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‘WEST 57TH’ BACK WITH ITS SHORT LOOK AT NEWS

“West 57th” is back. One problem: I don’t know whether to watch it or dance to it.

The CBS News prime-time magazine series for hip people returns like a boomerang at 8 tonight (on Channels 2 and 8) for a fresh 13 weeks following last summer’s trial. Being basically unhip, I didn’t understand “West 57th” the first time around. That was my fault, not the program’s. I obviously had to get my stuff together and stop being a dinosaur.

After months of boning up on hip things and hanging out with even hipper people, however, I still don’t understand “West 57th.” I even tried snapping my fingers as Wednesday’s intro came thumping by.

This is the most elaborate and baffling intro in electronic newsmagazine history, even niftier than the ticking clock on “60 Minutes.” It has two parts. The second part shows the four “West 57th” reporters--Meredith Vieira, Jane Wallace, Bob Sirott and John Ferrugia--in action against a background of some really terrific jazz music. It resembles the opening for “Saturday Night Live.”

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The first part, though, is really involved. There are lots of exciting action scenes and exciting action talk (“Take it back. We’re not rolling. What’s going on?”), to tease the audience and show just how dynamic this program is.

Repeating last year’s format, each reporter is shown looking off screen and telling an unseen someone about his or her story, with semi-suspense music--apparently to create a sense of tension--in the background. The reporters’ statements are separated by graphics that include pictures of fingers typing on a keyboard. Cue the music:

“He literally walks over drunks on his way to school,” says Vieira.

Fingers typing.

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“Among comedians, they tell you this guy’s the best,” says Sirott.

Fingers typing.

“The machine gun is for one thing,” says Ferrugia, making like Geraldo Rivera. “It’s to kill people and kill ‘em fast.”

And so on, and so on. To whom are these reporters speaking? It took me a while, but I finally figured it out. They’re speaking to other hip people.

With hip fingers.

Without a doubt, this is the most exciting opening for a show I’ve seen since “Starsky and Hutch.” Without a doubt, the excitement diminishes after the opening.

Produced by Margaret Drain, Vieira’s piece is easily the best of the four, a deeply affecting profile of a 9-year-old boy named Anthony who literally lives on the streets of uptown Chicago. With no parents on the scene, he is under the loose supervision of his uncle and two aunts--all of whom are teen-agers.

In a very revealing sequence, Vieira asks one of Anthony’s teachers if she worries about kids like Anthony. “Well,” the woman wearily replies, “I’ve learned not to worry much about anything.”

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Anthony, whom Vieira earlier profiled while working for the network’s Chicago bureau, is great TV. Tough-talking, tough-acting street kids are great TV. But you have the feeling that “West 57th” is merely a transient here, in for a quick TV pop and then out.

Like all the show’s pieces, this one is too brief (at least five minutes shorter than the average “60 Minutes” story), leaving a residue of unanswered questions. CBS says “West 57th” got approval to film Anthony from his uncle and aunts. All very neat and tidy: teen-agers giving permission for a 9-year-old to be beamed nationally.

Meanwhile, Wallace--who once covered Central America for CBS--contributes a piece on alleged U.S. ties to terrorism in Haiti. Ferrugia’s story is about the ease of buying machine guns in most states. And Sirott’s chief contribution to a mini-profile of hot comic Jay Leno is to laugh at Leno’s jokes.

These stories are all unsatisfying and too short !

Electronic magazines can yield enormous profits at relatively small cost, a la “60 Minutes.” So no wonder CBS has big hopes for “West 57th,” and that NBC is planning to launch the weekly “1986" (successor to the short-lived “American Almanac”) on June 10.

If you’re looking for one of the reasons for the decline of the traditional documentary, these programs featuring mini-documentaries are a good place to start. Like most of TV, they compress life into convenient bite-size chunks, making still-valid long-form documentaries seem tired and musty.

“60 Minutes” does that, too, of course. But “60 Minutes” tells a story so brilliantly that its faults can usually be forgiven. “West 57th” hasn’t that skill. Although billed as a bold, new experiment in news programming, “West 57th” is actually an old sound with a new look--Perry Como trying to impersonate Prince.

Wednesday’s stories are the type available on “60 Minutes,” only truncated, weaker and with poorer execution. So what’s all this baloney about “West 57th” being a show ahead of its time?

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Perhaps “West 57th” will play differently on radio. CBS is making available a 30-minute radio version of the series that KKHR-FM (93.1) in Los Angeles will be carrying at 5:30 a.m. Sundays starting this weekend. That’s rather astounding when you consider that “West 57th” is almost more of a news video than news program.

Except for former deejay Sirott, the “West 57th” reporters, and talented executive producer Andrew Lack, have the news credentials to help deliver a superior program. If CBS were on the level about wanting to be bold, it would do something really daring and original. It could scrap the hips and give viewers information.

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