Tuesday, January 4th, 2000
What better way to wrap up the television century? Yes, at millenium’s end (version 1.0) I was, like many of you
watching television. And the box with the blue light was filled with images both spectacular and mundane. It transmitted both the best and worst of what human beings are.
And on Channel 2, it began and ended with Peter Jennings.
Jennings! Our urbane anchor from the land up north. Mr. Dual Citizenship, Mr. Former Foreign Correspondent, supposed author of "The Century" (rapidly being marked down at bookstores across town), and now, apparently in a bid to outdo Barbra Streisand or Cher, a man who went through four costume changes in slightly less than 24 hours on the telethon-length ABC2000 broadcast.
He stood! He sat! He looked out the window on Times Square and waved! He called Stephen Jay Gould and Howard K. Smith on the phone! From suit to 007-dapper black tie to Dan-Rather-casual sweater he presided over a bunch of ABC correspondents who were charged with reporting what is basically not news: the new year was coming, and did come, to a succession of cities in a succession of time zones. Yes, there was the darker subtext of what might happen with that computer problem what the heck was it called? Y-2-something? How quickly we forget.
Despite their inner cravings, local news broadcasters could not put Breaking News’ banners on a predictable story like this—so they had to content themselves with simple Y2K alarmism. Here, is the long and the short of the local coverage, all the way up and down the dial: they stuck one unfortunate at the Georgia Emergency Management Agency headquarters to report "7 pm and all is well." "8 pm and all is well." and so on. They plopped one crew at Georgia Power, one at the airport, one at BellSouth—and then they covered the Peach Drop and First Night. That would be all of it.
My heart goes out to the Richard Belchers and Jon Shireks of the world who had to stand for hours in front of a bunch of folks playing solitare on their computer terminals at GEMA to report well, nothing.
In lieu of a digital meltdown, the ABC elite (Charlie Gibson in London, Barbara Walters in Paris, Cokie Roberts in Rome, and so on) were reduced to travelogues and exchanging "my city’s better than yours" jibes across the KU band. And when things got real quiet, ABC let Barbara Walters report on Paris fashions that designers created just for her. Hand me that five-day-old baguette!
But lest it sounds as if I scoff at undertaking this kind of program, let me stop and swivel: I think just about the best thing that television can do on a day like December 31, 1999 is to fire up every darn satellite dish and camera they have around the world—and then get out of the way and let us watch.
ABC did this often enough to earn credit for trying; PBS actually got much closer with their simple presentation of cultural events—performances of dance, opera, and song from around the world (with the help of the BBC and other public broadcasters.)
Watching the sun set, and the dawn come, again and again in these beautiful places as people sang, danced, and held each other was the best kind of global lesson—the best of what television can do—and something I wish TV would attempt at every year’s end.