CBS to runaways: Don't do it!

48 Hours on Runaway Street CBS, today, 8-9 p.m. Anchor: Dan Rather. Senior producer: Cathy Lasiewicz. Executive producer: Andrew Heyward. Beginning today, CBS is throwing its innovative news program ``48 Hours'' into a critical time slot, opposite NBC's ``Bill Cosby Show.'' If, as some social critics insist, the Huxtable family represents easygoing black fantasy, it will be interesting to see how it fares against the red-hot reality of ``48 Hours'' - a news show that pins each of its subjects under an unrelenting electronic microscope for two solid days.

For its premi`ere episode, ``48 Hours'' tracks an extremely pitiful segment of our society: the estimated 300,000 teen-age runaways who each night struggle to survive in the streets, parks, and abandoned houses of America. Based on the work-in-progress segments I have seen, this is an important program that moves TV news significantly beyond the limits of traditional journalism.

The show examines the problem from many perspectives - from the vantage point of the runaways, who are allowed to express their attitudes toward their families and toward their own actions; from the point of view of a father searching for his lost daughter; and from the viewpoint of a former streetwalker who has become a ``streetworker.''

As in past episodes of ``48 Hours,'' there is not just excellent reportage, there is a definite editorial stance that reveals the attitude acquired by the reporters. Over and over again, the message comes through in body language as well as in words, directed to kids contemplating running away: ``Don't do it!''

``Runaway Street'' pursues hard news with compassion, empathy, and on-the-spot human reaction. It is not content to point out the problem; it seems to want to find solutions. In a final message, ``48 Hours'' has caught these words of a runaway on a hot line: ``If one kid would stay home [as a result of listening to this warning], if just one family could work their problems out, it would make my whole miserable life worthwhile.''

``48 Hours on Runaway Street'' is effective enough to persuade a whole generation of potential runaways to stay home.

Producer: `We can't lose'

Executive producer Andrew Heyward isn't worried about his show going up against ``The Cosby Show.''

``We can't lose,'' he says with a grin. ``If we do well, we will have performed a miracle. If we don't, well, nobody really expected us to be able to buck Cosby.''

In 1986, CBS News aired ``48 Hours on Crack Street'' and, in 1987 a Soviet Union roundup, ``Seven Days in May.'' Both attracted huge audiences. CBS News decided to go with a similar concept in a regular series. So far, except for its well-publicized premi`ere episode in January, ``48 Hours'' has not fared especially well in the ratings.

``But we can't do only topics that are certain audience winners, because that would be pandering,'' Mr. Heyward says. ``However, there are some topics which are important and, at the same time, potentially very popular with audiences.'' He considers the current runaway show one of these.

``We're like a Newsweek cover - sometimes breaking news, sometimes what's happening this week, and sometimes a complete evergreen topic like twins, etc.''

He claims it's wrong to label ``48 Hours'' cin'ema v'erit'e, though some such techniques are used. ``We are more a blend of traditional news documentary with hard-news immediacy. However, what is very important is the technique of the experiential long form - seeing the story through the eyes of the team of characters who drive the story forward.''

Heyward insists that ``48 Hours'' is not just a title.

``We really do shoot the program in 48 hours. That suggests an inherent honesty. It is not the carefully constructed reality of the documentary filmmaker who can wait six months until he gets just what he wants. With us, what happens, happens. And by implication, if it happened during our 48 hours, it is what's happening now.''

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