At this writing, it's December 31, meaning that I have less than a day to look back at 1996 while it's still going on. Herewith a recap of the year's entertainment-industry winners and losers. The distinction between the categories is simple. The winners influenced our culture and society positively; the losers influenced them negatively.
Winner: Rosie O'Donnell. People watch because she's nice. Granted, she's a liberal Democrat and occasionally isn't nice to conservatives and Republicans. Still, her frothy, showbiz-heavy daytime hour clearly is preferable to the competing slimefests hosted by Jenny Jones, Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer, and the rest.
Loser: Ellen DeGeneres. The Steve Gunderson of prime time, slowly inching her way out of the closet. In anticipation of her character's official unveiling as a lesbian, ABC moved DeGeneres' obnoxious sitcom from 8 to 9:30 p.m.. I'd like to suggest an even later time slot, like 2 a.m.
Winner: Mel Gibson. With what he has going for him - box-office magnetism, personal and philosophical integrity, and talent on both sides of the camera - he has done much, and will do much more, to make Hollywood a force for traditional morality.
Losers: Sony-owned companies named Columbia, both of which were forces for immorality in '96. Columbia Records issued "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," a Christmas album benefiting pro-abortion groups. Columbia Pictures released "The People vs. Larry Flynt," the original advertisement for which featured Woody Harrelson, playing the notorious pornographer, posing as if crucified against the backdrop of a near-naked woman.
Winner: The WB television network. Even though it's on only three nights per week, it provides as much family programming as any full-time network, and more than most.
Losers: Fox and NBC. Neither airs even one family-friendly show. For parents and their young children, racy NBC "family hour" offerings like "Friends" are Mustn't See TV.
Winners: William Bennett and C. Delores Tucker. They not only started an anti-gangsta rap campaign, they've followed through.
Loser: The aforementioned Woody Harrelson. Woody qualifies not only for starring in the Flynt movie, but also for this breathtakingly asinine statement in an interview with Us magazine: "I do my thing and I'm pretty good at it, but I'm convinced that the only reason my career has continually done as well as it has is that I speak for the trees."
Winner: Cable television, which continues to gain viewers at the expense of ...
Loser: ...broadcast television, whose real problem - vulgarity - a rating system won't fix.
Winner: Tom Hanks. Aside from the odd curse word, his upbeat, wholesome "That Thing You Do!" could be aired intact on broadcast television - something that can be said for almost no other theatrical movies.
Loser: Disney, which could use any wholesomeness Hanks can spare. Its kowtowing to gays culminated this year with the "Ellen" uproar. (Disney produces the show through its Touchstone Television and airs it on its ABC network.) Then the Mouse went after the film rights to an absurd series of newspaper articles alleging that the CIA had introduced crack to the ghettos of Los Angeles. Whichever executive green-lighted that purchase has a small mind, after all.
Special mention: NBC's "Today" show, which will improve as of January 3, when the egregious Bryant Gumbel leaves. As a baseball general manager once said of a traded player, "It's addition by subtraction."
And, finally, my Persons of the Year - one a negative figure, the other positive. The former award is presented posthumously to Tupac Shakur. This is the holiday season, but there are limits to my goodwill, and the late rapper/actor/criminal Mr. Shakur remains outside them. At a recent Washington speech, black intellectual Stanley Crouch told of a friend who noted the dictum that one should speak only good of the dead. Then, Crouch said, the friend added, "Tupac Shakur is dead. Good." Well put.
My positive Person of the Year is Martha Williamson, creator and executive producer of two of prime time's best series, "Touched By an Angel" and "Promised Land." When "Angel" premiered in 1994, critics called it hokey and saccharine. CBS played schedule hide-and-seek with it to such an extent that many didn't know when it would air. But its popularity increased dramatically last year, and it is now a top-ten hit.
Hits beget spinoffs, and "Promised Land" debuted this fall. It is less explicitly religious than "Angel," but faith is nonetheless at its core. Who knows? Maybe the next prime time powerhouse will be not an envelope-pusher a la Steven Bochco, but the devoutly religious, energetic, imaginative Ms. Williamson.