Press tour upstaged by threat of Gulf war

Television's Midseason Report -- Michael Hill in L.A.

January 14, 1991|By Michael Hill

LOS ANGELES -- The television screen was filled with images of thousands of people demonstrating, chanting, yelling and screaming against the war.

But it wasn't the possible war in the Gulf they were protesting, it was the one in Vietnam -- PBS was screening an episode of "Making Sense of the Sixties," a six-hour series scheduled to start a week from today.

That odd resonance seemed emblematic of the way the specteof war has begun to pervade the gathering of television critics here, who are spending two weeks hearing from network executives, stars and producers.

The setting, an elegant hotel in the luxurious Marina del Rey district, combined with the critics' intense media consciousness, makes the perspective especially surreal.

For one, there are the straightforward logistical considerationsFor instance, the hotel doesn't carry CNN, only CNN Headline News, and the critics know that they will need access to CNN if called upon to evaluate television's coverage of an armed conflict. Protests have been registered.

Then, no one knows if shows scheduled in coming days -programs for which the critics have conducted interviews and many have written reviews -- will make it to air at their scheduled time if war erupts.

Beyond that, there is the way in which the Gulf conflict has pervaded almost every aspect of this attempt to assess television, especially since Wednesday's failed talks in Geneva.

The juxtapositions are more than odd. On Wednesday, foinstance, George Wendt sat on the set of "Cheers" at the bar stool always occupied by his character, Norm Peterson. Wendt wore earphones throughout the afternoon as the cast ran through the show that would be filmed that night. He was listening to the news from Geneva and Washington and keeping the cast and crew apprised of developments.

Since then, it's been difficult to give much importance tinterviews about the latest sitcom or weekly drama, but even in such sessions the war has managed to make its presence felt.

"I feel I should be out there now," Jonathan Winters said of going over to see the Persian Gulf troops, as he did during the Vietnam war. Winters is in Los Angeles for an interview about his new ABC sitcom "Davis Rules."

"I didn't go out as a hawk or a dove, I just went out to see the guys. I felt strongly about that and I feel strongly now."

ABC's new "Under Cover" series about CIA-type agents seemed to benefit from good timing as it started a two-parter that used an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as its backdrop on Saturday.

"This show was discussed and thought up and scheduled long before the Jan. 14 deadline," said executive producer William Broyles, once a Vietnam correspondent. "I would like to say this is good timing for the show, but frankly, as an American and human being, I would hate to think that we would go to war and if that does happen, the last thing I'm going to be concerned about is my television show."

Bill Moyers was here to talk about a PBS program he has done on education, but he received the most concentrated attention during his press conference when asked to give a brief commentary on the Mideast situation.

"I would say that everybody has cocked his or her ear to the faint fluttering of the last possible dove of peace," he said, referring to the mission of U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar to Iraq.

"But I think if nothing comes of this, then there will be an escalated war which is tragic because it didn't have to happen. The fact is, we're moving toward the shedding of American blood to redeem our own sins because we didn't have to go down this road."

Moyers' education show, "All Our Children," is scheduled for Wednesday night and could be a casualty of war coverage, though PBS executives are currently wrestling with how they will respond.

"We will deal with events as they occur," said Bruce Christensen, president of PBS, indicating "The McNeil/Lehrer News Hour" team will have primary responsibility for defining the coverage, with the documentarians from Frontline -- which has an hour on the crisis tomorrow night -- also contributing.

With PBS discussing its agenda with the critics, the seriousness of the situation did not seem to be diminished. But today, CBS moves in. Understandably, new news president Eric Ober has canceled his scheduled initial meeting with the critics.

There is an invitation to cruise about the marina with Glenn Closand Christopher Walken, who are in an upcoming movie tomorrow at lunchtime, just hours before the midnight deadline in the Gulf.

Few critics can imagine being on a boat, out of touch, at thatime. Like most Americans, we want to be near our television sets.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.