It might have been called "Eyewitness Shmooz." But "PM Magazine," the new daily informational variety show premiering tonight at 7:30 on Channel 9, at least turns a Death Valley timeslot into something approaching an oasis.
The program represents the most substantial effort yet by a Washington station ot initiate creative use of the 7:30 period, known as "access" or "prime access"s time because until 1971 it was part of the prime-time network domain; prime time once started at 7:30, not 8 o'clock as it does now. In a 1970 FCC rule that took effect the following year, this half-hour was taken from the networks and returned to local stations.
We know what often happens to best-laid plans, and this one wasn't even well laid. The FCC's naive vision of a renaissance in local programming soon evolved into nothing more noble than a flea market for the syndicators of cheap game and goof-off shows, the genre reaching its nadir with such current atrocities as "The $1.98 Beauty Pagenat" and "The Cheap Show."
These programs would be a waste of time at any time.
"PM Magazine" is a franchised format designed to be at least nominally local on the stations that produce it. Until now, all of these had been Group W Stations owned by Westinghouse Broadcasting; the concept started as "Evening Magazine" at Group W's KPIX in San Francisco. It got as close to Washington as WJZ, the Group W ABC affiliate in Baltimore.
With its export to Channel 9 (WDVM) here, "Magazine" stakes out new terriotory and could eventually spread to dozens of stations around the country.
Unfortunately, about the best thing to be said for the program is that it exists, that it provides an alternative to Novocaine for the brain like "Tic Tac Dough" and "The Dating Game." On the other hand, not all game shows are gross; "Family Feud" is respectable and amusing. And not all syndicated access programs are lame; "The Muppet Show" is not only imaginative and hilarious, but also a definitive success. Its extensive global distribution may make it the most popular first-run comedy show in the world.
What "PM Magazine" offers is information dolled up like entertainment. Features are shot on location, on tape, and then edited to satisfy the parakeet attention spans everyone in television assumes that everyone who watches television has. In addition, not all the material on this local show will be local; part of the cost-effective beauty of the beast is that participating "Magazine" stations trade features with one another. In effect, "PM" is really a zoned edition of a national magazine, not quite the extravagant civic gesture the station may claim.
Although both were locally produced, the two main feature articles on the premiere come off as puff pieces on pedestals. First, cohost Henry Tenebaum, Channel 9's self-obsessed cut-up in residence, visits Finley's Gym in Northeast Washington, to talk with boxing trainer Ken "Cap" Stribling. Cap says that if guys are in the ring clobbering each other, they are less likely to be out on the street clobbering perfect strangers. Naturally, this gets a big "here, here" from Tenenbaum.
Near the end of the program, the other cohost, Susan Goldwater, snares a superstar -- Walter Cronkite, the Ayatollah Khomeini of network news. Cronkite probably agreed to this intrusion by a non-journalist because he was once a reporter for Channel 9. When he complains to Goldwater about local stations hiring news personalities because of their looks and bubbliness, it's rather funny, because Goldwater obviously doesn't realize that Conkite is talking about people just like her.
The Cronikete interview portions were poorly lit, crudely edited and disappointingly conducted by Goldwater. When Cronkite waxes mellow and jokes about the "eyebrow lifting" with which he allegedly can sway the minds of millions, Goldwater babbles obliviously on. She behaves as if preprogrammed to respond to nothing, and ends the segment with one of those TV news assessments that assesses nothing:
"I found him to be a very charming and warm human being with a tremendous sense of humor," she say. Who cares what sho found him to be, anyway? See, the whole idea of television is that she should step out of our way and let us find Walter Cronkite to be what we may.
The segment also includes touchstone footage of Cronkite reporting to America on such momentous events as the John F. Kennedy assassination and the moon landing. It has been a remarkable career, and this segment does at least offer a fleeting glimpse of a remarkable man -- literally fleeting, since we see Cronkite rushing around the newsroom as the appointed hour of the national audience with him approaches.
The rest of the "PM" half-hour is filled up with "departments," which include a silly recipe for a silly salad from a silly chef, and J.T. Solomon standing on the sidewalk and telling people how to order singing telegrams and the like. "Isn't that wonderful!" she exclaims. "This is SO much fun!" she giggles.
As for Goldwater and Tenenbaum, they are not objectionable -- merely dull, in a frantic sort of way. They are a pair of beaming and twinkling dim bulbs, the veritable television ideal. "PM Magazine" is not really designed to accommodate actual people with roles, however, so no real harm is done.
For the moment, "PM Magazine" is worth watching primarily for the effort it signifies, not for the thrill of its execution. Producer Melanie Donahoe and her staff will have to remember that informational televison can be just as inane as "The Hollywood Squares" if it is done inanely enough.