Yawn of new era

Sans bugs, nets look for other hooks

The much-feared arrival of Y2K provoked more moderation rather than madness and a collective worldwide sigh of relief as chaos failed to manifest itself anywhere on the planet.

With the millennium’s first day playing out as the most over-hyped disaster since the release of “Godzilla,” the world wound up focusing instead on what had gone right as 1999 became 2000.

The absence of cyber bugs and a surprising burst of global good behavior on New Year’s Eve resulted in anticlimactic TV coverage of what boiled down to an international fireworks display.

“This is really boring,” NBC’s Katie Couric summed up at about 12:20 a.m. on Jan. 1 as an NBC colleague outlined New York’s smoothly operating 911 hotline, emergency medical services, fire department and reservoir system. Couric added hastily that “Boring is good in these circumstances.”

With little breaking news, the major nets’ best bet was global coverage, which is why ABC looked so good. Costly, round-the-clock international camera work proved that with enough manpower ABC could go into the 24-hour news business for a day. The net dispatched its top talent to sites of international revelry. Peter Jennings anchored from New York, with Charles Gibson in London, Cokie Roberts in Rome, Sam Donaldson in D.C. and Barbara Walters in Paris.

Industry sources think it’s unlikely ABC will recoup its investment — reported to be more than $40 million — from ad dollars, but the net clearly hopes for a ratings pop that could benefit “Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight.”

As for CBS, it needed help. The Eye net aired “Grammy’s Greatest Performances” until 10 p.m. when it turned to the festivities in Washington, D.C. Since CBS had locked up exclusive rights to “America’s Millennium,” the New Year’s Eve ceremony from the White House lawn, it was constrained from jumping to other cities, a key strategy of ABC and CNN. The D.C. doings included celebs reading famous quotes by American statesmen.

That may be why CBS went to bed early, ending its coverage at 1 a.m. Jan. 1, a far cry from ABC, which did a full 24 hours’ worth of millennium programming, and NBC, which soldiered on until 3:30 a.m.

Fox News took an often risqué approach to the celebrations, cutting to a segment on the future of lingerie just an hour before the clock struck midnight. Courting the MTV crowd, the net also aired behind-the-scenes footage from a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert.

Look-alike celebrations

While helicopter shots of the record throngs in Times Square were compelling — particularly as captured by NBC for the first 10 minutes after midnight, blessedly free of commentary by Couric and co-host Tom Brokaw — coverage of millennium jubilees in other cities couldn’t help but take on a quality of sameness.

And commentary around the dial stayed resolutely overenthusiastic. Terms like “wall-to-wall people” and “sea of humanity” may never have been used so often — and hopefully never will. It’s highly likely that viewers with short attention spans or low thresholds of boredom clicked away from millennium coverage soon after midnight to seek out counterprogramming like a “The Three Stooges” marathon on AMC or the “Twilight Zone” festival on the SciFi Channel.

“The world has spent the last two to three months focusing on the world’s crazies and suspicious computer software,” said media analyst Kevin B. Skislock of Laguna Research Partners. “So it was very moving and inspirational to see on New Year’s Eve that the vast majority of the world’s people are fun-loving and peaceful.”

After showing extensive clips of fireworks and hugs worldwide on Friday and early Saturday, most major U.S. networks resumed the usual broadcasting of football and parades by the middle of New Year’s Day. By Sunday, Time magazine had decided to depict revelers at Times Square in New York on its upcoming cover while Newsweek’s showed fireworks exploding over the Parisian skyline.

With few other news stories breaking after Friday’s developments (the end of the India Airlines hijacking and the resignation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin), media outlets spent the weekend with the twin tasks of finishing up coverage of celebrations and airing theories as to why potential Y2K problems had fizzled like leftover champagne.

