosy account of Jimmy Hoffa to "balance" Jack Newfield's stunning "JFK, Hoffa and the Mob"? (Some think Danny DeVito has already done that job with "Hoffa.") Or a nice view of Bill Clinton's Arkansas record to "equalize" "Who Cares About Children?," a harsh critique of Clinton? Or a pro-Saddam Hussein report to match the devastating depiction of the dictator's Holocaust against Iraq's Kurds in "Saddam's Killing Fields"?

Ridiculous, perhaps, but no more ridiculous than searching for films that would have "balanced" the personal insights in PBS' two best independent works: Robert Reich's "Made in America?" and the seven-part "States of Mind." Reich, Clinton's pick for labor secretary, supplied the most thorough appraisal of what went wrong with the U.S. economy in the '80s, and unlike "Frontline" reports, offered actual solutions. "States of Mind" unreeled a gallery of artfully viewed impressions by several filmmakers of American communities in dramatic transition, some so shocking precisely because PBS has little shock left in its system.

Small pockets of cable are picking up the ball PBS is dropping. The Discovery Channel isn't remotely close to the kind of probing science channel it could be, but it was the only U.S. outlet willing to air the year's most memorable documentary: Werner Herzog's apocalyptic, ultimately ironic view of the Gulf War, "Lessons of Darkness." And the first test of a good cable carrier is if it airs the '90s Channel, the one and only station devoted to underground, semi-underground, polemical, non-corporate-sponsored video. It was "The '90s," for instance, that offered the wittiest uncensored looks at the presidential campaign.

C-SPAN, on the other hand, gave voters everything they needed except wit. (Next test of your cable carrier: Do they carry both C-SPAN channels?) Above all, C-SPAN's distant camera conveyed the drudgery of a national campaign, the candidate slowly filing through rooms, shaking hands, making speeches, eating bad food. "Balance," as on no other station, has been turned into an art form: Host Brian Lamb's personal politics remain utterly opaque, and hearing such candidates as Pat Buchanan say, "Hi! How are ya?" five dozen times is the meaning of post-modern TV.

For sheer volume of campaign reporting, of course, CNN was unmatched. On most days in '92, whole hours of CNN's airtime were devoted to every nuance of American politics, but the attention to details was often better than the broader picture. Its ongoing "Democracy in America" series proved mostly flabby and obvious, its forays into high-tech poll-taking absolutely wacky and sometimes misleading, and its pairing of "Crossfire" opponents truly scandalous (on the left, real journalist Michael Kinsley; on the right, non-journalist and professional Reagan-era apologist John Sununu).

Reporting on the Big Three networks--except for ABC's "Nightline"--made even CNN's worst campaign day look brilliant, possibly because the whole realm of journalism appears beyond them. They issued a nightly stream of info-snippets, while over at PBS' "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour," news with analysis was still not a dirty phrase.

In a year when chat shows like Larry King's continuous Ross Perot show and the pundit programs created news, worthwhile information in documentaries--"Frontline's" investigation of "The October Surprise," for instance--tended not to be picked up by TV and print journalists. Perhaps the networks' continuous blurring of fiction and nonfiction, with the Amy Fisher saga being the latest example, was also blurring everyone's attitude toward those principled corners of the airwaves where the line between the two still isn't being crossed.

And yet, even some of the biggest PBS documentaries reveled in crossing it. David Maybury-Lewis' 10-part "Millennium" oddly blended cinema verite with restagings of action in the lives of tribal people around the world, as if these pre-industrial folk needed juicing up with movie-like effects.

"Millennium" highlighted the current rule of nonfiction TV viewing: Expect little from the "event" shows, and keep a lookout for the Little Programs That Could. While the usually astute William Greider drearily examined the body politic like a bored coroner in his "Frontline" opus, "The Betrayal of Democracy," late-night "P.O.V." works like Marlon Riggs' history of blacks on the tube, "Color Adjustment," or Pamela Yates' and Peter Kinoy's vital look at homeless activists, "Takeover," burned with passion.

Some of the biggest of the big shows were the multi-part biographies, all of them tributes to the dirty work of groping through the film archives, not all of them worth taping. Time devalued "Frontline's" "Who Is David Duke?," while the massive "De Gaulle and France" will stand proud in the video library years from now. Some, like "Elizabeth R: A Year in the Life of the Queen," were state-approved portraits; others, like "The Kennedys," were a little too glowing by half; still others, like "Franco: Behind The Myth" on the occasionally surprising Arts and Entertainment channel, told a powerful story while ignoring the story's relevance.

Back home, the most important story--the Rodney King trial and the unrest that followed--received the most interesting coverage on the Court TV channel, with its edited version of the taped trial, "What The Jury Saw." The final cable test is if your carrier has Court TV; if so, you're ready for TV in the '90s.

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