In a preview of the NBC News magazine "American Almanac" in yesterday's Style section, a remark about the absence of the program on a network scheduling board was incorrectly attributed to program host Roger Mudd. It was made by NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff.
In television, rigor mortis can set in immediately upon birth, as it seemed to do in August when the NBC News magazine "American Almanac" premiered. News broadcasts deserve more benefits of doubts than entertainment programs do, however, so the program seems entirely worth a second look. Unfortunately, the second look is not much more inspiring than the first.
Edition No. 2 of the show, which airs tonight at 10 on Channel 4, finds it a bit tighter and a tad more alert. We see little of the fussy set beyond that contained in a medium shot of anchor Roger Mudd, which is fine, and Mudd's writers appear to have done a slightly better job of getting out of the studio and into the various reports. But the pieces themselves still do not have sufficient energy or urgency to them; they're too overlookable, and when they're over, you don't feel you've seen anything that has arrested your attention or excited your curiosity.
You don't feel moved or provoked or jostled. You just feel nudged. The failure of "American Almanac" to improve substantially on its premiere suggests that those in charge think they're doing it right. They're wrong.
The first piece has promise: "War on Sixth Avenue," pegged to the Sept. 23 start of a new TV season, is supposed to educate a viewer on how network programming decisions are made. The predictable statistics are trotted out (30-second spots on "The Cosby Show" and "Dallas" will sell for as much as $300,000 each this season), and network programmers are interviewed. But producer H. Read Jackson doesn't get around to anything critical of the system until very late in the piece, when we hear from broadcasting expert Les Brown. It's much, much too late.
Anchor Mudd is the wrong person to do the report in the first place, because he does not seem to have the remotest interest in the subject (sending Mudd to Hollywood is like sending Liz Smith to the Geneva summit). However, he does get in two good questions to NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff. Shown "the board" in Tartikoff's office on which the three network schedules are posted, Mudd gives it a once-over and says to Tartikoff, "I was just looking for the 'American Almanac' card. We don't seem to have it here." Ahem. "Almanac," a monthly show now that is supposed to go weekly in January, will get onto the regular schedule over Tartikoff's prone if not dead body.
Then, after Tartikoff has spouted off about how he fancies himself as giving the American viewer "truffles" instead of mere "cheeseburgers," Mudd says, " 'The A-Team' is no truffle, Mr. Tartikoff." Bull's-eye. Unfortunately, little else in the piece expresses the slightest skepticism or doubt about the way network hearts and minds, and computers, work. Mudd interviews producer Aaron Spelling, king of the trashmongers, and fails to ask him a single tough question about cultural pollution or accountability.
Steve Bitterman's piece on how the wave of European immigration to America has dwindled to a trickle and why, called "The Good Life," seems at least to resemble a good idea for a piece, but comes across as talky and slow. It's essentially a windy script to which some pictures have been added -- perhaps begrudgingly.
Connie Chung's piece on Palm Beach, and the worker identification card required of some employes there, is also too soft and squishy, but at least it contains some fairly priceless interviews, like the one with Mary Donahue, formerly "Mary Hartline" of the stone-age "Super Circus" TV show, now a wealthy dowager. She is asked if she wouldn't object to being fingerprinted, as workers routinely are, and she says, "It wouldn't bother me, except it gets your hands awfully dirty, I guess."
She also expresses incredulity that some people object to going through this indignity when in fact it is conducted in "a very pretty police station." But when the report is over, there is a further indignity. "Connie, thank you," Mudd says to Chung, who is sitting next to him on the set. "It was a good piece." Oh no. Roger Mudd reduced to the kind of sappy chitchat you see on local newscasts? It's up to the viewer to decide if it was a good piece anyway.
Really, what is Mudd doing on this show? "American Almanac" continues to give the impression that it was designed for one major purpose: to give Mudd something to do at NBC. And yet it gives Mudd something to do that takes virtually no advantage of his hugely respected talents as a political reporter.
"American Almanac" needs work the way the DeLorean needs work.