Robert Thompson On Pop Culture

At some point in the past year, the 300 millionth human in the United States was born. At about the same time, BabyFirstTV was launched. It’s a round-the-clock satellite television channel devoted to a previously underserved demographic: viewers whose skulls have not yet fused. Here’s a small sampling of some things in our popular culture that the other 299,999,999 million people have been hearing about throughout the year.

Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff took over the evening news on ABC. Charlie Gibson took over from Elizabeth and Bob. Katie Couric replaced the other Bob on CBS. Then Anderson Cooper replaced Katie—no wait, sorry, that doesn’t get announced ’til 2007. On her first night in the anchor’s chair, Katie showed a picture of the baby that Katie had with Tom (that’s Holmes and Cruise, not Couric and Brokaw). She never showed the picture again, and her ratings have been falling since. Meanwhile, Meredith Vieira got Katie’s old job, Rosie O’Donnell got Meredith’s, and Star Jones got the ax. Ted Koppel went to Discovery, Dan Rather went high-def (and spent election night with Jon Stewart), Mike Wallace slouched toward retirement, and Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann had a feud that’s been more fun to watch than either of their nightly telecasts.

Aiming at a covey of quail, the vice president of the United States shot his friend.

O.J. Simpson wrote a book that might have been true, but—the title implied—he claimed was not. James Frey, on the other hand, wrote a book that wasn’t true, though he claimed it was. After defending Frey on Larry King Live, Oprah Winfrey turned around and carnivorously devoured him on her own show. Without reading a word of it, an outraged public succeeded in getting O.J.’s book shredded into a million little pieces, and the two-part infomercial promoting it pulled from Fox’s schedule.

Ann Coulter called Al Gore a “total fag” on MSNBC, and Gore proved he’s better at making movies than political speeches. Representative Mark Foley flirted with a young male page.

Fidel Castro, Queen Elizabeth II and Hugh Hefner all turned 80. Each of these people helped shape the 20th century in profound ways, but as of ’06, only one had his own reality series on E! The first baby boomers turned 60; As the World Turns and the interstate highway system, 50; It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Star Trek, 40; MTV, 25; Fox News, 10.

I see drunk people: Mel Gibson and Haley Joel Osment were charged with DUI. Only the former responded with an anti-Semitic oration. Danny DeVito appeared to be hammered when he went on The View. The public got to hear about what’s in the permanent records of some Duke students.

2006 was to Internet video what 1947 was to television. The big question is whether this will be referred to as the “YouTube generation” or the “MySpace generation.” I for one am already tiring of the vaudevillian high jinks on many video sites, but the Internet was still the best place to go if you needed to see: Stephen Colbert’s presidential roast, George Allen’s use of the “M-word,” Kyra Phillips’ trip to the bathroom (and her subsequent Letterman appearance), Michael Richards tirade (and his subsequent Letterman appearance) or Al Jazeera in English. Meanwhile, Nielsen reported that the average time Americans spend watching good old-fashioned tee-vee is up from last year.

The West Wing and Will and Grace left the air after long runs; The Book of Daniel left the air after a short controversy. The Sopranos returned after a nearly two-year absence; ABC broadcast a spelling bee in prime time. Two struggling networks united to form a single struggling network; stations orphaned by this event formed yet another struggling network, which introduced telenovelas in English (also struggling). All My Children commenced a gender alteration on a character named Zarf.

HBO did a traditional family sitcom with full frontal male nudity and a lexicon that would be right at home in Deadwood. Showtime introduced a series about a charming serial killer. The networks sued the FCC.

For its 13th iteration, Survivor adopted a segregation policy. Following in the footsteps of Amish in the City, fX’s Black/White and A&E’s God or the Girl turned out to be a lot better than they sounded on paper. Regis and Hasselhoff returned to prime time with America’s Got Talent, Prince performed on American Idol, and Emmy-winning William Shatner emerged as a most-unlikely game show host. So you think Tucker Carlson can dance? He can’t.

A new genre, the Sept. 11 movie, emerged with the release of United 93, World Trade Center and ABC’s The Path to 9/11. Britney and Kevin made it official: they’re divorcing. NBC made it official: Iraq is a “civil war.” At the movies Jackass Number Two and Borat provided some classy relief for those who’d had it with those snakes on the plane.

After 35 years hosting a 50-year-old TV show, Bob Barker announced his impending retirement. After 49 years making pink flamingos, Union Products, a company in the heart of frozen New England that manufactures the symbol of tropical Floridian exotica, announced that it was closing down. If that wasn’t enough bad news, there’ll be no more running of the Tauruses off the Ford assembly lines. Worse still, one of the greatest comic actors ever, in any medium, died in 2006. Don Knotts was joined by lots of other popular culture A-listers, including Dennis Weaver, Jack Palance, Lou Rawls, Betty Friedan, Mike Douglas, Mickey Spillane, Robert Altman, Steve Irwin, Jane Wyatt, Al Lewis, Aaron Spelling, Ed Bradley, and many more.

As the year drew to a close, Britney was photographed sans underwear. Now that’s something you’ll never see on BabyFirstTV.