Ever since ``60 Minutes'' turned into a big profitmaker at CBS, bringing in a reputed $60 million to $70 million a year, the appetites of network programmers have been whetted for similar bonanzas. A network's news department is a natural place to find such a gold mine, since costs for news programming are so much lower than costs for entertainment programming.
ABC came up with ``20/20,''a fairly successful moneymaking news show in the ``60 Minutes'' mold. NBC has tried many times, most recently with ``American Almanac,'' now due to return in June under the title ``1986.''
Meanwhile, as networks look toward the comparatively easy money in newsmagazine shows, the allotted time for full-length television documentaries is being cut, slyly but mercilessly, to make room on the schedule for the ``mini-docs'' of the newsmagazine format.
Bill Moyers, who recently managed to get air time for a superb documentary on the vanishing American family, seems certain to leave CBS when his contract is up in the fall, mainly because CBS refuses to give him a regularly scheduled documentary spot. ABC has cut back drastically on its ``ABC News Close-Ups,'' and NBC is doing fewer and fewer ``White Paper'' documentaries.
So, along comes West 57th (CBS, Wednesdays, 8-9 p.m.), a ``hot and spirited'' disco-beat magazine show, filled with MTV and Pepsi-generation visuals, commanded by bright, giggly, bubbly correspondent-personalities like Jane Wallace, Meredith Vieira, Bob Sirott, and John Ferrugia, and tackling topics big and small -- all at the same breathless, high-energy-Granola pace.
Last night's season premi`ere contained the requisite touch of poignancy in the segment on ``Little Anthony,'' a street kid from Uptown, Chicago; sophisticated political pathos in footage on the Leopards, the tough successors to Haiti's notorious Tontons Macoutes; refreshing ``insider'' humor in a profile of Jay Leno; and proof of social awareness in the piece on machine guns in our society.
Each of the segments boasted its quota of flash and filigree. Yet each topic cried out for in-depth coverage. And ``West 57th'' was already moonwalking down the street, heading for its next short-attention-span segment.
One wonders if this lightweight coverage will despoil topics for future television investigations? Does a People magazine peek at a celebrity rule out future in-depth coverage elsewhere? No. But People is read mostly on supermarket lines and in beauty salons and dentists' offices, and, unfortunately, there aren't TV sets in most of those places -- yet. Maybe videocassette recorder owners are the proper market for ``West 57th.'' Maybe it's the perfect fare for the ``new'' TV audience, on the run or on the wait.
Last night's show wasn't totally bubbleheaded viewing by any means. It was slick, intelligent, chic fluff. Most of its footage would make a fine starting point for a meaningful short documentary on ``60 Minutes'' or, in some cases, for a full-length documentary covering all aspects of the topic.
I've felt from time to time that ABC's ``20/20'' takes itself too seriously, even when it is doing a superficial piece. But what bothers me most about ``West 57th'' (aside from the fact that it has expropriated time once given to solid CBS documentaries) is that it doesn't take itself seriously at all.
If ``West 57th'' has any sense of commitment, it seems to be to having a good time rather than finding truth; and news isn't just a never-ending party. Tuning in to ``West 57th'' gives me the same uneasy feeling as attending a benefit for the homeless -- at the Palladium.