As an exercise in self-devaluation, the premiere of NBC's new daytime magazine, "America Alive!" yesterday almost tied for honors with the premiere of ABC's primetime magazine, "20/20," earlier this summer. Opening day jitters and technical fluffs aside, "America" seems an utter vacuum - a black hole in video space.
"I think we're having a few problems," said host Jack Linkletter near the hour's end, "but they'll all be worked out tomorrow." Linkletter himself may be one of the biggest problems. Absent from television for the past eight years, he returned in blandy hammy form, interrupting on-location reporters, or trying to, with such Pollyanna patter as to make David Hartman look like Oscar Levant.
The program reflects more of an ABC than an NBC mentality. It is produced by Woody Fraser, former head honcho of ABC's "Good Morning, America." It shows. It also bodes ill for those who like to hope that Fred Silverman, who also left ABC for NBC, will not degrade the network in the course of rebuilding it.
"America Alive!" is decidely not produced NBC News, but it will doubtless cause red faces all around the network. The show represents another television attempt to cross breed news features and entertainment for viewers who are presumed to be mindless, fickle hedonists.
Among the anti-innovative regular features introduced on the first show was "Gossip Check," in which the pre-sweetened bubbliness of TV veteran Virginia Graham is dispatched to cast doubts on the already forgetten tidbits of last week's printed gossip columns. "You're keeping everybody honest, and that's important," Linkletter told Graham. Heaven help us.
Other participants include Bruce Jenner, the sleeve-tugging male cutie-pie; reporter Janet Langhart, who seemed personable and cometent but had to endure repeated intrusions from the studio-based Linkletter during her report from the beach on sun-tanning precautions; and David Sheehan, a bleached-blond contortionist of hype being passed off as a critic.
Sheehan exudes frankness, but he is only frank about things that do not matter. "I am going to do something other critics never do," Sheehan bragged, and then he reviewed the new movie "Foul Play" while its star, Chevy Chase, sat next to him.
Chase had the good sense and good timing to view the entire proceeding as one of those occasions to be risen above.
Linkletter intervened during this segment as well, twice imploring Chase to "be straight" and to not do any "shtick," which is like inviting Dolly Parton to be on television and photographing her only from the neck up.
NBC has put this show in the wrong hands, and the hands are full of thumbs. The New York set for the program is pointlessly overbusy and confused; the notion of putting a studio audience in the middle of it is useless distraction; and the asset of being able to switch live from New York to L.A. and other locations is being used frivolously. In what other business besides television are old ideas, half-baked ideas and non-ideas dressed up in such fancy duds?