'Cronkite Report' Revives Documentary

TV or not TV. . . .

CRONKITE & CO.: Walter Cronkite's prime TV time these days is on cable.

This week, the former CBS anchor launches a new, quarterly documentary series on the Discovery Channel, "The Cronkite Report."

"As we all know," he says, "the (long-form) documentary has pretty well passed from the networks' ken. And I still feel there are subjects that deserve that kind of treatment. The networks are probably right that there is not a network-size audience for that. We have brought up a whole generation of people whose attention span is short."

Cronkite and producer Jonathan Ward head the company that will turn out the new Discovery series, and the first program, airing at 9 p.m. Friday, is "Help Unwanted," focusing on unemploYment.

"I don't believe the news on network television is dead, as some people are inclined to suggest," Cronkite says. "But I do think there is a very definite and wide-open niche in cable and that it will become of even greater importance in news dissemination. We don't have the problem that network television has in admitting that it's educational. We're proud that it's educational."

Of CBS' new nightly news team of Dan Rather and Connie Chung, which was announced last week, Cronkite says, "I think they're both very attractive personalities and good journalists. I don't see any reason why it shouldn't work."

But are two anchors needed for 22 minutes of news?

"I personally never wanted to have a co-anchor because I felt that it was a difficult format that required wasting some time in simply putting the show together," Cronkite says. "But that does not mean that there has not been at least one example of a highly successful duo, and that was my competition for so many years, (Chet) Huntley and (David) Brinkley. So why not try it if they (CBS) want to do it?"

For "Help Unwanted," which looks at the unemployment issue in this nation and abroad, the 76-year-old Cronkite offers leaders including Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich. Late plans called for a possible added interview with President Clinton.

"There was a day when high-paying industry began to flee the country for lower wages elsewhere, but when low-paying industries go, we've really reached the bottom of the barrel," notes the newsman.

Of the splurge of TV newsmagazines in prime time, Cronkite says he predicted such a development in a speech 20 years ago:

"I said the day was going to come when entertainment programming was going to suffer in the ratings because of the profusion of other forms of home entertainment--but that what home entertainment cannot duplicate is news and news-type programming.

"As a consequence, the news side of the business would profit by a depression on the entertainment side. As the entertainment ratings dropped, the news ratings would eventually catch up. And at that moment, the inexpensive news programs would become profitable, and I think that's exactly what's happened."

Cronkite, who has done several previous specials for Discovery, has a number of former CBS News employees on his team, including Ward, executive producer Sanford Socolow and writer Richard Cohen.

Despite the networks' flight from documentaries, says Cronkite, there is "a large audience out there that is interested in these subjects which are so critical. The Discovery Channel wants to do serious documentary material."

PLUGOLA: That KNBC-TV Channel 4 "Cheers" infomercial parading as the 11 p.m. news after the comedy's finale really deflated the magic of the series' windup.

Although it offered some other stories, the newscast was almost as shameless in its sweeps-motivated puffery as KABC-TV Channel 7's so-called 11 p.m. news that followed February's Michael Jackson interview and covered only that subject plus the weather and sports.

If you were watching KNBC late last week, you might also have gotten the impression that the guest appearances of the station's weather guy Fritz Coleman and sports guy Fred Roggin on "Perry Mason" was one of the major stories on the planet.

FALLOUT: The "Cheers"-oriented "Tonight Show" that followed the situation comedy's farewell gave Jay Leno his highest rating since taking over from Johnny Carson.

But two other "Tonight" broadcasts still rate higher--the 1969 wedding of Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki, which got an amazing 85% share of the audience, and Carson's goodby to the show last year, which earned a huge 63%. Leno's "Cheers" outing drew 43% of viewers.

NBC says "Seinfeld," which led into the "Cheers" finale with a special hour broadcast, also benefited from the Thursday-night blowout with its highest ratings ever.

COMING ATTRACTION: You can catch Francis Ford Coppola's revival of Abel Gance's 1927 masterpiece "Napoleon" on the Arts & Entertainment channel Sunday. The five-hour Memorial Day presentation begins at 6 a.m.

YOU ALWAYS HURT THE ONE YOU LOVE: Yes, yes, we know that not all the remaining episodes of CBS' "Brooklyn Bridge" have been run out yet, as we mistakenly said last week.

SECOND CHANCE: Good news that the Bob Newhart series, "Bob," dropped from CBS' new fall schedule, will get another shot as a retooled mid-season replacement.

IN CHARACTER: It was pure Ed Sullivan in a weekly Saturday rerun of his series on KCBS-TV Channel 2. There he was, introducing a taped segment of the Harlem Globetrotters doing their stuff to "Sweet Georgia Brown" and noting that they were in the Vatican to meet the Pope. "Let's have a nice hand for them," said Ed, as witty as ever.

THINKING ALOUD: Wouldn't it be something if, by next year, David Letterman, who's moving to CBS, is joined there by both Garry Shandling--who reportedly is being sought to follow him with his own late-night show--and Roseanne Arnold, who has threatened to leave ABC in 1994?

BULLETIN BOARD: Buddy Hackett plays himself in the season finale of "L.A. Law" Thursday.

BEING THERE: "Nobody leaves here broke."--Groucho Marx in "You Bet Your Life."

Say good night, Gracie. . . .

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