IN RECENT WEEKS on American television, tens of millions of viewers watched as one war, slowly and arduously, began, and another war, slowly and sanctimoniously, ground to a huggy halt. Both events, "The Winds of War" and the "M*A*S*H" adieu, were cases of faked experience that had little to do with anything. They were created for commercial consumption by the national entertainment machine.
More hot air from Follywood. American breathed deep.
Elsewhere, quietly, during the same period, two programs on public television, which only millions, not tens of millions, saw, made history as broadcasts and proved rare among experiences and they dealt so directly with matters so central to existence that they will be remembered by those who saw them long after all trumped-up hokum is forgotten.
One program, an episode of "NOVA" called "The Miracle of Life," showed an microscopic detail the process of human reproduction as it had never been seen before. Imported from Swedish TV, "Miracle" included the first film ever made of a sperm cell entering the ovum, the point at which a human being's genetic makeup is determined. The other program was the first national live telecast of open heart surgery, a project that began at public TV station KAET in Phoenix and was picked up by more than 100 other public TV stations around the country. For two hours, viewers watched as Dr. Edward Diethrich performed bypass surgery on Bernard Schuler, a retired insurance man; Diethrich also supplied a running narration.
These programs were two of the greatest things ever seen on any screen of any size. They were among the most moving "educational" events in the history of broadcasting. They were stunning, riveting milestones that had more to do with television and its powers of communication than any average month's outpouring of commercial TV junk food or public TV quiche. And they strongly suggested that there are no places, including the distant realms inside ourselves, that television is not capable of taking us.
Reaction to both broadcasts as been strong and positive. A spokesman for Boston's WGBH-TV, which produces "NOVA," said more than 100 phone calls were logged in Boston the night of the telecast -- 10 times the number for the usual show -- and more viewers phoned in the next day, at stations all over the country. "Miracle" got the highest "NOVA" rating of the season and one of the highest ratings in the 10-year history of the program.
This film, which will be repeated sometime this summer, was more than just informational.Watching the human reproductive process from its privileged vantage point was fascinating; it was pretty close to a religious experience. The films were accompanied by an aptly eerie musical score and austere narration (an English track dubbed here to replace the Swedish narration). Some 77 billion human beings have lived on this planet, including the 4 billion who live here now, it was stated, and 128 million new ones are born each year. Such figures are beyond management. But the spectacle of just one birth, of seeing human sperm make the valiant attempt to reach and penetrate the ovum and fertilize the egg, was an amazement, a wonder.
If that was compelling, the open heart surgery was breathtaking (one runs out of adjectives rather quickly in trying to describe these broadcasts). The operation had been planned for some time as a local broadcast in Phoenix; last-minute funding made it possible to "uplink" to the PBS satellite so other stations could carry the operation live or, if they feared the patient might die on the table -- as some did -- or had scheduling problems, they could tape-delay it and show it later. The patient in fact did not die on the operating table, has now left the hospital, and has by this time probably had the unique experience of seeing, close-up, the persistent naked beating of his own living heart, because friends videotaped the operation for him on their home recorders.
Chuck Allen, the inspired public TV maverick who is program manager at KAET and executive producer of the broadcast, said he thought of the program not only as a piece of enlightment -- one designed, in part, to allay the public's fears of such surgery -- but also as an antidote to all phoniness and canned ham on television. "I hope this leads to more live TV," Allen said from Phoenix after the broadcast. "There's an incredible amount of television, more than ever now with cable, but there is still is a certain removal from life with most of it. What we may be getting is 100 channels or more of dislocation. There isn't much on television that connects me, the viewer, to life. There isn't much that says, "Stay home tonight and watch TV.""
Some viewers may not have been able to watch because of sqeamishness, although producer Tom Shannon, also a KAET executive, says that among the crew, "the folks who thought they might get squeamish didn't. It's almost hypnotic when you see that open, bleeding heart." Allen says, "I found it very hard, during the broadcast, to take my eyes off any monitor that had that live heart on it." As he watched, he says, he thought not only deep thoughts about the wonder of it all, but also, "I thought about all the chocolate and other delicious things I eat that form a little fatty block around my own heart." Viewers of the live telecast who felt themselves getting queasy could always tune over to the Grammy Awards on CBS -- and get really sick. Then, going back to the OR was a snap.
Time Magazine reported the surgeon involved had previously been criticized for his flambouance and wondered whether "the performance was a credit to medicine or show biz," which is something you wonder about only if you foolishly define television by its own precedents. If we can't use television for events of discovery and shared learning like this, we may as well junk the thing, put it in a museum next to the Studebakers.
What both programs did was to transcend controversy and fly over "the issues" and get to the essence of all that is essential.Those with cherished liberal or permissive attitudes toward such, repeatedly debated topics as abortion, recreational sex, even homosexuality, might have found themselves engaged in sober rethinking as they watched the insistence with which those determined sperm fought through to the front lines, or saw, inside the womb, a floating embryo just four weeks old but already unmistakably human and alive; at 7 weeks, though only three-quarters of an inch long, its hands could be seen moving. The sight of Bernie Schuler's beating heart may have provoked thoughts of Edgar Allen Poe poems or old pop tunes, but more emphatically, it was a mystical, spellbinding thing, more mystical and spellbinding than the trip taken to Jupiter and beyond in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
There are tentative plans by the same Phoenix team that organized the heart operation to televise an eye operation in the future, but the heart will be a hard act to follow. With the live operation, and with "Miracle of Life" on "NOVA," public TV did more than make television history. It showed that there's virtually no subject too delicate or magnificent for television to tackle. These were occasions of astonishment and glory for all concerned.