It's been almost two years since ABC's "Prime Time Live" came on the air promising to revamp the world of the weekly news magazine show. Things haven't exactly gone according to plan.
The studio audience proved to be a critical fiasco. The highly-touted chemistry between co-hosts Sam Donaldson and Diane Sawyer produced much more smoke than fire. The ability to go live anywhere in the world sent the show to a dying tree in Austin, Texas, in the middle of the night.
The studio audience has long since been shown the door. Donaldson was sent to Washington while Sawyer stayed on the set in New York. The live stuff has been toned down.
Indeed, you get the feeling that "Prime Time Live" decided that it couldn't beat them, so it's joined them.
The "them" in this case is "60 Minutes," the venerable CBS show that has set the benchmark for prime-time news magazines. It's done that with a variety of techniques -- a protected time period, making its correspondents into TV stars, a mixture of the light and heavy -- but its basic stock-in-trade has been the investigative piece.
Whether it was Dan Rather ambushing some surprised public official, a hidden camera catching a service station attendant faking an oil leak, or a scam artist boastfully taking on a "60 Minutes" regular, viewers tune in week after week to see who was going to get his this Sunday night, just as sure as they used to watch "Gunsmoke" to see Marshall Dillon nail a bad guy with a bullet.
Last week, "Prime Time Live" went the hidden camera route to shock viewers with day-care abuses in several centers in New Orleans and garnered itself a fourth place finish in the weekly Nielsen ratings as a result. This week, it's the face-in-the-shadows and disguised-voice motif for a piece on the B-2 bomber.
You remember the B-2, better known as the Stealth. It's the big brother to the Stealth Fighter that supposedly did so well in Iraq. The Stealth's big gimmick is that they're supposed to be invisible to radar. As for questions like, how could the Stealth fighter get credit for eluding Iraqi radar if that radar had already been destroyed, or, is it true that British radar was able to track the Stealth fighter, well, patriotic Americans aren't supposed to ask them.
In any case, on tonight's episode of "Prime Time Live," which will be on WJZ, Channel 13, at 10 o'clock, correspondent Chris Wallace gets a bunch of people who used to work for Northrop, the company that makes the Stealth bomber, to say that the whole project should be scrapped, that, despite a few test flights, ultimately it will never really get off the ground.
Most of these people are happy to have their faces on camera -- indeed they've filed a lawsuit against Northrop for fraud -- but, luckily for "Prime Time Live," one doesn't want to go public. So we get the darkened face and gargled voice. Such touches just add so much to a report.
The Stealth problem is in a sophisticated computer system that is in charge of the plane's control surfaces -- the pieces of the wing that move -- a very crucial element since the lack of a vertical stabilizer -- the up and down part of a conventional tail -- makes the flying-wing shaped Stealth a bit touchy in the handling department.
Wallace makes a good case that something stinks in the Stealth department, that a big problem is being swept under the rug and that a Challenger-like disaster could be the ultimate result.
But, as with so many of these investigative reports, sometimes the substance of this one doesn't live up to the style. For instance, since this group of employees has filed a lawsuit, you would presume that many of these charges have already been publicly aired, yet clearly Wallace wants you believe that you're hearing it here first.
Moreover, he brandishes an internal Northrop memo that he has obtained -- the fact that an Air Force type refuses to read it as he tries to refute Wallace's claims -- but never really tells us who wrote the purloined paper, why it has any real credibility. Nor does he go into the crucial question of if the alleged computer problem can be solved.
Moreover, Wallace doesn't put the piece in perspective, for instance pointing out how the decision to go ahead with the B-1 hurt funding for the B-2, yet the B-1 was grounded during the fighting in Iraq meaning the United States had to rely on the supposedly obsolete B-52. That would lead to the bigger question of if we need the B-1 or B-2 at all.
But perspective and context are not what such reports are about. They're about leaked memos and faces in the shadows, and getting to see the con artists are fat cats squirming in front of the cameras.
"60 Minutes" has had the act down for years. "Prime Time Live" is still working on it.