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. . . AND TURNER LAUNCHES A COUNTERATTACK ON WTBS

<i> Times Television Critic</i>

Scheduling special programs to undercut the competition is an old TV tradition in an industry where the aim is to out-blockbuster the other guy. This may be the first time, though, that anyone has tried ideological counterprogramming.

The pioneer is not one of the major networks, but Atlanta communications mogul and peace monger Ted Turner, who has publicly criticized the anti-Soviet theme of ABC’s “Amerika,” which starts Sunday.

He’s letting his “Beyond Fear” series do the rest of the talking.

While CBS and NBC for the most part are sticking with their regular series to compete with “Amerika,” Turner has deployed five special programs on his WTBS cable-superstation during February that tend to promote better relations with the Soviets. One of them is “Letters From a Dead Man,” a new Soviet-made movie about nuclear holocaust.

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Although WTBS is only peripherally competitive with ABC, the “Beyond Fear” series is further evidence of the former conservative Turner’s conversion to liberalism when it comes to East-West relations. He earlier inaugurated and telecast last summer’s “Goodwill Games” from Moscow and has signed a mutual programming pact with the Soviets.

Ironically, ex-right winger Turner is now being criticized by some conservatives as being soft on Reds.

The “Beyond Fear” series is appearing on WTBS in conjunction with the Better World Society, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to making people aware of global problems which threaten life on our planet.” The chairman is Turner, who says: “We and the Soviets will either live or die, together .” Amen.

Hence, these five programs:

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The two-hour “Letters From a Dead Man” already has premiered in a pairing with “Breaking the Spell II,” a second 60-minute WTBS dialogue between Soviet and American nuclear and foreign policy experts. The package repeats at 9:05 p.m. Thursday and 10:30 a.m. Feb. 28.

Airing at 8:05 p.m. Monday is “Behind the Threat,” an hourlong program from Swedish TV examining Soviet and American perceptions about each other.

Arriving at 8:05 p.m. Wednesday is the one-hour documentary “Are We Winning, Mommy? America and the Cold War.” Last, at 8:05 p.m. Thursday, comes the documentary “A Thousand Cranes.”

CBS, meanwhile, is going with series programming on six of the seven “Amerika” nights, the exception being Tuesday when it broadcasts the Miss U.S.A. Pageant. Top-rated NBC is battling the Sunday premiere with a two-hour installment of its comedy series “The Facts of Life” that was taped in Australia, and follows Monday with a telecast of the 1984 film “Police Academy.”

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In an unusually blunt counterprogramming ploy, NBC has been promoting the “Facts of Life” movie with an on-air ad that depicts a couple watching someone speaking Russian on TV. “Harry, this is boring,” the woman says, and he changes the channel to something that causes them to smile. “On Sunday,” an announcer says, “why not watch a fun movie: ‘The Facts of Life Down Under.’ It’ll make you feel great.”

As for the WTBS programs, three were available for preview.

You may never see a bleaker film than “Letters From a Dead Man,” which takes place after a nuclear holocaust in an unidentified country where wheezing and coughing survivors exist mostly in barely lit underground bunkers. The central figure is a Dr. Larsen, whose discoveries contributed to the nuclear weapons that helped render his nation a barren wilderness.

Dubbed in English, some of “Letters From a Dead Man” is confusing or simply stagnant. Other parts are powerfully told. Especially devastating is the last scene, showing young children, their faces hidden behind crude gas masks, trudging off in the gale-blown nuclear winter. You immediately recall a line from earlier in the film: “So it would appear that the history of man has drawn to a close.”

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Produced by Barbara Margolis and narrated by Anne Jackson, “Are We Winning, Mommy? America and the Cold War” is fascinating, but also deficient because it seems to blame the arms race solely on the United States.

This is a very compelling documentary whose tracing of Soviet/American tensions correctly includes the brief 1917 occupation of Russia by the United States and others in the early days of the Bolshevik revolution.

The hour also convincingly explores America’s harmful domestic preoccupation with the Red Menace in the late 1940s and 1950s. But criticism of such fanaticism is undercut by an inexplicable omission of references to the Soviet expansionism and repression in post-World War II East Europe that fueled America’s fear mongers.

Where is Hungary, 1956? And where is the true Soviet Union, depicted here only as a sort of benign, faceless victim of American aggression?

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Narrated by Joanne Woodward, meanwhile, “A Thousand Cranes” follows the eight-year campaign of American scientist George Archibald and Soviet scientist Vladimir Flynt to rescue the rare Siberian crane from extinction.

It’s a lovely story about international cooperation. If it works for cranes, why not for humans?


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