At this stage in its evolution, television is so corporate, so focus-grouped, so formatted and predictable that it effortlessly processes virtually any development on the world stage, large or small, with meat-grinder efficiency. Except death. Political unrest, child abductions, famine, crime, natural disaster and disease are a breeze. Human mortality is different.
Take the recent death of ABC news anchor Peter Jennings. Not surprisingly, his untimely passing triggered an outpouring of shock, grief and praise. What was surprising was how long it kept pouring out. And not just on ABC. I'm trying not to be cynical here, but some networks really did milk this sad occasion for every ratings share it was worth.
Jennings was a lovely, intelligent and classy gent. He was by all accounts a man of high journalistic standards and a generous mentor to young reporters. But let's get real: He died on August 8, and the tributes were just beginning to wane by the 15th or so.
And not all of them were in good taste. In fact, a lot of the coverage came off as downright desperate. CNN's Larry King had Bernard Shaw, Bob Sheffer and Brian Williams on August 9 for an evening of reminiscences, and the program maintained a friendly, respectful tone. By 8 p.m. the following evening, Jennings' own network had glommed on with its own prime-time death extravaganza: "Peter Jennings: Reporter."
It went on for hours, featuring eulogies from such ABC coworkers as Diane Sawyer, Charlie Gibson and Ted Koeppel, and didn't contain a single commercial break. Between segments, though, Disney -- the network's parent company -- didn't hesitate to play over and over a special message expressing its sympathies to the former employee's family. I think that was an advertisement, and one of the eeriest in TV history.
Rival networks didn't want to come right out and say something nice about a competitor, so they struggled to get in on the action by airing stories about lung cancer. Suddenly, representatives of the American Cancer Society were all over the dial. By August 12, ABC's "Good Morning America" had jumped on this bandwagon and was airing cancer-themed packages in combination with nonstop Jennings tributes and montages, all accompanied by dirge-like music.
Low points in the dead-Jennings news cycle included the edition of "Entertainment Tonight" in which Mary Hart cheerfully announced that ABC's prime-time Jennings special had won the ratings race for the evening with 9.4 million viewers. Then came the network's announcement that it would continue to call its newscast "ABC Nightly News with Peter Jennings," despite the fact that Peter Jennings is no longer with us. Again, the marketing move was a tad too transparent for my tastes.
It went on and on. A week after the anchor took his last breath, Larry King was still rounding up guests for "Peter Jennings Remembered." Day after day the remembrances, montages and mournful music kept coming on "Good Morning America." And then, just when it seemed the story had run its course, Dana Reeve announced that she had lung cancer and everybody scrambled to get those American Cancer Society people back on the line.
In the end, the Jennings story rose to Pope-level TV mourning. The post-passing coverage of John Paul II went on for, what, a month? By the time Benedict was installed in his place, I thought I'd lose my mind if I turned on the TV one more time to see some old guy in flowing robes and a funny hat.
Similarly, networks played the Ronald Reagan funeral coverage to death. How many times did we really need to see that clip of Nancy breaking down and bidding a tearful farewell to Ronnie's coffin?
Unfortunately, this overkill extends beyond dead celebrities, to ordinary folk -- particularly attractive white women -- eliminated by foul play. Imagine for a moment the hours of airtime spent speculating on the fates of JonBenet Ramsey, Chandra Levy and Natalee Holloway. Even without factoring in Laci Peterson, you're talking about more hours than any network has devoted to a cogent analysis of the war in Iraq. It's as though someone in TV land decided there would at all times be one official national case, and that it would receive an insanely disproportionate degree of attention in the so-called news. That is, until the ratings begin to drop. Call it the half-life of death.
At the moment, news people can't quite make up their minds whether it's time to pull out of Aruba, never mind Iraq. But, mark my words, any minute now another heinous tragedy will come along and bump the 13-week-old Natalee Holloway story from the headlines once and for all.
On a related note, broadcasters seem incapable of discriminating between a famous person whose passing represents an incalculable loss to humankind and one who will be lucky to snag a paragraph in People. Johnny Carson got the on-air farewell he deserved. But what about someone like Warren Zevon, a musician whose career spanned four decades and who contributed countless literate classics to the American songbook? If Letterman hadn't extended a last-minute invitation, Zevon's illness and departure would have gone all but unnoticed by the electronic media.
And then there was the loss of Hunter Thompson. Tim Russert aired a repeat of an interview with the author on his after-hours Sunday show. As far as I know, that was it. Most unforgivable, though, was the complete lack of attention paid by anyone on television to Saul Bellow's April 5 passing. We're talking a Nobel Prize-winner. A literary titan. Are we total savages?
Meanwhile, the number of American service men and women who have died in Iraq closes in on the 2000 mark. That's a lot of death. Not that much is said about it on television, however. Here's one way to think of the scope: If every person killed in the war so far got just one prime-time special on one night, the TV tributes would go on for more than half a decade.
It's a nutty thought. But wouldn't we all agree that human beings who are the news merit at least a fraction of the on-air mourning accorded to people who report it?