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January 2004


Tonight, taking "Passion" to the "Nth Degree." A spokesman for Mel Gibson says Gibson will roll out a whole line of products tied to his new film, "The Passion of the Christ." The spokesman says every big movie does this and Gibson would be foolish not to take advantage of the merchandising of the Christ. The movie has already drawn controversy for suggesting that the pope gave it a big (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Way (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Well if there is any controversy about the licensing, consider a rough translation from Mark Chapter 8 which reads "for what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the world but lose his own merchandising rights?" Gibson is already selling fan kits online. And still to come, the official "Passion of the Christ" T-shirt. Really? But will that satisfy our spiritual hunger for material goods? Why not a "Passion" happy meal or a bumper sticker that says, "If you can read Aramaic, you're too close." The possibilities are infinite.

Tonight, taking democracy to "The Nth Degree." The 2004 New Hampshire primary started off today with retired General Wesley Clark kicking some Dixville Notch. We don't know the ultimate winner yet, but in the meantime, the fight for a tiny state that controls about 2 percent of the party's delegates led men who've led their states, the nation and international armies to scrap, flip and shake for votes with all the dignity of, well, a future president.The primary process is as grueling, ugly and expensive as Ryan and Trista's wedding. But when you hear people complain about the process, or whine about the whining about the criticism, keep in mind, this is how it's supposed to be. Just like the courts or the branches of government, it's no accident that it's adversarial. That's the point. It is not a perversion of the founding fathers' vision, it is the realization of it. Thomas Paine meets mortal combat. Messy, unforgiving, and it eats up quarters as fast as you put them in. Just not supposed to be this cold.

Tonight, taking Barbara Walters to the "Nth Degree." Well, that is it. After 25 years, Barbara Walters is stepping down as co-host of the ABC news magazine "20/20." This really is the end of an era. When you add the 13 years she spent before "20/20" waking the country up on NBC's "Today Show," it comes out this way. Barbara Walters has been on television at the top of her game longer than I have been alive. She made history against tough odds becoming the first female network evening news anchor in 1976 and she's pretty much been making history ever since. Extraordinary interviews and questions it seemed only she could ask, often moving her subject to tears, if they knew what was good for them. So why is Walters leaving? It's not that "20/20" isn't doing well. The show averages about 10 million viewers a week, about the same as AC 360 would if you counted every time my mom replays the tapes. Walters says she just wants more flexibility in her life. That's fine, I suppose. But what about us? How will we know who the interesting or important or infuriating people are now without Barbara Walters to lead us to them. I suppose the lady deserves a break. After 40 years or so of first-class journalism, Barbara Walters has certainly earned it.

Tonight, taking The Captain to "The Nth Degree." For 30 years, Bob Keeshan delighted kids as Captain Kangaroo. So much so, they almost didn't notice that they were learning about science, literature and music. Keeshan created characters that soon became household names. Mr. Moose, Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Green Jeans. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BOB KEESHAN, CAPTAIN KANGAROO: Don't you worry, Mr. Green Jeans, they're safe with me.
COOPER: And the poetry-reading Grandfather Clock.
Rejecting the commercialization of children's programming, Keeshan personally supervised which commercials could run during his show, rejecting products he felt exploited it. There was no studio audience on "Captain Kangaroo," no kids in the cast. Keeshan spoke directly into the camera, directly into the eyes and hearts of young viewers. Truly, he earned that adjective so rarely applicable but now ubiquitous in descriptions of TV personalities. Beloved. Bob Keeshan loved kids, and we loved him back.

It is official. The love that once shined so bright it warmed America's celebrity clogged heart has died. I'm sorry. It's an emotional moment for us all. We fell in love and out of love with those crazy kids as quickly and as often as they did with each other. Remember "Gigli"? How we laughed at them. I'm sorry. I can't do this. Just roll the tape. Who will we obsess about now? I'm sure we'll find somebody.

There's a lot of controversy about President Bush's ambitions for America to go back to the moon and then go to Mars. And frankly, there are any number of valid arguments, pro and con. True, if history is any guide, the cost for such missions will dwarf the initial estimates. And you can certainly argue that this is not the time, that the resources are needed elsewhere. Some are asking what will human exploration yield for mankind that robotic exploration won't? Mars is about 35 to 40 million miles away which leads us to the staggering, mind boggling, towering scale of the impossibility of it all. But the challenge of achieving something so wondrous is also point in the pro side of the debate. This is certainly not the first time a daring expedition has sparked heated controversy. Columbus had to spend years pleading for support from European courts. And before Lewis and Clark could set out some members of congress disagreed over whether to fund them at all. Debate about a mission's worth and risk and benefits has always been part of the prelude of exploration. Like it or not, it is a necessary part of the process of turning todays science fiction into tomorrows human history.

