Tonight at 9 p.m. ET, CBS presents the 30th installment of an annual ceremony that, for every one of those three decades, has provided some of the most entertaining and inspiring television of the preceding calendar year: The Kennedy Center Honors. It's so classy a show, CBS buries it between Christmas and New Year's Day.
But it's tough to give CBS much grief about that, because this is one of the network's tenured traditions it hasn't let get away. Charlie Brown is on ABC now, and so is the Grinch, but Kennedy Center Honors remain on CBS - and remain an annual reminder of what network TV used to provide with much more regularity than it does today.
Namely, TV that is not only good, but is good for you. TV that doesn't give you just what you already want, but what it thinks you might enjoy.
The Grammys, under the inventive eye of producer Ken Ehrlich, is another CBS show that strives to do this. But there aren't many, and this Kennedy tribute has been overseen, all the way, by executive producer George Stevens, Jr., who has done a phenomenal job showcasing art and artists through the years.
The Ed Sullivan Show is a distant memory these days, if not an absolute cipher, but Kennedy Center Honors follows in that fine tradition: showcase the best, and have faith in the concept of variety. If you come for the comic, maybe you'll stay for, and be impressed by, the opera singer.
For this year's celebration, taped December 2, the honorees are Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, Supremes diva Diana Ross, peerless film director Martin Scorsese, conceptual funnyman Steve Martin, and classical pianist Leon Fleisher. They watch from guest-of-honor boxes as others salute them and/or perform. This year, Steve Carell is there, and Smokey Robinson and Kristin Chenoweth, and Robert De Niro and Franci Ford Coppola, and Yo-Yo Ma and Lyle Lovett, and a lot more.
Among the honorees, Fleisher may seem like the dark horse in the bunch, but if you've heard him play, know his story, or have seen a documentary about him, you know he's no less awesome than any of the others.
Fleisher lost the use of his right hand in 1965, but kept on playing piano - focusing on, and popularizing, left-hand repertoire. And then recently, miraculously, he regained enough motor skills in his damaged hand to begin playing two-handed again. Remarkable story. Remarkable musician.
CBS plays The Kennedy Center Honors during a week when poor ratings won't do any damage - when it hurts the least to do the most good. After 30 years, though, the secret should be out: This is where more talent gathers each year, and displays that talent, than almost anywhere else on television.