ABC's new `Up Close' is way off

Ted Koppel doesn't showcase his bold, authoritative edge


July 08, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Once the novelty of tonight's premiere of Up Close wears off, it does not look as if there is going to be much of anything worth getting excited about in this new weeknight series from ABC News.

Up Close debuts with Nightline's Ted Koppel interviewing David Letterman. It's a "good get" as interviews go. It's Letterman's first television interview in five years, according to ABC News. Furthermore, of course, there is the back story of Disney, the owner of ABC, trying to get Letterman last year to leave CBS and replace Koppel on ABC.

Letterman used the overture to increase his value to CBS before re-upping, and then publicly played the role of friend of Ted and enemy of the evil corporate owners of the network for which Ted still works, saying how wrong it was of Disney to treat Ted that way. So, there is considerable interest in seeing what Letterman will say tonight about the network back-stabbing, not to mention the irony of the situation. (Before you smack your lips too loudly over the irony, though, let me point out one other bit of it: Disney is the one ultimately making money off you watching tonight.)

Unfortunately, I cannot tell you what Letterman says, because Up Close did not make the interview available for preview -- only a photograph of the interview. In other words, what reviewers got from Up Close is only that which can be used to promote tonight's telecast -- but nothing that might cut into viewership by giving anything away.

What Up Close did send out for preview was a two-part Koppel interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu airing tomorrow night and Wednesday, along with a program featuring Peter Nicks, a television producer, looking at how he became a drug addict and federal prisoner after dropping out of Howard University. Nicks has been off drugs for seven years.

Both are supposed to be splendid examples of how Up Close "won't be like anything [else] on air" as it "seeks to explore humanity one person at a time," in the words of the ABC News publicity materials accompanying the tapes. Not exactly.

I saw Tutu in a similar interview earlier in the year on NOW With Bill Moyers on PBS. While Moyers didn't do a great interview, at least he raised the issue of AIDS and what government and church leaders are and are not doing in a country where 4.7 million South Africans -- one in nine people -- are HIV-positive. Koppel raises nothing of controversy in his two-part conversation with Tutu.

Typical of the tone is Koppel saying, "There are those who say there is something of the mystic about you. Do you believe that?"

Tutu's long and winding answer includes talk about how we have to "get in touch with ourselves," before heading to the conclusion that, "What God wants us to be is God-like."

There is a great deal of such vague God-talk, and Koppel consistently fails to push Tutu for the kinds of specifics that might make it accessible to more than an audience of divinity students. As good as Koppel is with political figures, this is Moyers Country he's in when Tutu starts talking God. Koppel just doesn't travel it all that well.

As for the piece about Nicks' days as a drug addict, I am astounded by its lack of analysis, explanation and perspective -- given that it is flying under the banner of a series (Nightline) rightly praised for all of the above.

I don't want to pound on Up Close. It should be cause for celebration any time the news division gets an extra half-hour to program each weeknight. And, besides, Koppel & Co. are generally on the side of the angels in this unholy war for outrageous profits that mega-corporations like Disney seem to be waging on quality journalism.

But, judging from the preview tapes, Up Close is not much of a show. In fact, I believe it is primarily on the air because it is an inexpensive way to program from 12:05 a.m. to 12:35 a.m. -- a more cost-effective way for Disney to lose to Letterman until it can put Jimmy Kimmel, its own comedian, in the time period starting in January.

And that makes Up Close as much a part of the problem with American television today as it is any kind of solution.

Up Close

When: Weeknights at 12:05 a.m. until January

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: A more cost-effective way of losing to Letterman

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