Tonight, taking bad language, evil language, if you will, back to the Nth degree. Recently we told you about a new FCC ruling that said the singer Bono's use of an expletive on TV last year was OK because he used it as an adjective. Now, FCC Chairman Michael Powell wants to overturn that ruling. Powell wants a new rule making clear you can't say you're... great let alone you're... your groupies. And Congressman Doug Ose has introduced a new bill too filthy to even read on TV that would ban not just that word but seven other words and phrases as well. But some curses are tricky. They hide in other words. For instance, a titmouse saying in the pussy willow tree as I ate a prickly pear with Dick Gephardt and Don Johnson. Disgusting, yes, but still permissible in the new bill. The only way to be sure no curses get on the air is to ban the actual sounds. Consider this sentence. If a curse of any kind can be uttered in this country, we'll fall into a moral morass wholly of our own making, if you ask me. But if curse sounds were banned, that sentence would be free of curses and thus sound like this. If a (bleep) of any kind can be uttered in this (bleep), we'll fall into a moral (bleep) of our own making if you (bleep) me. That's how we and the FCC like our sentences on TV. Inoffensive and squeaky clean.

Tonight, taking royalty to "The Nth Degree." Recently, a number of high-profile celebrities seem to have lost the royal titles they once held. Consider Michael Jackson. He declared himself king of pop and demanded that we accept his sovereignty. Sure, the media put up a struggle, but eventually resistance fell, and the media recognized Jackson as a legitimate monarch of pop. After that, royalty reigned. Americans, who had once fought to overthrow a monarchy bowed to a new generation of royals. Rosie O'Donnell was coronated the queen of nice. Ozzy Osbourne was venerated as the crown prince of darkness. Lesser princes were also recognized in the house of darkness, including, of course, CNN's own Bob Novak. But remember, heavy is the head that wears the crown. The king of pop's grip on his kingdom has slipped. Border rebels have rejected his reign outright. And recently, his palace was stormed by representatives of the people. The queen of nice? She, too, has been dethroned. And maybe this is the way America is supposed to be. A land free of royalty, a land where one man and one man alone is king. That man is Larry.

Finally tonight, taking that old eye of the beholder business to "The Nth Degree." Here is a bit of a current events Rorschach test for you. Looking at a picture of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, what do you see? A hero or a villain? A whistle-blower or a backstabber? How you see Paul O'Neill, whether as a fearless truth-teller or as a backstabbing turncoat is a matter of how you feel about the Bush administration. That's how a Rorschach test works. After all, this building could be this, could be that, could be anything at all, really. Mr. O'Neill says the Bush administration was deadset on ousting Saddam Hussein long before 9/11, that the president was so disengaged during cabinet meetings as to be like -- and this is a verbatim quote -- "a blind man in a room full of deaf people." Actually, one of those people, Mr. O'Neill himself, seems not to have been deaf so much as mute. Despite whatever he heard, he never said anything until now, three years after the fact. So what is he? Turncoat? Truth-teller? Or just a fellow with odd timing? Of course, he could be all three of those things. That is the beauty of the inkblot test.

Tonight taking that hissing noise to the "Nth Degree." A mysterious leak has lead to steadily dropping air pressure in the International Space Station. So far flight controllers have failed to find the leak. But maybe that's because of their methods, directly scrutinizing likely sources of the leak. Instead, they could try some techniques used to hunt another mysterious leak, the leak of a CIA's officer's name last year. Step 2, simply ask the leak to identify itself. Step 2, if it doesn't, then ask the leak to turn over its records and the logs of any incriminating phone calls it might have made. Step three, because we know the leak is not on planet Earth, don't waste time poking around Bob Novak or Karl Rove's offices. There's a good chance they'll actually be able to find the leak on the space station. The air pressure on board remains higher than as some cities on Earth such as Denver, Mexico City, and even Washington where there appears to be almost no pressure at all.

Tonight, taking high definition to the "Nth Degree." The "Wall Street Journal" reports that high definition television, HDTV, has makeup artists and the people they make up sweating and sweating visibly over the advent of high definition TV. Why? Because it's so crisp, so sharp that it shows everything. I mean there's no secret that some TV people already use special camera lenses to hide some things, to soften or even improve their image. See, if I did this, it would look like this, blurring away my misshapen figures and making me beautiful. But HDTV reveals everything and you can't cover it with make-up, because it will show the makeup as well. See? And if I can't wear makeup, HDTV will mercilessly reveal every wart and wrinkle on my face. See? I'm old, hideously, hideously old. Now, I want to see what Jerry Orbach would look like? I didn't think so. There's a thin line between brave and stupid. So please, think before you upgrade; in not for me, then do it for Andy Rooney.

