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O.J. rides into programming void in TV universe

THERE WILL BE A SINGULAR ABSENCE of fresh programming on the networks this summer. Instead of new shows and fresh faces, we’ll have reruns. I was thinking about this while reading Time magazine’s lengthy piece this week pointing out the singular absence of fresh programming on cable. Why is it, Time asks, that the number of cable channels keeps growing but there seems to be less worth watching? Indeed, in Europe, as a Variety chart pointed up last week, there’s an inverse correlation between the number of channels available to the public and the amount of time people in different countries spend watching TV.

It’s little wonder that Susan Ness, the newest member of the Federal Communications Commission, admitted this week that her TV viewing is largely limited to C-SPAN and her two kids watch PBS.

In view of all this, I was puzzled by the outcry about TV’s fixation on O.J. Simpson these past few days. There is something surreal about the entire television universe grinding to a halt while a white Ford Bronco traverses the freeways, but, as CBS’ David Poltrack points out, an estimated 95 million people were sufficiently hypnotized to stay glued to their sets — that’s more people than watch a Super Bowl. And when “Nightline” did an O.J. show, it blew away David Letterman.

INEVITABLY THERE WILL BE a numbing succession of O.J. specials, and the saga will wear out its welcome. But let’s be honest enough to acknowledge that O.J. is a great story, and given TV’s meager pickings, what’s wrong with wringing every last nuance out of it?

As the Wall Street Journal intoned in one of its purple-prose editorials: “We have become like silver surfers on an electron sea, paddling about calmly in primetime until the next wave of history looms up, 32 inches across and in stereo. With enough practice, such as we had last weekend, most of us may master our turbulent media before we drown in it.”

As the Journal rightly points up, however, the media had better do something about the presentation of these “waves of history.” When huge amounts of time are annexed by an O.J.-like event, the pathetic inability of the “news readers” to provide any sort of cogent narration becomes painfully apparent. The TV viewer can practically hear these so-called anchors screaming: “Where’s my copy? What the hell am I supposed to say?”

We have all read countless stories about the way in which anchors are selected, how “consultants” re-arrange their hair, clothing and cadence so as to maximize the mannequinlike image. But how about the soldiers in the field? How does one assemble such an army of hard-breathing, grossly inept individuals?

The criteria for selection are self-evident: First, one must have sharply limited language skills — habitual malapropists get preference. A dazed apocalyptic stare is also mandatory, so one can describe a flea bath as though it were an 8.5 earthquake.

THEN THERE’S THE ISSUE of ethnicity, which, to be sure, is politically incorrect to discuss. A decade ago viewers took it as a matter of course that every newscast would offer a Hispanic, an Asian and the usual boring WASP dude, but now the criteria have shifted. TV news staffs, it would seem, are intent on recruiting a new type of on-air reporter of indeterminate ethnic background — individuals who are slightly Asian, without being from Asia, a tad Hispanic, but clearly non-Latino, and even just a little bit dark, but not African-American. The only requirement is that, from their speech and intonation, it becomes clear that English was not their first language.

There’s nothing wrong with “melting pot” television news personalities — I look forward to the first Hmong Laotian anchorman — but with prolonged exposure , such as an O.J. event, one begins to yearn for the astute observers, male and female, of a previous generation.

During the heyday of CBS news, viewers actually looked forward to a “great event” so that they could absorb the learned observations of the Edward R. Murrows, Eric Sevareids and David Schoenbruns. These journalists actually — perish the thought — augmented one’s understanding and provided a context in which to consider the unfolding events.

We’ve moved a long way from that generation of broadcasters. And the fallout becomes vividly apparent when a story like O.J. comes along.

History, it would seem, deserves better storytellers.

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