What would the news events of the '80s look like on today's television? The 1780s , that is, and, in particular, the events leading to the ratification of the United States Constitution.
That's the premise of "An Empire of Reason," a fast-moving, informative and frequently funny mock-news special that PBS is airing tonight (10 p.m. on Channels 15 and 24; 11 p.m. on Channels 28 and 50).
For one hour, PBS becomes CTN--the Continental Television Network--where we find:
--Walter Cronkite hosting "The CTN Evening News" . . . and ending his report with "That's the way it is, Thursday, March 1, 1787."
--"Donahue" and William F. Buckley's "Firing Line" doing shows where the guests heatedly argue the pros and cons of ratification (and Phil's audience, of course, gets in on the action).
--Slick commercials for Express Rider mail service and "golden oldies from an America at war." (As the song titles scroll by, an announcer intones "It was the '70s. We were young, we were idealistic, and a country was about to be born. . . .")
--Eli Wallach narrating a "paid political message" knocking the idea of a central government.
"An Empire of Reason" also hops from reporters interviewing Constitutional delegates and other figures of the time, to a commentary by John Chancellor, to an edition of "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" and even to Crazy Eddie as "Trading Eddie" and a weather report from Al Roker.
Polished up with modern graphics, real logos and true-to-the-medium touches, this brilliantly produced hour is more entertaining than 90% of non-news/history programming.
Everyone wears modern dress, and some of the taping is done on modern city streets. Even if the approach may occasionally be too silly and the attitude toward anachronisms uneven (we see microphones, for example, but the "oldies" ad is selling sheet music, not records), "Empire" is too lively and worthwhile to worry about small glitches.
The hiring of Cronkite as anchor is not only good nostalgia but appropriate in another way: His '50s CBS-TV series "You Are There" (and its earlier radio version with John Daly) had the idea for this format first. "Empire"--a presentation of WNET/New York and the New York Bar Foundation--proves it's still a great way to teach history.