Tonight, taking addiction to the Nth degree. A Mr. Timothy of West Bend Wisconsin is threatening to sue his cable company because he says it got him and his family addicted to cable. That's right. Hooked on the box. Wired on tube. Hopped up on sweet lady tea. How can this happen, you ask? It's simple. He says he tried to kick the habit but his supplier kept it coming for free. That's how it works. First it's free. Before you know it you're popping NBCs and ABCs until you pass out in your (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in a pile of Cheetos crumbs. I know. Believe me, I've been there. After a while, broadcast channels, they just don't cut it. Now you need the hard stuff. You start paying for it. Through the nose. You want that spike, your daily FX, E, TNT, whatever you want to call it. Soon, you'd sell your own mama, your whole Nielsen family just for a single hit of pay-per-view. Then you crash. If you're lucky, it kills you outright. You got to go cold turkey. And I don't mean the Food Channel, baby. Sure, you'll get the DTVs. You'll get them bad. Feels like bugs all over you. And even when you're clean, still be a junkie for the rest of your life. How do I know? I'm Anderson Cooper. And I'm not just a cable new pusher, I'm also a TVaholic.

Tonight, the men and women who take science to the Nth degree. These are some of the people working on the current Mars mission out of NASA's jet propulsion laboratory. And these are some of the new historic pictures they've made possible. For months and years they have devoted most of their waking life, the numbers and the sciences, physics, astrophysics, engineering, geology, evolutionary biology and more required to make this mission succeed. In other words, they spent their lives studying the stuff that so many of us not only actively dislike, math and science, we actually make fun of people smart enough not just to get it, but to understand why it is fascinating and why it matters. In high school, they were the nerds. Then, a hundred million miles away a robot on the surface of Mars, 100 degrees below zero, looked up, found the earth in the Martian sky and said hello. In that moment, as they celebrated a victory greater than most of us can comprehend, we realize that now in the 21st century, yesterday's nerds are today's superstars. Sure, you won't see them on the cover of "US Weekly" or interviewed on "Entertainment Tonight." They are not Botox beauties and they don't get paid millions just to play ball. But these men and women and their predecessors, they conquered another planet. We benefit not only from their talent and dedication, but from the greatest gift they have given us, the future.

Finally tonight, farewell to "The Nth Degree." We want to show you some blurry pictures we found while surfing the Web today taken by a woman named Vicky Pierce (ph), whose nephew, a soldier, died in Iraq. The photos you'll see were taken last April, along a couple of miles of road between two small towns in the Hill Country of Texas.
COOPER (voice-over): Army Specialist James Keel (ph) was serving with the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriyah when he was killed, the same day Jessica Lynch was captured there. There had been a church service for him in his town, a small place called, strange to say, Comfort. But the cemetery was miles away, in Center Point. It would be, the people in the procession must have thought, a sad and lonely ride. And sad surely it was, but not lonely. The townspeople of Comfort and Center Point and who knows how many other little places in between resolved not to let it be. All along the road, figures appeared, standing at attention, holding flags. And some, just their hands over their hearts. This went on first for one mile, then for another, then for part of a third. All the way to James Keel's (ph) final resting place. An impromptu honor guard of men, women, and children, still as statutes, silent, stricken. It is all in the past now, as we said, but we thought you should see these pictures, these moments anyway, to give you something to think about when you hear the cold talk of casualties and numbers. Remember that in one place on one day it came down to this, a hearse, a grieving family and hundreds of people most of whom can't ever have met Specialist James Keel (ph), but who felt the need silently to stand beside the road as he passed by for the last time.

Tonight, retrospectives to "The Nth Degree." After almost a full month of retrospectives, highlight shows and reviews of the year 2003, you must be sick of them, which is why tonight, we bring you a very special look back at the year 2004 so far. It all began with a young nation, ringing in the new year with hope and optimism. But the nation would be tested in the coming hours when America's idol, Kelly Clarkson was toppled by some Norwegian guy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll tell you what it means to me. You've got to be a fool, frankly, to go New Year's night to Times Square.
COOPER: And what about a Connecticut congressman would turn out to be more scared of terrorists than Cyndi Lauper?
America's politicians saw their stocks rise and fall while the surging economy failed to produce any significant job growth in the year's so far only work day. In the new year, President Bush came out with a startling proclamation.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Day after day, we'll continue to see.
COOPER: 2004, what a year so far. Seems like only two days ago it was 2003.

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