Keeping Score on 2003

So many winners and losers, so little space
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It's time again for Jessell's picks for the industry's winners and losers of 2003. Sit back and enjoy.

Must I peg TV news a loser? It did so many good and brave things. Reporters and their crews continue to risk their lives to keep an eye on things for us in Iraq. But TV news let us all down by not scrutinizing more closely what the Bush administration was thinking and doing leading up to the invasion. It failed to expose The Big Lie: that Iraq was in on 9/11 and an imminent threat to the U.S.

What makes me and a lot of others queasy is the feeling that TV news didn't really want to expose them. To do so would have risked being labeled unpatriotic by the White House and its supporters.

NBC's David Bloom seemed to lead the media into battle on a mobile video uplink of his own conception. Others distinguished themselves as "embeds" or "unilaterals." Never before had America been so close to the fighting. They were all winners. Well, not all. Geraldo Rivera was out there, too.

Ashleigh Banfield gets the Arthur Kent award for soaring high during an Iraqi war and then disappearing. She derailed after criticizing NBC's coverage of the war. So, I guess, that makes her a winner in one sense (journalism and ethics) and a loser in another (career).

As far as we can determine, Aaron Brown, CNN's answer to Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, is still on the golf course.

How about Spike Lee and Paris Hilton? They're winners for extraordinary marketing prowess. Spike promoted himself by suing Viacom after it announced that it would rename TNN Spike. Lee scored a bunch of headlines after some dopey judge declined to summarily dismiss his complaint that Viacom stole his name.

Meanwhile, Paris just scored. She is famous in one of those only-in-America kinds of ways. A tape of her sexual antics makes its way onto the Internet just as Fox is beginning to crank up promotion for her unreal reality series. This sorry show turns out to be the hit of Fox's fall season, which is all I need to say about the Fox fall season. Stamp it with a capital "L"

It's too soon to call Jeff Zucker a loser. But, hey, Jeff, how about a hit? That was your boss, Bob Wright, making a joke about your Friends
replacement, Coupling, at the NBC holiday party last Tuesday in front of the entire New York media press corps. How are you going to get the No. 2 job if you can't program Thursday night?

No doubt about it, Les Moonves is a winner. I made a point of telling him so at the CBS holiday party two days after NBC's. While the other broadcast networks are waning, CBS is waxing. But what I didn't tell him (the mood of the evening was too festive) is that he cannot be forgiven for dumping The Reagans. A network's determination to air a controversial program should always outstrip the pressure not to air it.

ESPN is another network that hasn't learned this lesson, which makes it a loser. It creates a hit series, Playmakers, and now will likely bench it because the NFL complains that its portrayal is too negative.

ESPN has tried to defend the show by arguing that it isn't real, that it's only entertainment. But we know that the troubles and vices of the fictional players—wife beating, womanizing, drug and steroid use—are all too real. We know because we read the papers. We know because Lawrence Taylor just wrote a book about it. And LT knows more about NFL players than Paul Tagliabue ever will.

Let's talk media moguls. In the W column, we have Wright and Rupert Murdoch. They look to have gotten what they wanted. Wright established NBC as a long-term player by dealing for the best of Vivendi Entertainment. Murdoch is poised to take control of DirecTV, the No. 1 satellite-TV company. You already know the losers: Steve Case, Jean-Paul Messier and Edgar Bronfman.

I'm not sure what to say about Disney. If Eisner and Iger are poised to lead Disney and ABC into a new era of growth and innovation, they had better get some PR help. Nobody is buying it.

I don't pretend this list is exhausted, but my space is. If you have nominations of your own, drop me an e-mail.

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