The year TV and the computer made it official

Associated Press

If you want to see what happened on TV this year, holster your remote and grab your mouse. Then start pointing and clicking. Television by the gigabyte awaits you on the Web.

In 2006, that accounted for much of the big news about TV, as its programming migrated online -- television's new frontier.

The trend had begun in late 2005 with ABC selling episodes of some of its shows through iTunes. By this fall, the broadcast networks were making hundreds of hours available for free download.

Scrambling to stake their claims in a new medium, the networks supplemented hand-me-downs with original content: previews, highlights and other "Web exclusives."

Sci Fi created "webisodes" of "Battlestar Galactica" as a get-acquainted aid before the series' new season began on the network in October. ABC introduced a mid-afternoon "World News" edition tailored for the Web. NBC webcasts took "Saturday Night Live" fans backstage at the show.

But, even with all the new content, viewers weren't content to just sit and watch. This year marked the coming-of-age for participant TV. Or, expressed another way, the YouTube Age.

Officially launched a year ago, that video-sharing service instantly established itself as an archive of explosive proportions boasting stupid pet tricks, amateur porn and clips of breathtaking artistry. YouTube became an almost Orwellian gallery of bad behavior by public figures. And anything notable airing on TV was likely to be found uploaded to YouTube soon thereafter (albeit, sometimes, illegally).

Rival sites swiftly took root. But YouTube's name seemed to nail the phenomenon: You and Television converging, then manifested on each PC screen as a vast community.

In this new, wide-open game, the TV industry scrambled to keep up.

One strategy to hook viewers: more dramatic serials. Taking a cue from addictive hits such as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," the networks this fall unveiled one open-ended drama after another -- too many, in fact, for busy viewers to keep up with. NBC's "Heroes" proved heroic, but Fox's "Vanished" vanished, and "Runaway" quickly ran aground on the CW, a new hybrid network formed from the merger of UPN and the WB.

In October, NBC Universal announced it would cut 700 jobs and shift priorities from broadcast TV to digital distribution. Another shift that startled many viewers (as well as Hollywood's creative community): NBC declared it would move away from airing expensive scripted comedies or dramas in the first hour of prime time.

While anxiously watching its bottom line in 2006, each network was also pointedly reminded to watch its language. In June, Congress passed a bill to boost tenfold the fines imposed by the Federal Communications Commission for airing indecent content -- from a maximum $32,500 to $325,000 per incident.

Not that the networks kept their mouths shut.

In November, a Fox interview with O.J. Simpson -- in which the former football star divulged how hypothetically he could have killed his ex-wife and her friend -- might very well have ranked as the year's most indecent program. That is, if it had aired.

But shortly after its announcement, "O.J. Simpson: If I Did It, Here's How It Happened" was yanked (along with an accompanying book) in response to public outcry.

Two months earlier, ABC felt similar heat to cancel a very different kind of show.

"The Path to 9/11" had been billed as a definitive dramatic account based on "The 9/11 Commission Report." But in the days before its broadcast, complaints that it was factually flawed and conservatively slanted set off a firestorm of protest from the public as well as many of the principals portrayed in the film (especially members of the Clinton administration, who got special blame for ignoring the terrorism threat).

Initial entreaties to fix the mistakes escalated into demands that the entire miniseries be scrapped. Nonetheless, "The Path to 9/11" aired as scheduled, though minus some key lines of dialogue (most of it at President Clinton's expense).

In 2006 -- as in the year before, when death claimed anchorman Peter Jennings -- tragedy stalked ABC News. In January, Bob Woodruff, just a month into his tenure as Jennings' successor (with co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas), was seriously injured in Iraq while covering the war. Ongoing therapy kept him sidelined all year.

In May, ABC announced that Charles Gibson instead would anchor "World News" and, in June, he toasted the end of his nearly 19 years hosting "Good Morning America." On that final broadcast, he was surrounded by his family, with Kermit the Frog perched on his shoulder.

But there was plenty more leapfrogging in 2006.

On April 5, Katie Couric divulged her plans to leave NBC's "Today" show to anchor "The CBS Evening News." The next day, Meredith Vieira -- who anchored ABC's daytime talk show, "The View" -- was named as Couric's successor. Three weeks later, Rosie O'Donnell got the nod as Vieira's replacement.

On May 31, Couric completed 15 years as "Today" host with pull-out-all-the-stops pageantry. Two weeks later, Vieira brought her nine years on "The View" to a close with a Friar's Club-style roast.

On anything but a festive note, Dan Rather left CBS News in June after 44 years -- including a frustrating 15 months at "60 Minutes," where he claimed he wasn't given enough work to do. Within weeks, the veteran newsman sealed a deal with cable's HDNet channel to create a weekly newsmagazine, which premiered in November.

On Sept. 5, O'Donnell got a rousing welcome to "The View." That evening, Couric began her reign as the first woman hired as solo anchor for any of the three network nightly newscasts.

A week later, Vieira made a smooth start beside Matt Lauer at the "Today" anchor desk, declaring she felt "like it's the first day of school and I'm sitting next to the cutest guy."

Not that her old show didn't make a little noise in her absence.

In November, a hard-partying Danny DeVito arrived at "The View" to plug his new film. Explaining he'd spent a late night out with George Clooney, DeVito slurred his speech and used some racy language on the live broadcast.

Questionable behavior, perhaps. But nothing compared with that of Michael Richards. On Nov. 20, he made a memorable appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" where, looking stricken, he delivered an apology for his racist rant in a West Hollywood comedy club three days before.

Richards' tirade against several black members of his audience (ignited, said the former "Seinfeld" star, by audience heckling) was captured on a cellphone. Then the video was posted on the website. Then on YouTube and elsewhere. Seen on PCs around the world. And quickly picked up by TV for further exposure.

Richards, who initially won stardom on TV's traditional terms, now was socked with something new: a brand of celebrity beyond no one's reach, born in the digital age.

It was that kind of TV year.

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