New York — Next week, CBS is presenting a precedent-shattering five-hour, five-part documentary that is a major public service. Sometimes -- through a combinatoin of hopeful scheduling and good fortune -- a major network television documentary turns out to be timely despite the long period of agonizing preparation most documentaries must endure. But seldom is a TV documentary more on target in both time and topic than this survey of America in the nuclear age. It is a masterly example of calculated planning, skillful execution, and sensitive scheduling.
As it happens, "CBS Reports: The Defense of the United States" (CBS, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) starts airing in the midst of one of the world's newest nuclear crises -- the Israeli bombing of Iraq's nuclear plant. It is a crisis with widespread and complex implications for everybody. The program -- anchored by Dan Rather and featuring such CBS News correspondents as Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner, Bob Schieffer, Richard Threlkeld, and Ed Bradely -- manages to cover even that latebreaking event in its No. 2 segment , Monday night, which deals with world nuclear capabilities, known, suspected, and potential.
This series also touches on just about everything else you ever wondered about nuclear proliferation in the world. I previewed the whole series in rough form and came away unnerved and filled with till-now undigestible data, which are finally beginning to make sense to me. Although five hours at one sitting would be difficult to take for most viewers (and there is a certain amount of repetition if you judge all five together), five separate hours on succeeding nights, with such titles as "Ground Zero," "The Nuclear Battlefield," "Call to Arms," "The War Machine," and "The Russians," constitutes an almost perversely entertaining documentary quintet.
Joltingly disturbing as they are, the five programs leave you much better qualified to ponder the questions they pose and, eventually, even to play a more important part in the decisions the American people will undoubtedly be called upon to make in regard to their defense posture.
Viewers will learn new and frightening phrases like "integrated nuclear battlefields" and watch as nervous hands man the buttons that could start total destruction in the world. You will listen to men who discuss the nuclear annihilation of hundres of millions of people as camly as if they wre discussing the destruction of a swarm of mosquitoes. No area of the pros and cons of nuclear proliferation an nuclear defense systems is overlooked. More disquieting than any of the awful consequences pointed out is the matter-of-fact way those in key spots discuss the end of our civilization.
If the series has one overwhelming message, it is the one that emerges time and time again throughout each segment but is finally verbalized in the concluding segment (which features Walter Cronkite in his premiere role as special correspondent): "You can't buy peace simply by spending more and more on arms."
Before screening the hard-hitting, tough- questioning search for answeres, I asked CBS News president Bill Leonard if the series had been done to jolt the American public into a realization that it was seeming to head inexorably into a nuclear confrontation.
"No," he said. "It's not our job either to soothe or jolt. Our job is to say what we know about a situation. One way to do that is to try to portray what would happen, for instance, if Omaha, one of an enemy's prime American targets, were to be hit by a large nuclear bomb. That is graphically represented in the opening segment. It's a pretty rough scene, and you can't help but be jolted. [I was certainly jolted when I saw the superbly done but frightening sequence in Part 1.] But that's fallout from the facts.
"When we discussed doing something on this subject, I realized the topic is the most important thing happening in our lifetime. It was simply too big for one hour. There were all kinds of questions: Is a nuclear war unthinkable? Is it possible? Is it likely? What does it mean? We seem to be basing our foreign policy on the fact that it is a possiblity, and something we are prepared to do."
Five hours, five nights in a row, is a big dose of defense programming -- is that scheduling likely to set a pattern?
"We've done three nights in a row in the past. But if you have a terribly important subject, it's not too much. People always say that television is not capable of doing anything in depth -- and maybe there's some justification for that. But we can certainly try. I think it would be preposterous to take an enormous subject and try to cover it in a ridiculously short period of time. I'd rather not do something like this at all than do it skimpily."
After previewing the series, It talked to Howard Stringer, one of network television's most solidly conservative yet innovative young documentarians, executive producer of "CBS Reports" and of this series. Mr. Stringer, who takes his responsibilities to both CBS and to the American people very seriously, also served as a producer of the premiere segment. how long had the whole series taken to do?
"We hit the ground running eight months ago," he said.
Was their trouble getting in to see certain things? Some of the Army maneuvers re uncomfortably revealing.
"Why the Army allowed us to film the second in the series is something I shall never understand. The American defense system is very open to the press. Of course, there were always a lot of press officers around and we were seldom alone, but there was very little effort to stop us from filming. Of course, many of the Army people being interviewed were being cautious because press officers were present. . . ."
What does producer stringer feel was the purpose of the series?
"We want to stimulate a debate which . . . Bill Leonard felt had never been started. when we began working on it, both presidential candidates last year were enthusiastically endorsing increased defense spending. Here we were and are, about to embark on this colossal defense spending spree, with few questions asked and very little debate."
Certainly many questions are asked in the series. but does Mr. Stringer feel the series of five programs comes to any conclusions?
"Our conclusions are that we may be weak in certain areas but what we do about it has to be thoughtfully considered and debated because ther may be fundamental questions that haven't yet been asked. Just throwing money after the problem is the way we've done things for too long."
The final segment of the series, with Mr. Cronkite, takes a revealing look at the Russians up close. "If the Russian perception of America is as flawed as we believe it is, then our perception of the Soviet Union just could be flawed, too ," he concludes. Have we learned anything about the Russians?
"We sometimes don't understand that the Russians are looking at us the same way we look at them -- with distrust," says Mr. Stringer. "Certainly they are dangerous opportunists, but we must understand that they look at us and see that we are capable of launching a first nuclear strike. Then they try to counter what they fear we will do. Neither of us looks into the mirror. Instead, we keep on escalating the arms race."
Mr. Stringer believes the documentary reveals that the reason so much money is being spent on nuclear preparations is that not enough people are standing up to say: "Now, wait a minute!" He feels there really isn't any organized discussion of alternatives.
What kind of response to the programs would make it a success, in Howard Stringer's eye? Certainly nobody expects the shows to get high ratings numbers.
"If it simply stimulates more debate, I think it will have succeeded. We don't have all the answers -- we don't even raise all the questions. But we have taken most of the important themes, expanded them, and illusrated them in the best way TV can do it.
"I hope that the series will simply raise the debate to a national level. If it does that, I will count it a success."
Anchor Dan Rather agrees. I talked to him after screening the series and he indicated that "it will be successful if only one person comes away feeling he learned something he didn't know before it started, if it sparked some new sunburst of thought in his mind about defense and where we are going with it."
Mr. Rather says he feels the series is "the most important documentary project of the decade." (The New York BBC headquarters indicated that BBC is considering the series for airing in Britain soon.)
He says intensely: "We are about to make the largest peacetime commitment to defense in our history without much debate. There is very little discussion in Congress, and even that little has not permeated our society. In a participatory democracy, there must be open discussion.
"One of the most encouraging things for me is that somebody has finally made the commitment of time and money to help start the debate rolling in every town and city in America."
Perhaps there are still militatnt individuals who will take umbrage at the series' repetitous and overriding negative attitude toward nuclear proliferation or even any serious consideration of "practical" nuclear alternatives. They may find good reason to object to this series.
But any body searching for serious peaceful solutions to the world's problems will welcome the innovative use of the public airwaves. If such thoughtful programs proliferate, they may yet help save over-the-air broadcasting from obsolescence in an increasingly commercialized cable-TV age.