Apparently the object of "Main Street," the NBC News monthly magazine for young people, is not only to inform teen-agers but also to remind them what fine little beings they are. This requires the host, Bryant Gumbel, to function both as an anchorman and as a kind of Mr. Rogers for adolescents. "Main Street" is Mr. Gumbel's Neighborhood.
On the fourth edition of this extravagantly praiseworthy program, at 4 today on Channel 4, Gumbel escorts a small group of in-studio youngsters (nicely nonslick and professionally unprofessional) and the young viewing audience through feature stories on: staff censorship of student journalists in Detroit; teen-themed filmmaker John Hughes ("The Breakfast Club," "Sixteen Candles"); the effect of Northern Ireland's unquenchable strife on young people there; and, in the program's opening segment, the continuing and apparently escalating problem of teen-age suicide.
A young woman from Kansas City who attempted suicide two years ago talks about the thoughts and doubts that drove her to such a radical act. One of these was that she thought she compared unfavorably with images of youth seen on television and in the movies; "Main Street" ought to do some reports for young people on how not to be misled and exploited by TV. Afterward, Gumbel leads a discussion in the studio that is candid and unpreachy.
After dealing with this most extreme aspect of self-loathing, the program movies into a piece on self-confidence, and how it is promoted in students at a Reading, Conn., junior high, who are encouraged to climb tall trees and leap off in single bounds, protected by guy wires but still given a lesson in daring. The progress of a chubby lass named Heather is particularly heartening. Later on, Gumbel ably interviews actress Ally Sheedy, who is there not to plug the latest film (it is barely mentioned, and then apparently as an afterthought) but to discuss the prosaic pressures and obstacles in her seemingly glamorous life.
Senior correspondent Bill Schechner presents the suicide piece, but most of the reports on the program go without on-camera correspondents and in most cases the participants tell their own stories -- memorably, when it comes to "A Belfast Girl," a profile of a young Catholic student who says, "I think it's very mixed up for Irish to be killing their own blood." Gumbel notes that Protestant parents at the girl's school refused to let any of their children participate in this segment.
The censorship piece involves a "Main Street" report that never aired. It was a student-produced segment on coping with high-school violence that was canceled when school officials decided it might give Detroit a bad image, breaking the news to the world that violence occurred there. Imagine. Krystal Miller, a senior at Mumford High (made nationally famous when Eddie Murphy wore a Mumford T-shirt in "Beverly Hills Cop"), handles this follow-up report on how and why the story was killed.
In recalling what some people within the school establishment accused her of doing, and being, Miller is censored by NBC, but only to the extent that one word, an epithet she is quoting someone else as having said, is bleeped. Of the school officials, she scoffs, "They thought we were naive to the ways of the media." Not a safe assumption these days.
Discussing this segment in the studio, students say the episode taught them "to stand up and fight for what you believe in" and gave them "a new feeling of self-worth." The report, perhaps unintentionally, gives the impression that all young people need to set the whole world straight is for us addled old adults to get out of the way and let them. Youth is entitled to such conceits; news programs probably should not endorse them. It's patronizing.
Herb Dudnick, the executive producer, and his staff have steered clear of the usual network news pomposity (a virus that has often thrived at NBC News) and given "Main Street" authentic, yet authoritative, texture and vernacular. Gumbel, whose proficient aplomb should no longer be a surprise to anyone, is, even so, remarkably assured and affable in the role of friendly guide and wise counselor. It's what might well be called a beautiful day in his neighborhood.