'March to Freedom': An outstanding hour for local television

April 03, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Local TV will take a giant step forward in social responsibility tomorrow night when WBAL (Channel 11) presents "Martin Luther King Jr.: The March to Freedom" at 8.

As an indication of Channel 11's commitment to the one-hour special, the station will pre-empt "Murder She Wrote," one of the most highly rated shows on CBS, to ensure a showcase for "The March to Freedom," after "60 Minutes."

"Murder She Wrote" will not be rescheduled.

For many TV stations, scheduling a locally produced news and public affairs special in prime time after a show like "60 Minutes" could be disastrous. The comparison of production and journalistic levels for local shows and network shows is seldom flattering to local TV.

But Channel 11 has put together an impressive look at Dr. King and his legacy that will do just fine following "60 Minutes," possibly the best hour of prime-time journalism on TV.

Julian Bond narrates the special. Each of four segments opens with Bond at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., the former site of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated April 4, 1968.

Using the museum location to open each segment was one of many smart choices the producers made. It offers context, a sense of history, place and perspective to the information that follows in film from the 1960s and in recent interviews.

The producers also did not allow themselves to get lost in the powerful black-and-white film from the 1950s and '60s, which "Eyes on the Prize" researchers cataloged for that PBS series; they used it judiciously instead. As a result, the special not only remembers the past, but also takes a hard look at the present and examines what Dr. King's legacy might mean for future generations.

"March to Freedom" is, in some ways, too ambitious. For example, it uses too many interviews, including:

Yolanda King, Dr. King's oldest daughter; James Farmer, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality; Benjamin Hooks, retiring executive director of the NAACP; U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., head of the Congressional Black Caucus; Audrey Edwards, co-author of "Children of the Dream"; U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; and talk show host Arsenio Hall.

While it's often advisable to interview as many people as possible,Channel 11 ended up listening to too many voices and failed to provide a clear, dominant one.

That's a flaw, but certainly not a fatal one. Overall, "March to Freedom" is one of local TV's better moments.

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