Science -- network TV's hot new format?

Jonathan Ward believes he has the best job in television. Mr. Ward is executive producer of "Walter Cronkite's Universe" (Sunday, June 21, 8-8:30 p.m. -- and then Tuesdays, 8-8:30 p.m., starting June 23, check local listings), and he feels his main assignment is "to bring back child- like wonderment to prime-time television."

From molecules to galaxies, "I am allowed to float" he gloats in his new offices on West 57th Street, across the street from the CBS News division's West Side headquarters. Perhaps symbolically, the "Universe" offices are somewhere between "Captain Kangaroo" and "Sunday Morning," just an atom's throw away from "60 Minutes."

"That's not a bad job at all. Somehow, I have a feeling the world out there is better and more interesting than we ever imagined, and I am delighted to be able to prove it on camera."

Obviously, CBS News feels there is an audience for science programming on commercial as well as public TV. "Universe" was seen in pilot from last June and then in a four-part limited series, before the powers that be decided to put it on a 13-week schedule this summer, with tentative plans to continue it into the fall season.

Just about the everybody in the scientific community is tickled about the show, because, outside of PBS, ther have been so few science programs scheduled on American TV. As a matter of fact, the only worrisome unknown in the equation is how "Universe" will affect the viewership of "Nova," the only other regularly scheduled prime-time science show, which airs on PBS at exactly the same time on Tuesdays. "nova" is consistently the highest-rated regularly scheduled show on PBS. And now the live-performance programming which PBS has been depending on is apparently being preempted by cable's cultural channels. As a result, many public-broadcasting managers are considering making science shows the major area of specialization for PBS. But based upon the commercial network's science projects in development, even that may come too late for PBS.

Mr. Ward believes the earlier "Universe" shows tended to trivialize science. "I was the one responsible for cutting down some of the longer reports," he said. "I trivialized the shows. Even though I have always argued that science should be covered on TV better than it is covered on the spot-news shows, I threw the segments on like evening news pieces. It's fine to tell 23 million people any valid science news . . . in a three-minute spot. But that's not how science works, and we really should be doing more on this show. We're spending more time on researching and reporting."

So "Walter Cronkite's Universe" will not be a series of superficial looks at scientific curiosities?

"Absolutely not. There will be two major reports on each show, each segment a look at the world as a scientist sees it. Walter will probably do the major segment, Charles Osgood the other segment, and the third will be a kind of pictorial report. For instance, Cronkite's initial segment will be on bioluminescence -- the little beasties that glow in the dark under the ocean. It could have been done with just pretty pictures of the little floating creatures. But it turns out the Navy is funding research into it, and we discovered that if you want to build a satellite-to-submarine laser system, you would want to transmit to a submarine on a laser that would be blue-green, because that's the color that travels best through water. Well, that's the frequency that the little animals of the ocean have discovered as theirm best communications frequency.

"So it's important for the Navy to know there's somebody else on that channel if they want to have a laser communicating from satellite to a mobile missile system. If you're not careful you can have a jellyfish launching a missile.

"In the Osgood piece, he reveals how science and art are getting along these days. It turns out there are Picassos hanging in the National Gallery in Washington which they are X-raying to find out what Picasso had painted underneath. We take a look at the Mona Lisa and show how proper removal of varnish can improve her. As Charles says, science tells you what you canm do, not what you shouldm do. That's not a bad message for the whole show.

"We want to say to people: 'Listen, science is going on and it's not a bad thing, it's not a terrifying thing, it's not a mystifying thing. It is an interesting way of looking at the world.'"

How will the scientific establishment react to the show?

"I'm sure they will turn up their noses and say this is a popularization.Sure , every bit of science that I know I've learned from print. But in most cases I was inspired to spend time with print by pictures -- movies, comic books, things like that. So maybe you won't learn any science from 'Universe.' But maybe you'll see some stuff that will tickle and entrance you, and maybe even inspire you to go to books to learn more about it. That's no small thing.

"I'm hoping this will be the first of many specialized broadcasts in prime time. I would like to see a regular weekly program on economics next, then on politics."

Assuming no production problems, what subjects would Mr. Ward like to cover first on "Universe"?

He sighs and throws up his hands. "I'd like to do a couple of infinity-type broadcasts. I would like to do an hour on time and what we know about it. I'd like to cross cultures and boundaries on space. I'd love to do a show on Doomsday and why the idea is so infernally popular. Everyone wants to talk about Doomsday -- there's something about its sheer democracy that is fascinating.

Walter Cronkite comes to the door. He looks fit and happy, if a little tired in the process of ensconcing himself in the office next door.

What does Cronkite believe will make "Walter Cronkite's Universe" a success?

"I think one of the most important things we're doing is getting more science information to the people. We are living in a technological age, and decisions are being made by a coterie of experts in congressional committees and on the White House staff, decisions on atomic energy, environmental problems, on the Federal Drug Administration, and so on.

"We are scientifically and technologically ignorant.Maybe we never really will know enough -- but certainly we ought to know enough generally about these questions so that we can sense whether what is being done by our government is for our good or not. We can't do the job alone on 'Universe,' but maybe we can inspire a greater desire to learn."

With reports on the Evening News and special correspondence on specials such as last week's series on US defense, how is Cronkite enjoying his so-called retirement?

He smiles and turns his palms upward in a gesture of resignation: "Well, I had 36 hours off after the last Friday of Evening News. By Sunday I was on my way to Houston, then to Russia, France, the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, China, and Japan for various shows. Now I'm figuring out how to retire from retirement."

Says Mr. Ward: "So now he is going to take a vacation by sailing his boat from Maine to Bermuda."

Stay out of that Bermuda Triangle, I warn in jest.

Mr. Cronkite grins. "Listen, We're scientists here on 'Universe.' We don't believe in that triangle stuff."

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