End of an era

Posted: Dec 29, 2005 12:05 AM

As we look back on 2005, there will be a host of surveys and lists of "biggest news stories," "most important people," and the inevitable celebrity obituaries.

 These awards and compilations serve to remind us of important events and lives. In the case of two television shows that are ending as we've known them, a year's-end retrospective can serve to symbolize a societal trend.

 Consider this statement: The end of "Monday Night Football" (MNF) on ABC and Ted Koppel's presence on the same network's "Nightline" combine to represent a last chapter in the media's destruction of close-knit families, a well-informed public, and a shared sense of broad perspective about the world around us.

 Sound silly? Let me state my case.

 First, "Monday Night Football." After 35 years, MNF has signed off of a broadcast network for the last time. Next year it will move to ESPN, a cable TV network owned by the same company that owns ABC.

 So what's the significance of the switch?

 It's in the segmentation of the American public.

 I can remember the first seasons of "Monday Night Football." As I grew older as a kid, I was allowed to stay up later and later to watch the broadcasting trio of play-by-play straight man Frank Gifford, the apparently intoxicated "Dandy Don" Meredith, and the self-obsessed but utterly unique Howard Cosell.

 By the mid-1970s, "Monday Night Football" had become an event. It brought families and friends together. Even my mom would watch. And why not? There were only two other channels, anyway.

 Besides, the telecasts became more than just a sports event. Celebrities made cameo visits in the broadcast booth. Every city's fans eagerly watched to see if the hometown team would make Howard's "halftime highlights."

 I vividly recall my teen friends and I listening in disbelief as Cosell announced the murder of rock star John Lennon.

 And we weren't closeted away in some special "media room." We sat in someone's "den," with parents alongside us, or close by.

 "Nightline" emerged as a spin-off of the daily TV coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis in the late '70s.

 Thereafter, big news events inevitably brought Ted Koppel to the airwaves. The man was stiff, yet somehow still warm.

 The show both discussed news and made it. In those days, if you wanted to be informed through your television set, you had little choice but to watch Koppel.

 And partly because you were a captive audience, "Nightline" could afford to cover events in some depth. Today's news shows must shout to be heard above one another, before impatiently skipping to the next topic.

 Both of these old ABC shows illustrate by contrast that in today's media-soaked society, everything seems special, and yet nothing does.

 Football fanatics can now tuck themselves away in special-purpose viewing rooms to watch any number of network, cable or satellite broadcasted games.

 As for your uninterested spouse, he (or she) can shuttle off to another media room and select from among scores, or even hundreds, of equally unimportant shows.

 What's gone from our viewing pastime is a sense of anticipation. The kind Americans felt when they eagerly awaited the Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan's variety show in the 1960s.

 Except rarely, we are no longer united by shared entertainment. Instead, we are segmented, parceled and categorized. Everything is important to someone, but almost nothing is important to everybody.

 "Nightline" served the same social purpose. When the show became overdone and esoteric in later years, it was still required viewing -- by young and old -- when major events happened. Even the least engaged among us would be forced to watch the program over a rerun of Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show."

 Media reflects the society it serves. Today we are a nation of specialization, from doctors and lawyers, to assembly-line workers with one specialized skill.

 We share few common interests, tastes or perspectives. We like different songs, different heroes, different passions.

 And we have far less detailed knowledge about the world around us. The next generation may teach us that the segmentation of America may have gone too far.