New science series: too much and too little

Science gets the long and the short of it in two new nonfiction series airing this week. One is a summer miniseries: "Universe" (CBS, four Saturdays starting July 12 ). The other is a 13-week full-fledged series: "U.S. Chronicle" (PBS, Fridays on WNET/NY and other PBS stations, 9-9:30 p.m., but check local listings for premiere and repeats, because it may air on Saturdays or Thursdays in some areas). T"U.S. Chronicle" is too long for what it has to say and "Universe" is too short for what itm has to say.

But both programs have a great deal to recommend them: "Universe" is a magazine-type science show hosted by ye olde uncle Walter Cronkite in a scholarly new role; "U.S. Chronicle" is the first venture of its kind -- a public affairs documentary series produced by a consortium of public television stations, hosted by lehrer the Younger (Jim Lehrer -- you know, the smiling half of the "MacNeill/Lehrer Report").

Both series have been eagerly anticipated by tube-watchers smothering in the early summer flood of muddied TV waters (so far this has been one of TV's worst in-between seasons ever). While neither show is quite as good as this particular viewer had hoped, both cannot help purifying those muddy waters of summer just a bit.

Several months ago, CBS presented a pilot version of "Universe," with Walter Cronkite as host. It was a fine initial effort, and Mr. Cronkite intimated to the Monitor that, although the future of the series was in doubt, if it received a good reception CBS and he might go ahead with it on a regular basis. "There is a real need on commercial TV for a good science show," he said.

Well, after viewing the initial version of this four-part summer miniseries, undoubtedly intended as a pilot series for future scheduling, I must report that there is stillm a need for a good science series on commercial TV. Science buffs will still find "Nova" and "Odyssey" on PBS the most serious, conscientious, and entertaining science programming on the air.

Based on its initial show (or at least the early rough-cut version I previewed), "Universe" is a tease -- with hardly more than was contained in the CBS on-air promotional messages for the series.

One sequence on the initial "Universe" show is a segment on Nadia, called a "tragically different" English girl, who was diagnosed as "autistic." From her earliest infant days, Nadia drew astonishing figures on paper, the work of an artistic genius, according to the president of the Royal Academy of Art in London. Then she was sent to a clinic for help in learning to speak, etc. Now, as she speaks in a mumbling fashsion -- but she draws like a child rather than a genius. Mr. Cronkite hesitates to verbalize the quesiton that comes to all of us: Did science meddle too much?

But this segment is only a 10-minute bit, and Mr. Cronkite must hurry on to a quickie segment on computer speechifying. Then to a section on EPA mileage estimates (too high in most cases), and a final part on human human teas and what they mean to mankind.

My tears are shed for "Universe," show that tries to cram too much into too little time and ends up no more than a scattering of science filler items. Everybody involved can -- and one hopes will -- do better in future installments. 'U.S. Chronicle'

On the other hand, the first outing of "U.S. Chronicle," produced by WETA in Washington, D.C., takes an interminably long time to tell you everything you never wanted to know about gasohol. Ii is probably necessary to know something about this higher-mileage, lower-pollution, higher-priced fuel. But an entire half hour? This segment cut in half would have made a fine segment for "Universe."

Future "U.S. Chronicle" programs in th e 13-week series will be prepared by any of 15 stations involved in the consortium, produced under the aegis of the Eastern Educational Television Network but available to many stations out of the East Coast area. You can perhaps count on learning more than you want to know about Atlantic City gambling in the second program, produced by New JErsey Public Television, with love Canal and housing for the elderly on the agenda for the futere.

A half hour is certainly not too long for a one-topic documentary, as long as repetition is edited out to make a tight 30 minutes. Gerald A. Burlage, the "U.S. Chronicle" coordinatting producer, had better make certain that his consorting consortium members don't try to stretch their material in the future . . . or a fine PBS idea may never get beyond the summer doldrums.

So the "long of it (U.S. Chronicle) needs to ge shorter and the "short" of it ("Universe") needs tobe longer. maybe the producers outgr to get together and treade together and trade fildm.

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