The first thing you may have noticed about NBC's new "1986" was the look: Very square.
None of the anchors or reporters on Tuesday's premiere was hip-chic enough to work on "West 57th," the street smart, street-savvy, street-shrewd, street-sly, street-street CBS News magazine whose extended tryout has not won it a spot on the network's fall schedule.
Oh, "1986" co-anchor Connie Chung probably could make the "West 57th" team with a long stretch, but even she is too near middle age to really fit in.
On the contrary, look at Ed Rabel, who opened "1986" with a strong segment on the brutalizing of door-to-door saleskids. Rabel is balding--fast. Five more years and he's Telly Savalas.
Then there is co-anchor Roger Mudd, who looks a little thick around the middle and is so old that he's friends with the Kennedys. And Peter Kent, who ended the program with a strong segment on the prospects for domestic terrorism, is so out of it that he appeared on camera without red suspenders.
And these people call themselves reporters?
Well, yes. Rabel's piece was intriguing, a shocking expose of a Texas company that allegedly roughs up its teen door-to-door salespeople who don't make their quotas. Chung followed with a tough story on the safety hazards of those widely advertised light trucks and vans whose nationwide sales are booming. Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca gave vague responses to Chung's questions.
Ironically, it was Mudd, the veteran hard-news reporter, who got the hour's "soft" piece, a nice profile of Mary Martin, who is making a stage comeback in "Legends" at age 72. It was nice, that is if you go for Mudd's smug, I-know-something-that-you-don't style that tends to draw attention away from the person he's interviewing.
Kent's piece raised the specter of terrorists slipping into the United States via the Florida coast, a timely topic in view of "1986" deciding to devote its entire next episode to reviewing the events surrounding the hijacking of the Italian luxury liner Achille Lauro.
That coming hour is based largely on NBC's controversial interview with Palestine Liberation Front leader Abul Abbas, who masterminded the Achille Lauro incident, which took the life of American Leon Klinghoffer. In that recent interview with NBC's Henry Champ, Abbas threatened terrorist acts inside the United States. Abbas consented to the interview on the condition that NBC not reveal his whereabouts.
Looking back at Tuesday's premiere, meanwhile, perhaps "1986" will end NBC's long search for a prime-time news magazine of its own a la "60 Minutes" on CBS and "20/20" on ABC. Not that "1986" has the charisma of either of those series, especially ever-sizzling "60 Minutes."
If anything, the "1986" opener lacked a distinctive personality, although it was vastly more interesting than its fleeting NBC predecessor, "American Almanac." It was also more solid than the wash-and-wear "West 57th," which flaunts style like a white fedora-hatted jive artist, but has rarely lived up to its advertised fast-lane ("The word on the street is . . . ") journalism.
Ironically, the presumably lame-duck "West 57th" was a blockbuster Wednesday night (in its new 10 p.m. time slot), a sort of junior "60 Minutes," airing its best hour. There were dynamic pieces on an alleged priest pedophilia cover-up by Catholic officials, the chutzpah of rock promoter Bill Graham, an agency fighting white-supremacist groups in Alabama and the plight of the Montagnards who fought beside U.S. men in Vietnam.
More typical of the series, though, was a recent segment on suddenly hot singer Patti LaBelle, who blamed her slow, tortuous crawl to stardom on being black. That may be true. Her charge was accepted on face value, however, and she wasn't asked why being black had kept her down and not Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, Aretha Franklin or Dionne Warwick.
Perhaps there wasn't time. With four segments to a typical hour, there isn't time to probe deeply in "West 57th," or even "1986." It's really something. "60 Minutes," with three segments per hour, became a hit by popularizing a shorthand version of full-length documentaries. And that became the standard for everyone.
Now comes the digest of Reader's Digest. Like VCRs on fast-forward, the latest news magazines are shorthand versions of "60 Minutes," as the genre increasingly tilts toward brevity for the sake of brevity.
Programs like "57th Street" and "1986" will inevitably seem sluggish, too, leading to segments that are even shorter and snappier and compatible with our splintered attention spans.
More than merely hip, a fast, barely discernible blip. Finally, perhaps as early as "1987," a news magazine with no time for news.