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PBS's 'Annie!' - entertainment or advertising?

By Arthur Unger / March 16, 1982



New York

Orphan Annie seems to have found a new Daddy Warbucks.

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Just about everybody knows that her comic strip, ''Little Orphan Annie,'' has been converted into a big, successful Broadway musical. Now, it has become a movie that will probably be released in early summer.

During its current fund-raising period, PBS has been heralding a show that will provide a behind-the-scenes look at how the film version of ''Annie'' was made.

Well, this week it is being aired on most local PBS stations. ''Lights! Camera! Annie!: The Making of a Major Hollywood Musical'' (PBS, Wednesday, check local listings for time) is exactly what KCET/Los Angeles, the co-producing station, says it is--''a rare, behind-the-screen look at moviemaking magic, plus a sneak preview of one of Hollywood's most lavish musicals.''

But it also is a lavish, unabashed, out-and-out promotion for the movie ''Annie.''

Rastar/Columbia, listed as one of the co-producers, has managed to maneuver the PBS roster of supposedly advertising-free or currently advertising-testing stations into providing a full-hour sales pitch for the movie. It represents a subtle compromise with the commercial-free traditions of PBS.

In addition to the promotional film, Ray Stark, head of Rastar, has offered the film, ''Annie,'' for special fund-raising benefit premieres in New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas shortly before it opens nationally. Proceeds will go to the local PBS stations.

Fine, constructive thinking by Rastar. PBS supporters should be grateful. Or should they?

Much as I dislike to engage in carping criticism at a time when PBS stations are fighting for survival, the fact is that ''Lights! Camera! Annie!'' is advertising--albeit interesting advertising - masquerading as entertainment programming. It is a clear encroachment of commercialism on PBS. Perhaps, even, a dangerous precedent.

However, there is no denying that ''Lights! Camera! Annie!'' is a piece of work that's filled with fascinating footage about how the little girl who would play Annie was chosen, how certain production numbers were shot, what stage mothers do while their offspring emote. There are candid, on-location interviews with director John Huston, Carol Burnett, Tim Curry, and others involved in the production.

At the film's conclusion one is left with an eagerness to see the film itself , the result of any good promotion. It is as carefully made by Kaleidoscope Films Ltd. as, perhaps, the ''Annie'' film itself. But, it is also pure commercial propaganda.

Most objectionable is that part of the tab was picked up by public television stations. Should any public funds and contributors to PBS fund-raising drives pay anything at all for what is essentially a clever, skillful, one-hour promotion for a $35 million commercial venture?