A critical look at the most-viewed event in history

And the let’s-feel-good-about-feeling-bad vibe that endless hours of television broadcasts had forced upon the grief stricken and the cynical alike. As the first tragedy to test the maturity of the 100-channel, 24-hour-coverage, satellite-dish media era, Diana’s death made an unreasonably steep demand of the medium — it was supposed to offer us solace while defining our age and serving as a counselor, an investigator, a leader, and a conscience. What tens of millions of Americans may have discovered instead was TV’s oldest and most familiar essence.

Television — all television, even television news — is show business, and so the bulletins that first arrived from Paris as a cold, hard shock were quickly repackaged as overproduced spectacle and pageantry. Diana’s death was impossible not to mourn, but ”The Death of Diana” a.k.a. ”Goodbye to the People’s Princess” a.k.a. ”The Final Farewell” (same show, different news networks) was strictly an Aaron Spelling production.

During a week in which scant teaspoons of fresh information were used to flavor 55-gallon barrels of repetition, it was hard to deliver good journalism (exceptions included Nightline and the microscopically rated but ever sturdier MSNBC). What a creepy debasement to see Barbara Walters announce that she was barely able to bring herself to spill the beans about her friendship with Di (somehow, she managed), or Diane Sawyer, glowing with the news that PrimeTime Live would be re-creating Diana’s last day, or Dominick Dunne letting NBC viewers know that Di thought O.J. Simpson would be acquitted, which must mean…something. And let’s not forget the etiquette and protocol pundits who hit the morning- show circuit to kibitz as shrewdly as sportswriters about upcoming royal strategy for the funeral. (What exactly do the etiquette books say about people who use an untimely death as a pretext to gossip publicly about bereaved strangers?)

TV thirsts for the rankable, the ratable, the quantifiable, so it tried to turn sadness into statistics: Official condolence website hits numbered 1.8 million by Labor Day! Forty-five million dollars’ worth of flowers were sold in London! One billion viewers worldwide would make the funeral the most-watched event in history! In fact, it was reported with some regret that the 33 million Americans who watched the live broadcast of the funeral did not surpass the audience for the 1981 royal wedding or, say, an average Oscar night. Many commentators desperately tried to place Diana among the All-Time Top Five Deaths of the Media Age, as if we could make sense of it all by charting her position relative to JFK or Princess Grace.

TV is a marketing medium that tests and retests its products to see how they play with the public. And so we were allowed to choose whatever version of Diana we liked best and wallow in it. If you didn’t buy the original ending (”Diana dies just as she found true love”), you could tap into others that tested higher for poignancy (for ”Diana dies just as she and Charles become friends again,” press 1; for ”Diana is reclaimed in death by the family that shunned her in life,” press 2).