“It’s easy to say now but the stories about the potential Y2K catastrophes were very much over-played,” said Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley. “And the lack of any compelling domestic news meant that the only exciting things to cover over New Year’s became the Y2K turnover and the fireworks in the sky, which look pretty much the same wherever they are.”

Watching the world

Still, nonstop coverage by CNN, PBS and ABC yielded a vast array of images ranging from the first child of the millennium, born one second after midnight in New Zealand, to mass weddings in Beijing, to the release of doves in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, to Pope John Paul II speaking to the Vatican City multitudes, to dancing in the Kiribati Islands and Sri Lanka, to an estimated 3 million people who crammed into the center of London for a fireworks display above the Thames River, and the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” throughout English-speaking nations.

The bright and breezy tone of millennial coverage by the world’s media emerged Friday, once it became apparent that the Y2K computer bug would not create significant problems in such crucial sites as New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Russia. Instead, those who stayed home to watch TV were confronted by a widespread selection of jubilant images with people from all over the world celebrating amid flashing lights, gyrating dancers and loud music.

News outlets had devoted significant space and time in recent weeks to the variety of event cancellations due to slow sales, often blaming sky-high ticket prices. But most major events came off without a hitch such as official opening of the Millennium Dome in London, attended by Prime Minister Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II. The latter was visibly moved by a rendition of “God Save the Queen.”

Concerts by some of the industry’s top acts helped ring in the year, including Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden, Phish at Florida’s Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation and a celebration at the Mall in Washington D.C., hosted by Will Smith and produced by Steven Spielberg and Quincy Jones. In Hong Kong, with 1.2 million people thronging the neon-drenched streets, about 3,000 listened to Whitney Houston, Sister Sledge, All-4-One and others perform at a dusk-to-dawn charity ball dubbed the Ultimate Millennium Party: Utopia.

In Las Vegas, Barbra Streisand celebrated at midnight by holding hands with husband James Brolin as a shower of confetti blanketed her near-capacity audience at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Ticket prices ranged from $500 to $2,500 for Stresiand’s first Vegas concert in six years and she received several standing ovations during the three-hour performance. Other top-tier headliners in Vegas included Rod Stewart, Bette Midler and Wayne Newton, but Y2K fears limited the number of visitors to about 250,000, typical for most non-holiday weekends.

In Berlin, more than 3 million people showed up for festivities that stretched four kilometers along the city’s main east-west boulevard with stalls stocked with a million sausages, 300,000 bottles of champagne and 2 million liters of beer. The main event was a laser light show around the Victory Column, with the presentation modified after objections that it was too reminiscent of Nazi rallies.

In Paris, the countdown clock on the Eiffel Tower broke down five hours before midnight Friday, an incident culminating a week in which freak winds had ravaged the nation and an oil slick polluted its coastline. But at midnight, more than 1 million people thronged the streets of central Paris.

The networks still found time to schedule coverage of offbeat events such as a “Tomato Drop” at midnight in the Ohio town of Pemberville, capping an evening of city-organized activities that included bingo and karaoke, and New Year’s Day revelers in New Orleans treating their hangovers with drinks from a 10-foot-high vat dubbed “The World’s Biggest Bloody Mary.” The concoction included 800 gallons of V-8 vegetable juice, 200 gallons of vodka and 12 gallons of Tabasco sauce.

Curiously, what little negative coverage emerged tended to pinpoint the relative apathy of Southern Californians following smaller-than-expected turnouts at New Year’s Eve events organized by the city of Los Angeles, which included the lighting of the Hollywood sign by “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno and Mayor Richard Riordan. Coordinators blamed the first rain in weeks for the lagging attendance.

Rain threatened to hit the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena for the first time since 1955 but held off on Saturday with a crowd estimated at about 750,000, along with an estimated worldwide TV audience of 350 million.

(Paula Bernstein, John Dempsey, Dade Hayes, Barbara Scherzer, Liza Foreman, Maureen Sullivan, Alison James and Erich Boehm contributed to this report.)

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