For the first time in 30 years, the host of the “Kennedy Center Honors” (8 p.m., CBS) may receive more attention than the distinguished recipients. This year’s festivities were held and taped last Dec. 7. Since then, host Caroline Kennedy has announced that she wants to be considered a candidate to be appointed to fill the New York Senate seat that will become empty upon Sen. Hillary Clinton’s confirmation as Secretary of State.
The job of host is, by nature, ceremonial, and you have to assume that Kennedy got it because of her name and family connection. This seems to parallel her quest for a Senate seat, a position that most agree is more than merely ceremonial.
As they have every year since 1978, this year’s honorees hail from various branches of fine and popular arts. They include actor Morgan Freeman, choreographer Twyla Tharp, actress, singer and director Barbra Streisand, country singer George Jones and rock musicians Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey.
The “Honors” also represents one of the final ceremonial appearances for President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush. Vice President Dick Cheney and Mrs. Cheney are in attendance, as well as outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
• “Nova” (7 p.m., PBS, check local listings) presents new variations on the old question, “Is there life on Mars?” Or, more to the point, was there life? When the first manned probes sent back photos from Mars in 1976, it seemed pretty certain that it was a barren wasteland devoid of life. But since then, 2004 NASA’s twin robot explorers, Spirit and Opportunity, have lasted 16 times longer and driven 20 times farther than expected. And since its landing on Mars in May of this year, the Phoenix probe has “tasted” water ice.
There is clear evidence that Mars once had water in abundance. But where did it go? And what happened to the Martian atmosphere that must have protected surface water from instant evaporation, or the planet’s magnetic core, necessary to protecting the planet from the onslaught of solar winds? The definitive discovery of water in Mars’ history opens up new questions about the planet’s multibillion-year history and about the possibility that it once offered a hospitable place for life and evolution before violent and abrupt change.
• “Independent Lens” (9 p.m., PBS, check local listings) presents “Operation Filmmaker,” a profile of a Iraqi film student Muthana Mohmed, whose school was destroyed by an American raid. Actor Liev Schreiber saw his story on an MTV special and offered him a job on a Hollywood film, where cultural misunderstandings between Mohmed and his hosts abound.
Tonight’s other highlights
• Twelve episodes of “Burn Notice” (5 a.m. to 4 p.m., USA) unfold.
• A “Storm Chasers” (Discovery) marathon offers four hours from Season 1 (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and 12 hours from Season 2 (2 p.m. to 2 a.m.).
• The Peanuts gang consults the calendar (but never grows old) in the 1986 animated special “Happy New Year, Charlie Brown” (7 p.m., ABC).
• The voices of Red Skelton, Frank Gorshin and Morey Amsterdam animate the 1976 special “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” (7:30 p.m., ABC).