Odyssey into 'the roots of humanity'

The executive producer of television's first anthropological series "Odyssey" (PBS, Sundays, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is undereducated . . . and happy about it.

"It is always the education of Michael Ambrosino," he smiles, sitting still for an interview as part of his untiring effort to promote his new PBS series. He was the original producer of PBS's most popular series, "Nova," which is also a science program but, as he says, not quite as "exotic" as this new anthropological, archaeological series which premieres with a fascinating mystery story: "Seeking the First Americans." It traces the various scientific efforts being made to discover the origins of native American Indians.

"Odyssey," which goes on the following week to tell the story of a Kung woman "N!ai," will include a biography of Franz Boas, programs on the Incas, Cree hunters and the Masai women. It promises to be one of the most stimulating series on any subject on any network, public or commercial.Certainly its premiere bodes well for the future mainly by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Polaroid, "Odyssey" is truly an odyssey into the roots of humanity.

Continues Mr. Ambrosino: "As an undereducated person one realizes that the entire world is there to study . . . forever. These programs are only the briefest beginnings, I hope, for people to start doing that."

Aside from "Nova" on PBS, there is very little science programming on TV, especially on the commercial networks. However, CBS has just decided to go ahead with "Universe" for six more programs. A pilot was aired a few months ago with Walter Cronkite as narrator.

"ABC has decided to do a program opposite "Sixty Minutes," Mr. Ambrosino reveals, "which will have science inserts in it, sort of a magazine program. That and the Cronkite show are the only two things I know of on commercial TV in the science field.

Could "Odyssey" be a mass-oriented series, gathering in more than the 5 million or 6 million it will attract on PBS?

"I don't think it is mass-oriented. I think it is large and substantial and growing-audience oriented. To me, what was most delightful is that "Nova" started with twice the audience anyone thought it would get, and has continued to grow. If you look at it in comparison to other PBS series, even Masterpiece Theater," it continues to outrank them. It draws 4 our or 5 million households, which is very large universe of lecture halls. "Nova" has just been purchased for an eighth season which pleases me no end. With "Odyssey" we have one season and we hope soon to lock up the possibility of a second season of 16 programs, which would hit the air in October 1981. This first season has 12 programs running through June."

Is there a danger of running out of material for "Odyssey?"

"No. There is a danger that if you sit behind your desk you won't get any ideas. But if you go out into the field and meet with people, and attend scholarly meetings, and get the scientific journals, out of the contacts for any one program can come four or five other ideas. Since we announced that we were in business, we have geen been getting 5 or 6 letters per week from scholars or filmmakers with the most wonderful ideas. In addition our staff is bubbling, and we have seminars every other week with new people coming in. Also, we attend scientific meetings. It is all a matter of how to do the ideas. Anyone can get an idea: 'Let's do a show about Egypt.'

"Ive really chosen to start with four different types of films. "Seeking the First Americans,' an American story, a controversial story that shows very clearly the process of how people search for knowledge, followed by a very different type of program, 'N!ai,' which is an individual filmmaker's dream about one! Kung woman and her group over 28 years of life, filmed from 1951 to 1978. The third story is a biography of Boas which attemps to be a biography of ideas as well as of a human being. The fourth is on underwater archaeology by an amateur group in Northern Ireland. I've never felt that one show typified anything that we did.

"We've finished the first 12 and we're in research for the second season. Right now we're researching a program on Mayan society, a program on American ethnography, on modern US society dealt with just as you "Anthropology and archaeology ask the most fundamental questions about the structure of culture. What is the baggage that we bring with us and what dictates the way we act?"

Does Michael Ambrosino feel that "Odyssey" can be a learning as well as an entertaining experience.

"Of course. That's the business I'm in, entertaining -- learning. To me, learning is the greatest entertainment. One of the best times of my life was the year that the National Endowment gave me to spend reading books, discovering things, and talking to people, in preparation for doing the show. And the reason I continue to do the show is because of the excitement of what I am learning. The reason my producers want to do the show is because of the excitement and the absolute joy of their own discovery. Otherwise, it is very hard work, and they'd rather be making more money doing other things. Learning is the most long-lasting, most enriching, most satisfying entertainment."

Is "Odyssey" an elitist series?

"I would hope not. I'm hoping that it is something most people in the US will enjoy initially and will begin to relish thoroughly . . . that is why I'm delighted we are on Sunday nights, which is a big television viewing night. I feel very good about what we have been doing. There is always a problem with having a great dream and then trying to realize it."

Does Michael Ambrosino have another great dream in the works?

"Well, I would like to re-create the flying trip of Harold Rodgers from Sheeps Head Bay to Pasadena. Personally. I'm a pilot and one of the great things I plan to do in my 50th year is fly coast to coast. In 1911, eight years after the Wright brothers first flew, Rodgers was supposed to hippity hop the continent in a week, followed by a train. He was advertising the wonders of flying. He hippity hopped all too well, crashing from takeoff to crash to takeoff. It took him three weeks to get there and only two pieces of ash spar and a few feet of canvas from the original plane arrived because they had to remake the plane several times en route. So my wife, Lillian, and I plan to do that trip in a small Beachcraft very soon."

The man who would learn more plans his personal odyssey right in the midst of his public "Odyssey."

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