Variety editorial

And now for something completely different: live TV network coverage of a serious public debate.

On Thursday morning, CBS, ABC and other webs will broadcast live coverage of President Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice’s testimony before the 9/11 Commission.

The networks will forgo ad dollars in an attempt to address serious national issues — a decision that’s particularly welcome when morning TV has become a kaleidoscope of sponsorship deals and soft news.

Morning talkshows are subsidiaries of the network news divisions, but increasingly they seem like infomercials for their corporate parents’ entertainment interests. NBC’s “The Today Show” features wall-to-wall coverage of the web’s “The Apprentice”; CBS’ “The Early Show” is fixated on “Survivor”; when Barbara Walters has a primetime interview special on ABC, “Good Morning America” interviews her about her interviews.

In the 1976 “Network,” Paddy Chayefsky prophesied that ratings wars would drive broadcast networks away from serious news. In the words of Arthur Jensen, a sinister TV exec in “Network” played by Ned Beatty, “There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.”

The airing of Rice’s testimony may restore a measure of democracy to the airwaves. The networks’ decisions were laudable, but there are two sobering thoughts: It’s clear that the nation is in the midst of a serious (and troubling) self-examination over our (lack of) safety. And, with hundreds of channels cranking out endless hours of “entertainment,” it’s interesting that the week’s most riveting show on TV will come live from Capitol Hill. It’s reality television for those who don’t generally watch “Average Joe.”

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