It was the best of television and the worst of television.
First, the best: Thirty-nine million people watched the CBS documentary "9/11" last Sunday night. It was the largest non-sport prime-time audience of the TV season. The brilliant production by two French filmmakers (would an American network have done a documentary on probationary firefighters, which is what "9/11" started out to be?) proves that people will watch quality television if it's offered to them.
"9/11" reminded me of the documentary "units" we had when I worked for NBC News in the 1960s. There was the "Brinkley unit," which turned out the highly-watchable "David Brinkley's Journal." It was an electronic Mark Twain, observing everything from the flow of the Mississippi River and life along its banks to the flow of politics and culture through Brinkley's unique perspective.
There was the "Hagan unit," named after producer, Chet Hagan, whose way of covering political campaigns and presidential inaugurals continues to influence journalists today. There was the "Hazam unit," named for Lou Hazam, who produced beautiful and compelling historical documentaries about ancient wars and ancient writers. "Shakespeare: Soul of an Age" commemorated the Bard's 400th birthday and remains one of TV's best biographies before the "Biography" series on A&E was born.
The worst of TV came in the last few weeks during the battle of two late-night titans, ABC "Nightline" anchor, Ted Koppel, and CBS "Late Show" host, David Letterman. ABC tried to lure Letterman away from CBS, suggesting that "Nightline" would be canceled because it didn't attract enough young viewers to suit advertisers. ABC considered bringing Letterman in to replace Koppel.
Now that Letterman has decided to stay at CBS (and he delivered a classy praise monologue about Koppel on his Monday night show), the Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC, has not made a long-term commitment to Koppel or "Nightline." A tepid Disney statement said only that "Nightline" would remain in its present time slot. The statement didn't say for how long.
Television once had a sense of social responsibility. It felt an obligation to give because it asked for people's time and its advertisers asked for their patronage. It also was required by the Federal Communications Commission to produce a certain amount of public service programming. At license renewal time, TV stations had to demonstrate how they served the "public interest." The airwaves were public property and the government required the broadcasters who used them to carry a balanced programming diet. The FCC also restricted the level of sex, violence and profanity.
No more. Broadcasters, pressured by the more libertine cable networks, are carrying more shows with content that once could get a station in trouble and jeopardize the renewal of its license. An FCC spokeswoman tells me that the last time a broadcast station was denied a license renewal was in 1996. That ruling had nothing to do with the quality of the programs the station carried. The license was denied because the FCC said the station manager lied on his application about a sexual felony for which he had been convicted.
If broadcasters and their entertainment company owners are reluctant to put on solid documentaries like "9/11" and long-form news programs like "Nightline," perhaps advertisers can help. Nextel, which sponsored "9/11," did so with minimal commercial interruption. The company could be thanked by additional patronage from people who appreciate this kind of TV. CBS could be thanked for airing the program, especially if many grateful letter writers were in that coveted 18-49-year-old group.
We can't rely on the kindness of broadcasters to do what they ought to do out of social responsibility anymore than a child can be relied upon to eat vegetables because they're good for the body. But perhaps those who remember what TV was once like, along with those who were stunned by the brilliance and power of "9/11," could tell advertisers with our money, and the TV networks with our allegiance and letters telling them we want and need class TV.