Tuesday, May 05, 1998

Lesbians And Live Shots

Months after anyone cared, "Ellen" has been yanked by ABC, but Ellen DeGeneres just can't see why. In this week's Entertainment Weekly cover story, DeGeneres says that ABC fired her "basically because I'm gay." Wrong, Ellen. ABC canceled the show because it wasn't funny anymore and the ratings went down. You did something admirable in becoming TV's first gay lead, but you blew it when you made the entire show about being gay.

No show can keep pounding the exact same theme week after week and expect the audience not to grow weary of it. "Mad About You" had the same problem earlier in the year when they did too many episodes in a row about the Buchman baby. Then someone wised up and realized that while it's okay to make that an important element, it shouldn't be the only focus of the show. Other sitcoms have broken controversial ground before you, but "All In The Family" didn't do an entire season about Edith's breast cancer, nor did "Maude" spend month after month discussing her abortion.

What makes it worse, Ellen, is that you had a remarkable opportunity to show a lesbian character living her life the way she wanted to, without shoving it down the audience's throat (if you'll pardon the expression). And remember that ABC did back you up in the face of a lot of vitriolic criticism and pressure. They deserve credit for giving you so much rope. Too bad you hung yourself with it. It'll be interesting to see if Diane Sawyer challenges you at all when she interviews you Wednesday on "PrimeTime Live."

Speaking of ABC, Monday's "Nightline" was about the TV coverage of the guy who killed himself on an LA freeway last week. There's been a lot of inside-the-biz handwringing about this, because all the Los Angeles TV stations and at least one cable network had helicopter live shots of the guy blowing his head off.

Ironically, in the middle of "Nightline," there was a promo for "NYPD Blue," with the usual disclaimer about "violent scenes." Remember when that was supposed to be a parental warning? Now, it seems like more of a tease.

The stations defend their coverage, saying they were providing a public service because two major freeways were blocked off for hours. Baloney. If those freeways had been blocked by construction crews instead of a nut with an agenda, those newschoppers would never have left the ground.

This wasn't journalism, this was voyeurism. They have the technology to go live, and they know it's going to grab viewers, so context be damned. Their worst nightmare isn't that the guy's going to kill himself on the air, it's that they won't have a clear picture of it but the competition will. No one would have covered OJ's Bronco chase if they knew he was just going to drive home at the end. They stayed with it because they thought he might off himself.

Those news directors and anchors were all shocked and apologetic in the moments after it happened: "We didn't mean for you to see that." But now that the numbers are in -- ratings were up a full two points across the dial during the fiasco -- they're singing a different tune: "We're sorry, now here's a replay." I'll bet that Fox is already working up a TV movie or at least a special: "When Live Shots Go Dead!!"

The brilliant movie "Network" was on some cable channel last week. Watching it again, I couldn't help but wonder at how this figment of Paddy Chayevsky's imagination has become the reality of everyday television.