Putting to rest charges that he owns no television set and spent much of the year in a fog, Times Television Critic Howard Rosenberg shares his impressions of developments on the small screen in 1996 :
HIGHLIGHT. "Profit," an amazing Fox drama series that broke all rules by seeking to attract viewers to an amoral antihero, a magnificently vile, insincere, underhanded, sadistic and even homicidal young executive who would do anything--and did--to rise in the corporate world. As a bonus, each episode ended with him climbing nude into a cardboard box and sucking his thumb.
LOWLIGHT. The cancellation of "Profit" because of low ratings.
HIGHLIGHT. "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," a new talk series starring a brash, bouncy, blabby comic whose big heart and big humor--to say nothing of her lineup of entertainment VIPs--made her the latest rage of daytime, affirming that portraying a dysfunctional United States is not the only way to charm the nation's homebodies. Another higher brow, Oprah Winfrey, remains queen of daytime, but at year's end it is O'Donnell who is the talk of the industry.
LOWLIGHT. "Jenny Jones" still existing. Jonathan Schmitz was sentenced to 25 to 50 years for fatally shooting Scott Amedure three days after Amedure had disclosed during a Jones taping that he lusted for Schmitz. During his trial, the emotionally unsteady Schmitz claimed he was pushed over the edge by the TV incident. But there was no admission of culpability by Jones, who insisted on the stand that she knew little of how her own show was produced. She does know how to endorse her fat paychecks, however.
HIGHLIGHT. A plan, approved by the Federal Communications Commission, to require TV stations to provide at least three hours a week of educational programming for children. Although it remained to be seen what stations would attempt to define as "educational," the plan was an important concession by the TV industry that it owes children more than lip service.
LOWLIGHT. Richard Jewell getting symbolically strung up by many in the media, who again threw circumspection to the winds in hurtling out of control while chasing a big, breaking story, this time the bombing in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park. The investigation continues, but NBC has already made a financial settlement with the subsequently cleared Jewell for its role in nourishing the belief that he was the bomber.
HIGHLIGHT. The emergence on cable of MSNBC and the Fox News Channel as 24-hour news enterprises, competing with each other and the established CNN. The more news the better, even though neither is now much of a threat to CNN, with FNC in particular often coming across as the "Amateur Hour" of news. But CNN's own history demonstrates just how long it can take to toilet-train a fledgling news network.
LOWLIGHT. "The Dana Carvey Show," ABC's fleeting attempt to weave sponsors' messages into sketches under the guise of comedy. It deserved to bomb swiftly. And did.
HIGHLIGHT. Content ratings for entertainment programs, a landmark system necessary to execute remote-control V-chip technology mandated for new TV sets in 1998. Although deeply flawed, the six classifications of ratings are a positive step toward making parents and others smarter about the TV programs entering their homes.
LOWLIGHT. The appalling trend toward fright TV, whether about crime, natural disasters or animals. A new syndicated offering from Paramount and the creators of "Cops," for example, is "Wild Things," described as "the heart-stopping new show about animals that's almost as wild as they are." In other words, "wildlife television that doesn't just watch from the bushes, it crashes through them. Cameras roll as predators prowl. No limits. No safety nets." Just what TV needs more of. No limits. No safety nets.