CBS NEWS GETS a third hour on the prime time schedule with tonight's debut of "Street Stories," the launch of a four-week mid-season tryout.
Hosted by Ed Bradley -- don't worry, he's not giving up his day job on "60 Minutes" -- "Street Stories" embodies the various pressures that are squeezing the networks, their news operations and all major news media these days.
"Street Stories" is on the air for a variety of economic reasons. For one, it's cheaper to make than an entertainment hour. For another, news programs don't tend to drop into a ratings black hole like an entertainment flop. Even if they aren't hits, they usually don't go below a certain level of viewers, which makes them valuable for tough time periods, like Thursdays at 9 p.m. where "Street Stories" will debut tonight on Channel 11 (WBAL).
And, if a show like "Street Stories" hits in the way "60 Minutes" has for CBS, "20/20" for ABC, and "PrimeTime" seems to be doing, also for ABC, the payoff can be tremendous. The networks have huge investments in their news divisions; shows like this can pay the bill for a lot of satellite reports from Tiblisi.
But, beyond that basic economic infrastructure is the construction of the show itself. Like all big media cranking out news, the challenge in recent years has been to connect with viewers, listeners, readers, to tell stories that interest large numbers of people without stooping to tabloid pandering.
This is what spurred ABC to create its American Agenda segment on World News Tonight and the other two networks to copy it. No longer is it enough to report on the high and the mighty, the President and Congress and economic statistics. You've got to do pieces that viewers can relate to directly, that highlight people and events that viewers can somehow feel at work in their own lives.
So tonight "Street Stories" starts out with a piece on drunk drivers in Florida, how the worst offenders leave paths of carnage and destruction behind yet remain free to drive and kill and maim again and again.
Another piece is on gay bashing in Houston, focusing on a group of police officers who went undercover, learning lessons of empathy as they posed as gays in a sting operation aimed at catching the kids whose Friday night entertainment is beating up homosexuals.
A third segment is on a popular but controversial judge in Chattanooga, Tenn., a black man who dispenses his own brand of wisdom and justice from the bench as he tries to set offenders in this mid-size Southern city back on the straight and narrow path.
The fourth part, which was not available for preview, is about an Atlanta family of seven living in a homeless shelter.
The common thread is that, in each piece, the focus is on something that could be happening in your city, in your town, in your neighborhood. One of the keys to the success of "Street Stories" will be in choosing stories that are rooted in a specific locality yet have implications for the entire country.
But for the program to work, the execution has to be better than that demonstrated tonight. The stories all feel like quick hits with no follow-through. That's fine for "48 Hours" -- and this is a spinoff of the "48 Hours" season opener that had a variety of stories -- which makes no apologies for covering its issues with breadth but little depth.
"Street Stories," however, is supposed to be telling complete stories. You need to hear some possible solutions to the drunk driving problem. You need to know if the Houston sting operation cut down on gay bashing. You should learn if the Chattanooga judge's unusual sentences are doing any good. All that is missing tonight.
Clearly, "Street Stories" is trying to be "60 Minutes" for the little guy. It's not a bad premise, but, as ABC's "PrimeTime" learned, a good premise won't make a news show fly.
You've got to have good stories that interest people, and you've got to tell them well. In its debut, "Street Stories" shows a good nose for its kind of news, but once it sniffs out its stories, it has to do more than sit up and beg for praise.
Sometimes it seems that many of the British detective stories that populate PBS' "Mystery" series were all made from the same mold. You get a character with some eccentricity who pays surprisingly insightful attention to detail, and you put him or her .. on the trail of a crime that was committed in an isolated situation so you can have a clearly defined group of suspects.
The detective can be Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, or whoever. Tonight, it's Roderick Alleyn, a Chief Inspector from Scotland Yard, a well-mannered and well-bred aristocrat who finds himself investigating a couple of murders in the two-part "Artists in Crime." It begins at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67.