Much ink has been spilled remembering the always reliable Peter Jennings, who died a few days ago from lung cancer. It was shocking enough when Jennings announced he had the disease, but to see him die so quickly, mere months after being diagnosed seemed too much to bear somehow.
While there didn’t seem to be much of a place for the prime time evening news anymore, particularly at the same time on all three networks, it is difficult not to mourn the end of an era. Now they’re all gone – Dan Rather was shamed off the air (justifiably or not), Tom Brokaw gracefully retired to write books, leaving only Jennings. We grew to count on these men, for better or worse, and we trusted them. Why is it always the most painful to lose those people we trusted would always be there?
There is a price to pay for familiarity. When we turn on the television, we trust that the same person is going to be there every night to tell us what’s going on in the world. There was a reason why Jennings outlasted the rest, a reason why the ratings were mostly solid. The formula the networks arrived at worked: Jennings was a keeper.
Except that he wasn’t. He was not a talking head existing only to serve us. He was a human being at just as much risk for untimely death as the rest of us. If anything, his death ought to shake most of us to our core, reminding us (as if we needed reminding) that this fragile life is not ours for the keeping – but passing moments in time as destined to end as they were unlikely to begin.
He blamed his cancer on the chain-smoking he did in his younger days, a habit he’d kicked but then returned to, like an old friend, during 9/11. He knew the negative effects of smoking, how could he not? Reporting on the tobacco lawsuits year after year. Yet, like us, he vowed to change, believing the propaganda from Big Tobacco that as long as you quit by the time you’re thirty you’ll be okay.
Accepting the end of the era of nightly news programs is not easy for those set in our ways. It seems like it all happened at once. Rather, Brokaw and now Jennings, all gone. Everyone keeps talking about replacements, as if there really could be – was there ever really a replacement for Walter Cronkite?
Pushing aside the thought that there might be an upside to all of this (how can there be?), television news is now being taken over by news writers, not readers and most of it will exist online. Computer users reportedly don’t watch much TV anyway and when there are 24-hour news cycles on the net and television, why would any of us tune in at 6:30 p.m. for our nightly summary?
Because it was good. It was comforting, somehow, to know that we were all gathered at once and hearing the news at the same time by these three men we knew like trusted guardians. Without them, there is the sense that there will be no solid core to American news on television but just a sea of “personalities.”
They will be funny, they will be biased, they will be exciting, they will be dull, they will be pretty, they will be controversial — but they won’t be what Jennings was: a source proven over many years to be someone you could count on.
Notable TV This Week
Thursday, August 11
All About Eve (****), “fasten your seatbelts,” 7:30 p.m., FMC.
Paths of Glory (****), the great Stanley Kubrick, 7:30 p.m., TCM.
Biography: Mick Jagger, 9 p.m.., BIO.
Is Paris Burning (***), 9 p.m., TCM.
Friday, August 12
All That Heaven Allows (***), 7:30 p.m., TCM.
Birthday Girl (**), with Nicole Kidman, 9 p.m., IFC.
Jurassic Park III (**), 8 p.m., TNT.
Casino (**), not one of Martin Scorsese’s best, but a nice performance by Sharon Stone, 9:30 p.m., BRAVO.
Saturday, August 13
Motown: The Early Years, 7:30 p.m., KCET.
Gymnastics, 8 p.m., NBC.
Porky’s (***), the original teen sex comedy, 9 p.m., TCM.
Gunga Din (****), 9 p.m., TCM.
Sunday, August 14
Indecent Proposal (**), 7:30 p.m., BRAVO.
The Godfather, Part II (****), 7:30 p.m., SPIKE.
Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, 7:30 p.m., IFC.
Spy Kids 2 (**), 8 p.m., DISNEY.
Monday, August 15
Fred and Ginger Double Bill – Swing Time (1936) and Shall We Dance (1937), 7:30 p.m., TCM.
The End of the Affair (**), 8 p.m., IFC.
Remember the Titans (***), with Denzel Washington, 8 p.m., ABC.
Renovate My Family, miracle working on TV by renovating a cancer patient’s home, 8 p.m., FOX.
Tuesday, August 16
The Emperor’s New Groove (***), 8 p.m., DISNEY.
Wide Angle, An Honest Citizen, 9 p.m., KCET.
Strange Days (**), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 9 p.m., FMC.
Tommy Lee Goes to College, well he has to do something with himself, 9 p.m., NBC.
Wednesday, August 17
The Office, back to back episodes beginning at 8 p.m., NBC.
Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, 7:30 p.m., BRAVO.
So You Think You Can Dance, 8 p.m., FOX.
The Battle of the Network Reality Stars, 9 p.m., BRAVO.