Flying saucers and strange beings who have visited Earth aren't the typical topics reported by Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight." Jennings, whose new two-hour special tackles the subject of UFOs, admits he and his production team began the project with doubts and a dose of curiosity.
"We have a lot of skeptics -- I am very skeptical -- but we seriously investigated something a lot of people are serious about," he said. "And when we come to the end, this is wonderfully interesting.
"More than 80 million Americans believe intelligent beings from somewhere else have come here," he said. "Forty million believe they have seen UFOs, so this is of deep interest to people."
Produced for ABC News by Jennings's production company, which also has delved into the JFK assassination conspiracy theories, the program examines the UFO phenomenon from an early milestone: a 1947 sighting by a man named Kenneth Arnold.
Segments include visits to the Center for UFO Studies outside Chicago, where files bulge with reports of sightings, and to a radio talk show on "UFOlogy." That show's host, Art Bell, cites among his 18 million weekly listeners "the most informed UFOlogists, the best scientists and some of the craziest people you'll ever meet."
Spanning the range of believers and skeptics, sightings and science, the show includes interviews "with people in so many traditional, trusted walks of life -- cops, pilots, detectives, scientists, historians," Jennings said. "All with their own views, but all who have taken this seriously."
Some of those interviewed describe what they have seen in the sky, from mysterious lights to giant hovering triangular objects.
In 1997, hundreds of people reported seeing a large craft move slowly over Phoenix. In 2000, police officers from five different departments spotted a strange object in St. Clair County, Ill. The police-radio relays describe the low-flying, brightly lit object being tracked.
With no videotape of the sightings, Jennings's program uses sophisticated animation to illustrate each incident. Photographs were taken of the locations, duplicating weather conditions and time of day, then witnesses' descriptions were used to depict the event.
"In every piece of animation, we talked to the eyewitnesses, built the animation according to what they said, then went back to show them," Jennings said. "And they'd respond, 'No, it was bigger,' or, 'The nose was redder.' So ultimately what we have is animation that accurately reflects what you hear the eyewitnesses describe."
Executive producer Tom Yellin said the UFO field is "a risky thing to report since it doesn't go with the conventional wisdom that this stuff is kind of silly, and the whole subject has been tainted by the brush of wackiness."
Like Jennings, Yellin initially had reservations about devoting a program to UFOs. "I thought it was all a bunch of baloney. Even though it has public appeal, you don't want to do something that subjects you to ridicule just to get a rating."
But Yellin discovered "a tremendous amount of information that deserves further examination.
"The U.S. government and every government has a policy of knocking [UFO reports] down, and that is very different from covering it up," he said. "The field has been abandoned to kooks and amateurs, and we felt it was worth looking at more closely."
One segment of the show highlights "Operation Blue Book," a lightly staffed department run by the Air Force during the 1950s and '60s. The office's purpose was to debunk reports of UFO sightings that poured in.
"There was one scientist assigned to it for its entire existence," Jennings said of J. Allen Hynek. "He started off dismissive and became a believer. Then he spent the rest of his life trying to get people to believe him."
Peter Jennings Reporting: UFOs -- seeing is believing
Thursday at 8 p.m. on ABC