In the temple of broadcast journalism, Sept. 24, 1968, deserves to be chiseled in marble. On that night, a television news show patterned after print magazines premiered on CBS. Instead of devoting its hour to one subject, the program offered a blend of serious stories and light features. Instructive and entertaining at the same time, it climbed its way into television's Top Ten shows, earning several hundred million dollars in profits and destroying the dictum that TV news cannot draw viewers and money. Its name, of course, is 60 Minutes.
Network executives still lie awake at night dreaming of ways to duplicate that glorious feat. This month two of those visions are having their debuts: NBC's American Almanac premieres this week and CBS's West 57th next week.[*] Both magazine shows last an hour, but they have little else in common. In style and approach, the programs are as different as, say, a hip teenager and his slightly stolid dad.
West 57th, named for the Manhattan street where CBS News is based, establishes its pace in the briskly edited montage that opens each show. Phone ringing in a CBS control booth. Someone shouting something about a tape not rolling. Lots of quick camera cuts showing hubbub in the booth spliced with shots from the week's stories. The thumping music swells into a jazzy roar as Correspondent Jane Wallace dashes up a flight of stairs. The other three correspondents (Bob Sirott, Meredith Vieira, John Ferrugia) are presented in quick succession, getting out of chairs and talking on phones. If the two-minute scene looks a bit like The Big Chill meets Lou Grant, the introduction succeeds brilliantly in grabbing the viewer's attention.
The first show offers stories ranging from a witty profile of Movie He-Man Chuck Norris (Code of Silence, Missing in Action), who plays cut-rate Rambos, to a quirky but oddly compelling segment about the recipient of the heart of Jon-Erik Hexum, a TV hunk who died after accidentally shooting himself last year. Another episode deals with the daughter of Leo Ryan, the California Congressman whose investigation of the Jim Jones cult in Guyana in 1978 led to Ryan's murder and the ensuing mass suicides. Today Ryan's daughter is a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian mystic whose armed compound in Oregon has attracted national headlines.
Though the piece does not fully support its claim that the Oregon camp has the makings of another Jonestown, it aptly illustrates Executive Producer Andrew Lack's desire to look at much reported stories from a different, even idiosyncratic, angle. Instead of running a segment about Viet Nam veterans in the U.S., for example, Lack plans to focus on the some 1,000 former soldiers who now live in Bangkok. "My mandate is to be new," says Lack. "I want people to watch this and say, 'Jesus Christ, I didn't know that.' "