Human Tragedy Tops Nielsens

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Issue 3706

Pre-Teen Moves From Giggling-At-Everything Phase To Never-Smiling Phase

WATERVILLE, ME–Cori Schmidt, 12, went through a life change Tuesday, moving from the giggling-at-everything stage of adolescence to the never-smiling stage. "My goodness, just the other day, I accidentally left a pair of old pantyhose on the couch, and she was jumping all over the living room giggling hysterically," Hannah Schmidt, 41, said of her maturing daughter. "But now, everything I say to her is met with a gloomy scowl." Asked if she was aware of her passage into sullenhood, the younger Schmidt said, "I don't know," without making eye contact.

Australian Forced To Flee Homeland To Sell His Microwave Omelet Cooker

BURBANK, CA–Mick Hastie, Australian political refugee and inventor of the Perfect Omelet microwave omelet cooker, recently fled his native land for the U.S., where he is free to sell his amazing new device without fear. "I am a man without a country, forced out by a corrupt regime that thinks omelets can only be prepared the old-fashioned way, in a greasy skillet," Hastie told a studio audience from the set of his infomercial Monday. "I fled in a leaky tramp steamer, risking death but knowing I'd at least be free of the tyranny of the stove-top omelet."

New Energy Secretary Guesses He Ought To Read Up On Energy

WASHINGTON, DC–Spencer Abraham, the newly installed U.S. Energy Secretary, admitted Monday that he probably ought to read up on energy. "I know energy is really important, and that there was a big crisis back in the '70s, but other than that, I'm in the dark," Abraham said. "I was hoping to be appointed Secretary of Transportation, which I know a lot more about, but that one was already taken." The former Michigan senator said he plans to go to the library Thursday to look up "Energy" in The World Book Encyclopedia.

Ostensibly Heterosexual Man Constantly Threatening To Put Objects Up Coworkers' Asses

IRVING, TX–Though married and ostensibly heterosexual, Westech Data Systems office manager Douglas Briar is constantly threatening to anally penetrate male coworkers with office supplies. "Keep it up," Briar warned coworker Trent Lonegan Monday, "and I'll ram this toner cartridge up your ass." Briar has made similar threats involving staplers, three-hole punches, coffee pots, and rolls of fax paper.

Bush Still Getting Clinton's Mail

WASHINGTON, DC–More than a month after moving into the White House, President Bush continues to receive former occupant Bill Clinton's mail, Bush reported Monday. "Is it so hard to fill out a change-of-address form at the post office?" asked Bush, waving a copy of Rolling Stone addressed to Clinton. "I suppose he expects me to mail all this to him." Bush added that if one more Sierra Club newsletter arrives for Clinton, it is going straight into the trash.

Ask An Upscale Gift Catalog

Dakota, Spring 2001 is a nationally syndicated advice columnist whose weekly column, Ask An Upscale Gift Catalog, appears in more than 250 newspapers nationwide.

The McVeigh Execution

The execution of Oklahoma city bomber Timothy McVeigh, recently set for May 16, is expected to be broadcast via closed-circuit TV to hundreds of the victims' loved ones. What else is being planned for the big event?

You And Me And Baby Minus Me Makes Two

Honey, a miracle has happened–you've got a bun in the oven. How wonderful! Before long, this family is going to be bigger by none. After all, you and me and baby minus me makes two.

Stargazing Tips

The night sky holds countless wonders. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your next stargazing experience:
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Human Tragedy Tops Nielsens

LOS ANGELES–The Fox network's Feb. 15 broadcast of a shark attack on a shipwrecked boatload of Haitian refugees garnered a Nielsen-topping 27.6 rating and 48 share, dominating its 8 p.m. time slot and positioning itself for a 13-week series option, TV-industry insiders reported Monday.

A scene from a Fox special about parents who are killed in car accidents on their daughters' birthdays.

The win caps a yearlong trend of human tragedy as the top prime-time ratings grabber for the four major networks.

"We are pleased the shark-attack footage has struck such a chord with viewers," Fox Entertainment chairman Sandy Grushow said. "Of course, we knew people would tune in to watch real-life Haitians struggling desperately among flotsam and wreckage in the open sea, only to be eaten alive by ravenous, blood-crazed schools of sharks in a feeding frenzy, but we never expected these kinds of numbers."

"I'd just like to thank all the fans for helping us realize our dream of being number one," Grushow added.

The shark attack is the latest in a string of human tragedies to top the Nielsens. Among previous winners: CBS's November 2000 special on the cannibalization of a stranded Norwegian research team in Antarctica, ABC's PrimeTime Thursday report on villagers being dissolved by molten lava during recent volcano eruptions in Indonesia, and Dateline NBC's five-part special Crushed By An Enraged Bull Elephant.

The success of such fare has cemented human tragedy's status as the primary programming directive for the coming season.

"When networks announce their Fall 2001 schedules this May, the watchwords are going to be 'pain and suffering,'" Los Angeles Times television columnist Howard Rosenberg said. "CBS has already gotten a jump on the trend by greenlighting Widowed By War, and NBC is reportedly in negotiations for an as-yet-untitled series about earthquakes that orphan small children, leaving them to wander alone through rubble, howling in confusion and despair as they scrounge for food like animals."

Human tragedy, a mainstay of the dramatic arts for thousands of years, has in recent decades been overtaken in the televisual arts by wacky pratfalls and bawdy sexual innuendo. But tragedy is making a big comeback, industry insiders say. Funny and sexy are out; horrific and senseless are in.

"Since the time of Aeschylus, human tragedy has captivated the human mind," said media and pop-culture analyst Kurt Andersen, founder of "Yet the current popularity of televised atrocity–beheadings, disembowelings, and immolation by chemical fires at the sites of industrial accidents–is something new. Never before have we seen such flaunting of the misfortunes of innocents by the major television networks. Because of content restrictions which hampered TV throughout most of its history, raw unedited footage of, say, an Afghan peasant mother and her five screaming children being hacked to pieces by Taliban militiamen was considered 'inappropriate' for viewer consumption."

However, Andersen said, with the advent of the Internet and the effect it has had on traditional television broadcasting, all that has begun to change.

"Now that these constraining standards of propriety have at long last loosened, we are in the middle of a 'Golden Age of Human Tragedy,'" Andersen said. "And it has made for some great TV."

Industry observers expect human tragedy to continue drawing big audiences–and big revenues–in the coming years. CBS just wrapped shooting on the series Venereal Archipelago, which will feature 16 young, single islanders slowly succumbing to worsening stages of syphilis. NBC's Tragic Event Sunday will document massacres by Third World despots and train accidents involving chemical spills. And ABC News' much-hyped six-part series on Angolan child amputees disfigured by abandoned land mines is scheduled for November sweeps. Other hot topics coming to the small screen in 2001 include starvation, killer-bee attack, and gang rape.