Some programs merely debut and others launch their own eras. The premiere of the CBS News magazine program "West 57th," at 10 tonight on Channel 9, is explosively auspicious. The program shakes, rattles and rolls the cobwebs out of the magazine format and reinvigorates prime-time journalism with irreverent and ambitious inventiveness.
This is True TV, proto-media, a dazzling commingling of heat and light. And good viewin', besides.
A Mod-Squaddy A-team of under-40 reporters operating out of CBS News' West 57th Street Manhattan headquarters (hence the title) plays second fiddle to the wit and enterprise of producers, cinematographers and tape editors in this electric endeavor, but technique is used purposefully, not gratuitously. On "West 57th," style is not content.
Pieces are shorter, generally, than on "60 Minutes," the aging dean of the magazine shows. The longest piece on tonight's premiere is 10 minutes 45 seconds, while a "60 Minutes" piece runs from 12 to 15 minutes. "West 57th" is more frenetically edited than the usual TV magazine. It rushes along on a beam of air, starting with the hectic montage of the opening, in which glimpses of upcoming stories are intermixed with shots of the reporters at work and discussing their reports together.
"West 57th" is the bullet train of TV journalism.
CBS has invested a reported $20 million in the first year of programs. For now, the only guaranteed run for the program is for the next six weeks. After that, and depending on viewer reaction, the news division will have to beg for space on the prime-time schedule. When CBS presented the quintessential landmark "See It Now" in 1952, it was presented "as a public service" by the network. That phrase is dead in broadcasting and "West 57th" will have to pay every minute of its way on the air.
Thus the premiere opens with a bald, ultrakinetic grabber, a short, swift profile of Chuck Norris, the karate-kicking movie star whose hai-tech fantasy "Missing in Action" predates Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo." Norris says, in all seriousness, "I'm real proud of that movie." Reporter Bob Sirott needs to be braver with his questions to celebrities, and some sort of outside perspective on the value or danger of R-rated movie violence is called for, but the piece is both bombastic and wry.
Jane Wallace travels to Oregon next for an exercise in being gainfully appalled. Shannon Ryan, daughter of Rep. Leo Ryan, who died in the Jonestown madness, has herself joined a wacky religious cult, this one presided over by the multi-Rolls-Royced Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who preaches free love but favors charging for everything else. Questioned by Wallace, who has a little trouble with the ungainly word "Rajneeshism," Ryan says of her dead father, "I wish he was still alive right now, 'cause I think he'd love this place."
As Rajneesh leads followers in mindless chanting, the alert cameraman pans to the diamond-encrusted watch on his right wrist. Later, there is another telling pan: from a gaudy sign that proclaims "Beloved Bhagwan" to a nearby guard brandishing a submachine gun. The ability to make points visually, rather than always verbally, is one of the distinguishing glories of "West 57th." As basic as this is to television, it remains a rarity.
John Ferrugia's report on abused women concentrates on one frightened wife, named "Gloria" for the report, who has left her husband in Dallas after being beaten, and then faces a grim moment of truth: there is nowhere for her to go. A shelter for such women is overbooked and she is put on a waiting list. This piece includes startlingly intimate footage of one of the woman's young sons asking her about the bruises and cuts on her face ("Mommy, what is that?"). Ferrugia lets the dramatic scenes speak for themselves and doesn't belabor points.
For the fourth segment, Meredith Vieira traveled with Harry Belafonte and a Hollywood entourage to Ethiopia during their June tour of drought-stricken parts of Africa. What Vieira finds is that the good intentions of Live Aid and USA for Africa can be thwarted by the indifference or interference of the Ethiopian government, which supplied human "minders" to interrupt filming of such sensitive sights as a Soviet helicopter gunship. This global-scale media event, with Belafonte dutifully posing for pictures with fed, happy children, becomes an illustrative tragic microcosm.
Good as this piece is, it is still no threat to the best television reportage from Africa this summer, the week-long series of commentaries with which Bill Moyers continued to make his much-belated return to the "CBS Evening News."
The last major piece is both warming and chilling. When Jon-Erik Hexum, the handsome model-turned-actor, died in a shooting accident last year, his heart, kidneys, corneas and some of his skin were donated for medical use. "West 57th" follows the heart to the body of 36-year-old Michael Washington, operator of a Las Vegas escort service. "Jon-Erik was a very active person," he says, as he pumps away on his exercise bicycle, after denying published reports that he is a "pimp."
It may be disingenuous for reporter Wallace to say of the transplant story, "The press was all over it," since she is the press herself. But again, much of the story is told visually, with crosscuts from Washington to Gunnar Hexum, Jon-Erik's older brother. A brief closing segment, satirical comment from the "Spitting Image" puppets of England, was not available for preview. Executive producer Andrew Lack plans to make it a regular weekly concluding feature, a la Andy Rooney.
Only the piece on "Gloria" seems too brief on tonight's program; the others have incidental flaws. The absence of a commenting law enforcement official is conspicuous on the Oregon cult piece, since it is stated that the commune is an armed fortress and that the followers have taken over a nearby town (instead, a cult expert is interviewed and he says the police are restless about the cult). At the end of the Ethiopian segment, the use of the "We Are the World" song over shots from the report is masterful in its quiet irony, whereas Vieira seems considerably less subtle when she says, "It is impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the complexities and somehow duped by one's own decency."
Gratifyingly bucking tradition, the program has no studio set. None is needed. We see the reporters on the job at the CBS News broadcast center in New York.
Scorned in advance for its stated attempt to lure younger viewers to a news program, "West 57th" is accessible to all viewers, and hardly an hour of candy confections and fluff. Some staff insiders have been referring to it as "I.T. -- Infotainment Tonight," for its production gloss, but it certainly makes a welcome alternative to the stodgy retro-atrics of NBC's recently unveiled "American Almanac," a program that might better have been titled "Casual Observer." There is nothing casual about "West 57th."
All other news programs on television look a little older with the arrival of "West 57th." Of course, howls are likely to go up from the cracked ivory towers of journalistic academia, and we can expect denunciations from disgruntled old-timers, particularly if (a big "if") it succeeds in the ratings. Yet it could reasonably be argued that were Edward R. Murrow alive today, and were David Brinkley a brash young newcomer, they might be anxious and proud to associate themselves with such a broadcast as this. "West 57th" is youthful, but it is not callow.