Does 'Turning Point' cast aside journalism for entertainment value? TURNED ON IN L.A. -- Fall Preview

July 27, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- The networks aren't really introducing a new prime-time newsmagazine every week. It just seems that way.

This week there is another new one, though, as ABC News premieres "Turning Point" at 10 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).

The concept for the show is based on the belief that there are key points in time when people's lives are changed forever -- when "history hangs in the balance," to use ABC's description of a turning point. Using various ABC News correspondents, the magazine will deal with one such stories each week in its hourlong format.

Barbara Walters takes the show's full hour tonight to tell the story of Kimberly Michelle Mays, the switched-at-birth baby who is now 14. Walters, TV's interviewer of interviewers, naturally has the first-ever TV interview with Kimberly.

The interview and the storytelling are compelling and then some. It's the then-some that raises questions about where TV journalism is headed as news

divisions plunge headfirst into the pursuit of huge prime-time profits with such magazines.

But it's also the then-some that's likely to move viewers emotionally and lure them back to the show week after week.

Tonight, the then-some comes near the end of the hour when Walters asks Kimberly what she would say if she could talk to her biological mother, who she wants out of her life.

"I wish I could have my life back. I wish I could have a normal life. My life is ruined," Kimberly says.

And, then, the teen-ager starts sobbing.

Without hesitation, Walters responds to the girl's tears by reaching across the space between interviewer and subject, putting her arm around Kimberly and saying, "It's all right, darling. Don't you think it will get better once all this is over? It's going to be all right."

It is interviewer-as-mother. And I suspect lots of television critics are going to be troubled by it, while lots of viewers are going to love Walters for assuming the role in this custody case, which she describes as "incredibly bizarre."

Not much general background should be needed on the case. It has been widely publicized and was dramatized in an NBC miniseries, "Switched at Birth," which was one of the highest-rated miniseries two seasons ago.

Fourteen years ago, two babies were born within a few days of each other to two families in a small hospital in rural Florida. The families were the Twiggs and the Mayses.

Baby Twigg -- named Arlena -- died in 1988 of a congenital heart defect at age 10. Baby Mays is now 14-year-old Kimberly.

Five years ago, through genetic tests conducted at Johns Hopkins Hospital, it was determined that Kimberly is biologically the Twiggs' baby.

But Kimberly does not want to live with the Twiggs. She wants to stay with the man who has raised her, Robert Mays.

As a result, Kimberly has filed suit to block her biological parents from interfering in her life. Next week, a judge in Florida is to hear the case.

Telling this 14-year-long story -- with its last five years of court battles -- could make for a very slow hour of television.

But Walters and the producers make it fly.

They do that through emotional interviews with Regina Twigg, the biological mother, and Robert Mays, as well as Kimberly.

They do it with home movies of the two girls as young children, a sure-handed and fast-paced style of editing, and, ultimately, through Walters' becoming a player in the drama.

There is no doubt that entertainment values are a priority here. The title itself is taken straight from the miniseries.

But "Turning Point" also manages to tell a complex story in an engaging way and set the stage for an important court case about children's rights. It does its journalistic duty and then some.

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