Call it the Year of the Do-Over. Or the Year Without Critical Consensus. Or better yet, the Year of Rosie.
Just about the only thing coming up roses this television year was Rosie O'Donnell, who decided that daytime television's parade of the lunatic fringe had to stop as she premiered a feel-good talk show in the spirit of 1960s daytime hosts Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin.
Other than Rosie, the television business was pretty bleak.
In a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful search for new hits that would stop the audience bleeding, network television hired such "names" as Brooke Shields, Ted Danson, Bill Cosby and Michael J. Fox. When the pilots starring the first three names were less than average, the shows were done over.
The revised "Suddenly Susan," Ink" and "Cosby" had one thing in common: Some critics loved them, others hated them. The one consensus pre-season hit, "Spin City," starring Fox, hasn't lived up to its pilot, and the woman playing his love interest, Carla Gugino, has suddenly left the show.
Last year's consensus critical hit, Steven Bochco's "Murder One," also participated in the Do-Over mentality. Bochco recast the series lead but the viewer verdict was the same: Not interested.
Proving how much a crapshoot television is, the one instant hit from 1996, NBC's "3rd Rock From the Sun," was developed by a rival network, ABC, which didn't know what it had.
Before 1996 is declared a total waste, two words should be whispered: Drew Carey. A year ago, his ABC comedy was either loved or hated by critics. This year, it's the one sophomore show that could be labeled a hit, thus reminding viewers that good shows take time to develop.
And once they arrive, they are like the Energizer bunny. They keep going and going, long after they should be extinct. Consider "Roseanne," "Murphy Brown" and "Married . . . With Children," all of which should be put out of their misery but hang on because often even a declining show gets better ratings than a good new one.
With network television spinning its wheels, one would think cable television would be the big winner. But the nation's largest multiple system owner, TCI, ended the year slashing jobs and its payroll in hopes of raising its stock price.
The weekly Top 50 list of cable programs is loaded with sports specials and children's programs such as "Rugrats," which illustrates how difficult it is for cable's entertainment series to catch on.
And if a cable show becomes high-profile, it's grabbed by a network. Witness the move of Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" to late-night on ABC next week.
Speaking of politics, as the new year approaches, Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, is battling with politicians and parent groups over a proposed television ratings system -- the so-called V-chip debate. Funny thing, though. Because you need to buy a new TV with the technology, most of the nation's TV sets won't be equipped with the chip for as long as a decade.
Now let's take a look at 10 of the top local and national television stories of 1996.
1. Rosie O'Donnell Cleans Up Talk TV: It premiered at the perfect time -- after "Jenny Jones" and ambush TV essentially were put on trial in a murder case involving a guest convicted of killing a gay admirer who revealed his crush on a pre-taped program that never aired. Rosie's talk show has become the talk of television and has changed the landscape of daytime. Her recent move on Channel 7 to 4 p.m. exemplifies her success nationally. She now competes here, and in many other markets, with longtime talk queen Oprah Winfrey.
2. David Brinkley Hammers the President: In a post-election conversation that he apparently didn't realize was on the air, ABC's legend called President Clinton a "bore" and worse.
It was perhaps the most honest thing said during the entire presidential campaign. Unfortunately, Brinkley apologized a few days later when he was granted an audience with the president. I wasn't the only one who thought Brinkley's apology was a little sad. Walter Cronkite later criticized it, too.
3. "NYPD Blue," "ER" Get Deserved Emmys: After a brilliant four-part story by writer David Milch in which Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) saw his adult son get murdered, return to the bottle, hit rock bottom and came back up again, Franz deservedly received a dramatic Emmy. The hospital drama "ER," however, won as Best Drama even though its rookie season was stronger. It made sense in Hollywood circles. "NYPD Blue" won in 1995 when "ER" had a terrific rookie season.
4. Satellite Dishes Become Affordable: Enough angry cable subscribers bought the discounted 18-inch dishes to force TCI to run an advertising campaign that tried to explain some of the problems associated with the dishes. Cable seems poised to offer many of the same services as the dishes in the next 18 months to two years.
5. O.J. Simpson's Civil Trial Kept Off Television: Simpson finally testifies, and the nation can't see it because cameras aren't allowed in the civil courtroom. Undaunted, the case that won't go away still is the subject of nightly CNBC reports by Geraldo Rivera. And the "E!" channel is using transcripts and actors to re-enact the case.
6. Fifth Commercial Station Debuts in Buffalo: Channel 49 switched from a religious station to an affiliate of the family-friendly WB Network and also began inflicting talk show hosts Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, MaureenO'Boyle and Sally Jessy Raphael on viewers in this market again.
7. "Titanic" and Mini Minis Sink: NBC has had success hyping some routine two-part miniseries such as "The Beast" and "Pandora's Clock," but CBS took a bath with its four-hour "Titanic" and "In Cold Blood." The CBS minis did about as well as regular television movies, suggesting the expensive minis may be in hot water.
8. Irv Revived: Channel 7 anchor Irv Weinstein, who was believed to be as unsinkable as the Titanic, uncharacteristically lost a few sweeps battles at 6 p.m. to Channel 4, suggesting his reign as the king of local TV is a little tenuous. But he won again this past November, indicating that reports of his demise were exaggerated.
9. Jay Leno Destroys David Letterman in Late Night: After his 1995 Oscar performance started a ratings slide, Letterman hasn't been able to recover despite changing his producer, his set and his defeatist attitude.
10. Channel 2 Gets New Owner: What would a year be without a change in Channel 2 ownership? The current owner, Argyle Television, changed the station's lead anchors, dumping Laurie Lisowski and Marty Aarons for Victoria Hong and Douglas Bell. It also hired a kiddie corps of reporters and anchors who came cheaply and are essentially getting on-the-job training. In November, Channel 2's news ratings were low even by its own standards. Gannett, the new owner, will now have to decide whether more changes are needed. All the sales and station swaps have hurt Channel 2's ability to compete in local news. Because, as all the old hits on network television like "Murphy Brown" prove, television viewers crave stability and familiarity.