It's a sign of our times, in more ways than one. ABC ended its Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday tradition of airing the classic 1956 film "The Ten Commandments" since its length might cut into its big depraved hit "Desperate Housewives."
It might seem like the age has ended where classic films can still score a ratings bonanza on the broadcast networks, especially when people who appreciate them can own them at home and watch them on videotape or DVD whenever they want. Graying parents remember gathering around the tube for the annual CBS airing of "The Wizard of Oz," which happened every year from 1956 to 1998. That wonderful tradition is gone.
But this age is not really on the ash heap of TV history. In 2003, Cecil B. DeMille's Exodus epic was the highest-rated ABC show of the week. After worrying about the bloom coming off the Biblical rose and removing it from the Lenten lineup in 1999, ABC won Sunday night with it in 2000 and 2002. Last year, it averaged 10.2 million viewers on Palm Sunday, another strong ratings number for an almost 50-year-old movie. Shamelessly bumped this year to the Saturday night before Palm Sunday for a "Desperate" rerun, the film suffered its smallest TV audience on record - fewer than seven million viewers.
It's a shame, since the film has great drama, imposing special effects, and even a desperate wife in Anne Baxter's conflicted Nefretiri, who loved Moses but was left with Rameses. It's a wonderful story, one of the very few times children watching broadcast television can contemplate the presence of God and miracles and the sacred mysteries of the Bible. It stands in shocking relief to everything nihilistic and "modern" that has polluted just about all of today's television dramas.
Sadly, the Moses-shoving gambit didn't cause any headaches for Team Disney. Among the 18- to 49-year-olds ABC ravenously desires, the new Easter episode of "Desperate Housewives" beat CBS, NBC, Fox and WB combined and was the most watched program in the country on Easter - more than 24 million Americans - and none of the troubled yet saucy suburbanites was swallowed up by the Red Sea as a sign of God's displeasure. Hollywood programmers no doubt would prefer to suggest that people watch middle-aged vixens with their plastic-surgery alterations dancing before the golden calf of hedonism over stuffy, lecturing old Moses.
What a shocking contrast in dramas. In one, a religious leader walks his people out of slavery in Egypt and receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. In the other, one housewife tries to bribe the neighborhood prostitute to remove her husband's name from her little black book, while another housewife who lost her indoor plumbing steals a Porta-Potty from a construction site.
Disney hasn't gotten this excited over an ABC hit since Regis Philbin's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" took off. At least we don't have three nights a week of "Desperate Housewives" yet - coming soon, "Desperate Housewives, Miami"? - but Regis Phil bin never bumped Moses off Sunday night.
ABC is promoting the show relentlessly, even in its "news" programming - backstage with the show's wives on "Primetime Live," on the set with the husbands on "Good Morning America." ABC is also deliberately pushing this adult show on children. This morning I heard from an outraged parent. "Can anyone tell me," he e-mailed, "why my nine-year-old watching ABC Family Channel at approximately 12:30 EST today needs to see and be exposed to explicit promos for 'Desperate Housewives'?"
A complaint like that is surely going to be dismissed by the Enlightened Ones guarding our popular culture meltdown. For example, New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently compared decency campaigners to the Salem witch-hunters and the Taliban, a religiously kooky minority holding America hostage: "At a certain point - and we seem to be at that point - fear takes over, allowing a mob to bully the majority over the short term." But who's "bullying" who? Who dishes out sleaze and who has to live with it? And who is the majority?
Let us remember once again that in today's incredibly fragmented television world, the ABC audience number hailed as "gigantic," 24 million Americans, is less than 10 percent of our estimated population of 290 million, lest anyone want to draw grand political conclusions about our culture. Unfortunately, it's only that minority that really matters to ABC.