All year, television images have pooled in our brains like misty, water-colored memories. Will they ever dry up?
Sure, 13-year-old Tyler Crotty may have slipped your mind. Last March he created a brief stir (and landed an appearance on David Letterman's show) after being caught on tape standing behind President Bush at a Florida rally, where he yawned and fidgeted through Bush's remarks.
But you'll never forget Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean's scream on the campaign trail. TV made sure of that. The "I have a scream" footage aired more than 600 times on cable and broadcast-network news in just the four days after it happened last January (a number that doesn't include local news and talk shows).
In October, pop star Ashlee Simpson's voice failed her on "Saturday Night Live" (the wrong song was cued, outing her lip-synch ruse). Last month, propriety failed players and fans alike during the Pacers-Pistons brawl in Detroit. Simpson doing a desperate jig; Pacers forward Ron Artest pounding a fan - odds are, you can see those pictures on your mind's TV screen right now.
Of course, TV 2004 began with a memorable sight, thanks to the "wardrobe malfunction" that caused Janet Jackson's right breast to be flashed before a TV audience of some 90 million during CBS' Super Bowl halftime show. The aftershock, still being felt, bestirred quakes of righteous indignation, finger-pointing and taped delays, along with stiff fines to broadcasters from fired-up federal regulators bent on reimposing decency on the airwaves.
But exactly what was "decent" remained unclear, as evidenced in November when 66 ABC stations refused to air "Saving Private Ryan," an award-winning, flag-waving, aired-twice-previously-without-incident hit feature. The defecting stations cited the film's handful of swear words as their reason for not carrying it.
For many viewers, some of the most "indecent" sights came from the war in Iraq.
Few if any U.S. media outlets chose to air video of the May beheading of Nick Berg, an American civilian, by an al Qaeda-affiliated group.
But the watching world was shocked by TV images showing Iraqis stripped naked, hooded and tormented by U.S. captors at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. And Americans were chilled by the sight of Osama bin Laden insinuating himself into the presidential campaign just days before the election, in his first video appearance in more than a year.
Even a TV tribute to the U.S. servicemen and women killed in the war took on controversial overtones. In April, ABC News' "Nightline" devoted a broadcast to airing a photo of each of the 721 fallen soldiers while anchor Ted Koppel solemnly read aloud their names. But Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose top executives are active supporters of the Bush administration, refused to air the program, condemning it as having an anti-war slant.
The June death of former President Reagan, and the ceremonies leading up to his burial, gave viewers a seven-day respite from the murky, unsettling reports visited upon them by the war and terrorism.
As millions watched the Reagan coverage (it won five of the week's top 10 cable-rating slots), they understood that it qualified as news not because it was timely or previously unreported, but exactly the opposite: It told them what they already knew. It turned out to be less a story about Reagan than the viewers, who, watching it, re-engaged with something they prized from the past.
The yearlong presidential race between Bush and John Kerry often seemed mired in the past - the Vietnam era - with blistering anti-Kerry Swift boat commercials questioning Kerry's war record. Along the way, viewers were flooded with campaign imagery ranging from the conventions' tightly choreographed spectacle, to the debates (but what WAS that lump protruding from Bush's back?), to the bright red maps signaling a Republican sweep on election night.
Complaints of voter irregularities weren't limited to the November election.
In May, an estimated 31.4 million people saw Fantasia Barrino crowned as the third "American Idol" - but the weeks-long competition hit a bumpy patch with a report that viewers trying to log their vote had been disenfranchised by overburdened phone lines and "power dialers" who were hogging the system. The Fox network insisted it was using "the most sophisticated system available in the nation."
The year marked epochal transitions on several newscasts.
Anchor Tom Brokaw left "The NBC Nightly News" after more than two decades, with Brian Williams taking his place.
More surprisingly, CBS' Dan Rather announced he would vacate his anchor desk come March. The departure of the 73-year-old Rather was perhaps accelerated by his "60 Minutes Wednesday" story about Bush's National Guard service, which turned out to be based on allegedly forged documents. A report by an independent commission looking into the September story was expected before the end of the year, potentially triggering further upheaval at CBS News.
And in December, Bill Moyers left his PBS newsmagazine "Now," ending a distinguished 30-year-old career in TV journalism.
Fortunately, make-believe newsman Jon Stewart wasn't going anywhere. Hailed as the year's best anchor by Vanity Fair magazine, he proved an essential truth-teller with his Comedy Central spoof newscast, "The Daily Show," which pulled record ratings as it mocked the Bush-Kerry race and world events in general.
Not nearly as funny was last May's much-hyped finale of "Friends" after 10 hit seasons. A week later, "Frasier" had its own poignant finale on NBC after 11 seasons. And on HBO, "Sex and the City" concluded its six-season run with Mr. Big and Carrie back together for good.
When "The Apprentice" premiered last January, it dominated water-cooler conversation and made Donald Trump's parting shot, "You're fired," a national catchphrase.
But by fall, it - along with the reality craze overall - seemed to have faded somewhat, while scripted, character-driven series made a startling recovery. High among them were "Lost" (which chronicled the struggles of 48 survivors of a plane crash stranded on a tropical island) as well as "Desperate Housewives" (a saucy soap opera about attractive women stranded in a cushy subdivision), which was second only to "E.R." as the season's most popular show.
Helping spread the word about "Housewives" was a scandalous promo broadcast just before ABC's "Monday Night Football" last month. In the ad, "Housewives" star Nicollette Sheridan wore only a towel as she flirted with Philadelphia Eagles star receiver Terrell Owens in a deserted locker room. Then she dropped the towel and jumped into his arms.
The segment spurred complaints from viewers, an outburst from Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell and an apology from the network, which conceded the promo's placement "was inappropriate."
Now, as viewers - whether outraged or delighted - replay mental pictures of Nicollette Sheridan in the buff, they can ponder the larger implication: A year of TV is ending in a fashion not unlike how it began.
By Frazier Moore