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TV hits the dirt

A manhole. A mine shaft. The ocean floor. Earth's core. TV's worst went lower than low this season.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published December 23, 2006


Given all the quality TV that filled our screens this year, you could make the argument that 2006 brought a new Golden Age of Media. Amazing series such as Rescue Me, Lost, Dexter, Heroes and Ugly Betty pushed the boundaries of entertainment in new directions, even as iTunes and YouTube gave us new ways to consume it.

So why does so much of it these days leave us feeling, well, dirty?

The fact is, while the creative highs may have hit the stratosphere, the lows have fallen nearly as far in the opposite direction. Audiences are subjected to a level of crudity, manipulation and explicit behavior unimaginable in years past.

Flavor Flav, we're talking to you, my brother.

In a list to come next week, we'll count off TV's many triumphs in 2006. But this column is dedicated to what I'd call a TV Hall of Shame: the nine events, series and individuals who made this year's TV a challenge to wade through without a firmly pinched nose.

9. Michael Richards' public apologies.

Much as I wanted to see the frizzy-haired geek pay for tossing the n-word at a bunch of black nightclub patrons, it was even worse watching the Seinfeld alum squirm through several apologies. Jerry Seinfeld brought him on David Letterman's show to protect a Seinfeld DVD release; Jesse Jackson used him to insist black performers drop the n-word; the guys Richards insulted tried to get paid. The feeding frenzy was almost bad enough to make you feel sorry for the guy. Until you watched the YouTube video of his tirade again.

8. Local broadcasters jettison staffers.

Layoffs of key folks - including WBTP-FM 95.7 morning radio host Olivia Fox, WFLA-AM 970 reporter Robert Pankau and several people at area CW affiliate WTOG-Ch. 44 - are the tip of a troubling trend. Just when competition from podcasts and online video require local TV and radio stations to develop unique content, these companies have laid off staffers, using regional and national resources to pick up the slack. Kind of like fighting a fire by dumping gasoline on it.

7. Katie Couric mania.

Her transition from the Today show to the CBS Evening News pretty much went as predicted - a huge boost in initial viewing, followed by a slow dip back to third place. So why have so many of us spilled so much ink on Couric's new gig? Bottom line: glacial viewing patterns among regular news viewers could delay a real verdict on her tenure until mid 2007 or so.

6. Race-baiting on Survivor.

A lot of critics - this one included - spent a lot of time debating the propriety of CBS separating contestants by race in the latest edition of its survival show. But the victory Sunday of Yale-educated, Korean-American management consultant Yul Kwon, above front, simply echoed a long-standing truism about the game: Those who get the strategy always beat the athletic types. And the race-separation gimmick couldn't hide the awful truth: Though still popular, the show is no longer ground-breaking, no longer surprising and no longer a blockbuster.

5. Claims that journalists suppress good news from Iraq.

Statistics proving the Iraq War is the most deadly conflict in history for journalists didn't stop these boneheaded accusations from conservative pundits and war hawks. Even as first lady Laura Bush was insisting to MSNBC last week that journalists weren't reporting "good news," the Iraq Study Group report maintained the media was underreporting violence in Iraq, by not tabulating attacks that don't affect U.S. personnel. But with 126 journalists and support staff dead so far, perhaps the Ann Coulters of the world could ease up on reporters who are risking their lives.

4. Pay to play on local TV.

Network TV fare now pops up everywhere: video podcasts, streaming Web sites and YouTube uploads. So what do local stations offer to keep viewers hooked? Cheaply produced daytime infotainment shows with guests who have paid to be featured. News flash: It's going to take more than the halfhearted chitchat of WFLA-Ch. 8's Daytime and WTSP-Ch. 10's Studio 10 to keep people from bypassing local TV to download their prime time shows from iTunes.

3. Flavor of Love and VH1's celebrity exploitation.

By starring in a "reality" dating show so lowbrow a losing contestant spit on a competitor and another woman defecated in her pants, Flavor Flav, right, has become the crude star of a minstrel show filled with black laziness and hypersexuality; stereotypes he once resisted as a member of the militant rap group Public Enemy. VH1 bears some of the blame, crafting "celeb-reality" shows ranging from Partridge Family alum Danny Bonaduce's fiery personal disintegration on Breaking Bonaduce to showbiz has-beens trying to build publicity while shedding pounds on Celebrity Fit Club. No wonder we're getting used to the antics of Paris and Britney.

2. O.J. commands attention. Again.

Let's see . . . an unscrupulous publisher convinces a guy who everyone thinks got away with the best-known double murder in history to write a book about how it could have happened "if I did it" for later flogging in a TV special sure to pump millions into the media conglomerate that owns the book publisher and TV network. Publisher Judith Regan already has lost her job, but somebody is going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks over this one.

1. Nancy Grace.

Melinda Duckett was an unsteady young woman in Leesburg at the heart of a growing media frenzy over the disappearance of her 2-year-old son, Trenton. So blaming CNN Headline News crime harpie Grace for Melinda's suicide, one day after the anchor grilled her on national television, may go too far. But Grace's penchant for serving as judge, jury and prosecutor came to an ugly head here, leaving observers to wonder if Melinda wouldn't be around to answer the police's questions if the host hadn't dressed her down so aggressively.

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or 727 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.