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To Hell with 2002

It could have been worse, but for the life of me I can't imagine how 12/29/2002 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Last year at midnight, when 2001 became 2002, approximately 270 million of us wished each other a Happy New Year. I know I did it, probably 50 times. Looking back at it now, is it possible many, many millions of us forgot?

This was not a happy year, even for people who, by all reckoning, should have been very happy. Trent Lott, just for one example, was about three weeks away from having a completely happy 2002, and now he's just a Jay Leno joke. I don't feel bad for Trent Lott. I'm just saying it was that
close for him.

It's kind of loopy the way good years turn bad. Britney Spears may not know she had a bad year, but when she dressed too stupidly for an awards show—as if that is even possible—everything started to change for her. Now, from what I read (she and I no longer speak), she's just nothing.

Adelphia Communications had a moment like that in 2002, too. There were the Brothers Rigas, and father John, going through a thoroughly ordinary conference call when an analyst named Oren Cohen started asking questions. Now, there is no joy in Coudersport. And no golf course either, I suspect.

Television is verily littered with reality shows, in which, clearly, there are big losers and big winners, bachelorettes who are left as empty-handed as they are empty-headed, and singers, like that curly haired kid on American Idol
—Justin or something—who are hooted back to oblivion.

Real life, as it was played in 2002, made us ready for that.

Even now ABC is planning a show called The Will, in which a family will agree, for the sake of television, to compete against each other, game-show style, so that their inheritance will be larger than their kin's. Fox is planning a reality show, Joe Millionaire, in which a common kind of Joe will pretend to be a high roller to a series of hot babes he dates. Presumably, the hooks to the show are its undisguised avarice and gleeful premeditated deceit.

Man, that's life.

In 2002, Survivor
seemed less like a programming concept than some scary commentary on real life. This year, if you were on the Enron team (or one of many, many others listed on the New York Stock Exchange) you didn't need Jeff Probst to tell you that you lost. You got the staff of The Wall Street Journal
to extinguish your torch and send you, and your worthless stock, away.

I have the idea that, to drum up ratings, truly hopeless radio stations conduct a contest in which the grand prize would be the job of program director at the joint. For everybody involved, it would be a grand crapshoot. The winner, knowing nothing particular about radio, would be able to fashion the sound of the station, which, based on past performance, doesn't have a clue either. At worst, the station would benefit at least briefly from curious listeners; at best, maybe the winner would have an idea.

But in real life, we have, instead, AOL Time Warner, in which two good companies combined to form one really bad one, as 2002 evidenced. If there ever was a place that seemed to be its own serio-comic reality show, AOL Time Warner was it.

Just before the beginning of 2002, which was just before AOL Time Warner began embarrassing itself, Ted Turner gave a stinging speech at the Western Show, ruefully noting, "My advice to younger people in the room is be real careful who you sell your company to."

Within months, the man who "fired" him, Gerald Levin, announced his exit, and shortly after that, Steve Case, the AOL executive who once was lauded as the future of mass media, was instead derided as its newest pariah. The company was fractured between Time Warner people who thought those AOL folks were too smart for their own good, and AOL people, who apparently weren't quite smart enough to live up to their image. For employees up and down the line—including the folks at CNN who were fighting and losing a battle with Fox News—2002 could not have been a happy one.

Things turn around, of course. ABC, a network that fell off the map in the 2001-02 season, now may have the best crop of new shows on television. So good things do happen, and eventually they will again for everybody else.

God, I hope so. Have a happy New Year, every one of you.

Bednarski may be reached at pbednarski@reedbusiness.com

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