Documentary 'dumping time': a break for viewers

And the deluge continues. . . . The commercial networks are catching up on their public-service documentary airings, safe in the end-of-the-year, never-never land of non-sweep, low-audience periods when it supposedly doesn't matter that ratings will be minuscule.

But meantime, information-hungry general audiences of commercial TV networks are being treated to a splendid potpourri of informative documentary programming. So better take advantage of this "documentary dumping time" now -- chances are you will not see the likes of it until same time next year, if then.

What goodies does CBS News have for us this week?

Well, first there is a new CBS Reports: "Space Shuttle -- $14 Billion Question Mark" (CBS, Thursday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings), and then there is another CBS Reports: "Embassy" (CBS, Saturday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings).

Both of these down-to-earth interpretive reviews were prepared under the aegis of capable CBS Reports executive producer Howard Stringer, who makes certain that his well-chosen staff seldom misses the mark in both topic and treatment.

However, in the case of "Space Shuttle" on Thursday, the topic is well chosen but the treatment very nearly misses the mark completely. The story of this "Spruce Goose of Outer Space" is a fascinating one. The documentary is peppered with familiar-but-always-fascinating footage of the moon walk and other astronaut action in outer space. But for the rest of the time CBS News correspondent Morton Dean and producer Philip Burton Jr. fall into the dull quagmire of technical detail --prevent the viewers' eyes from glazing over.

While the fact that the 31,000-tile heat shield is causing most of the problems that have put the project about three years behind schedule is interesting, an inordinate amount of time is spent in explaining the intricacies of custom tile making, tile repairing, and whose-fault-is-it defective tile controversies. And it is shocking to hear statements that internecine feuds among various contractors and government agencies are allegedly resulting in, perhaps, unsafe conditions, as the buck is passed from one to the other -- even on camera.

But unfortunately, failed test-firing footage and authentic technical-development film do not make for especially engrossing visuals -- and "Space Shuttle" does best in its words rather than in its pictures. Really successful TV documentaries manage to match their visual and audio excellences, and zoom off the screen triumphantly hand-in-hand.

That is not the case with "Space Shuttle." It is only when Morton Dean verbalizes that the real message gets to us: "If the shuttle program works the way it's been designed to work, it will be a technological feat rivaling America's visit to the moon. A major moment in the history of flight. Proof that this country can still do big things and make them come out all right. If it fails, the damage will be incalculable. This is America's future in space. Without the shuttle, there is no definitive US space program."

Thus it is even more incredible to hear reported that while the astronauts stand by waiting tensely, authorities are actually considering a request to delay the planned launch in March by an hour to make it easier for some technical photographs to be taken.

Perhaps what "Space Shuttle" accomplishes is not so much a broader understanding of the workings and purposes of the "commuter" space shuttle as the presentation of shocking reports alleging that such a serious and important project is being handled so casually in some quarters.

Based upon what is portrayed in this documents one overriding question arises in the mind of the viewer: How long must we wait before the "Space Shuttle" project gets the serious, sustained attention and impeccable handling that its magnitude and future importance demands? 'Embassy'

America's more than 100 ambassadors throughout the world have evolved from "the ugly Americans" into "the unwilling Americans."

That claim is the essence of CBS Reports "Embassy," narrated by correspondent Ed Bradley, which airs on Saturday night.

According to this apparently incisive report, produced and directed by Kent Garrett, written by Garrett, Bradley and executive producer Howard Stringer, foreign ambassadors and employees of American embassies in foreign lands now have bad paying, insecure, badly supervised, impermanent jobs that most of them would like to leave. And in Thailand, where most of this report was filmed, many of them are leaving or planning to leave soon.

Bradley spends a lot of time with our young non-State Department-career ambassador Morton Abramowitz in and around Bangkok -- investigating the day-to-day as well as the long-range work the ambassador and his staff must do. The depiction of the utter futility of the various jobs, the impossible task of trying to sort out and justfify basically inexplicable positions, and the feeling of detachment from the real world pervade the whole compound.

And, even worse, there is the stated belief that nobody in Washington pays much attention anyway. It is only when Mr. Abramowitz goes to Washington and talks to Secretary of State Muskie personally that he -- and we -- get any indication that the US government is making any use of the information-gathering capabilities of its own staff.

Ambassador Abramowitz, despite his stated feelings of fultility about the current complex Thai-Cambodian-North Vietnam impasse, believes that there is still a job to be done, that he can do it. The viewer wonders if, perhaps, the well-meaning ambassador is being practical.

Correspondent Bradley, in his conclusion, states: "The only antidote [to the embassies becoming the targets of further anti-American violence a la Teheran] is to recognize and appreciate the value and importance of our foreign service officers and our ambassadors." It is a rather simplistic conclusion to a very complex problem.

However, Mr. Bradley's conclusion does not come chose to wiping out the doubt which he posed almost in passing earlier in this vital and thought-provoking documentary.

"Have worldwide telecommunications now rendered ambassadors obsolete?

It is a question to ponder seriously. "Embassy" performs a real public service by forcing viewers to consider that possibility.

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