ABC News Closeup's assault on the oil industry
| New York
Network news is playing it very cautiously these days.
The still-unresolved case of the alleged CBS distortion of facts in its program about the supposed withholding of accurate Viet Cong figures by Gen. William C. Westmoreland is affecting most network news organizations. They are being especially wary of misinformation in order to maintain the credibility of network-news documentaries.
As networks and viewers await the CBS response to the recent TV Guide accusations of distortion, ABC News Closeup is taking a particularly cautious tone -- despite the seriousness of the charges -- in its preparation of a new documentary accusing oil companies of cheating Uncle Sam . . . and the American consumer.
The Oil Game (Sunday, 10-11 p.m.) ''The Oil Game'' is a convoluted documentary about a complex subject. Obviously both the facts and the handling of the facts proved to be more dangerous and cumbersome a problem than ABC Closeup anticipated. What has resulted is an unnervingly muffled, seemingly muzzled, tentative new start at uncovering the mystery of the still unproven charges.
Some American oil companies are guilty of ''the most massive fraud, in monetary terms, that has ever been perpetrated on the American people,'' says Congressman Albert Gore Jr. (D) of Tennessee on camera. His accusation -- asimed primarily at Mobil, Carbonit, and Armada -- culminates a year-long ABC News investigation into federal regulation of the oil industry.
According to ABC producer Phil Lewis, economics editor Dan Cordtz, and reporter John Fielding, American consumers have paid billions of dollars more than necessary for gasoline and other petroleum products because of lax Department of Energy (DOE) administration of the regulations and controls enacted to protect consumers from oil industry profiteering. The documentary maintains that price controls established to protect the consumer during the energy shortage were manipulated by the oil companies to allow for billions of dollars of profiteering by companies that violated the law by illegally changing the category of oil in which they dealt.
A list obtained by ABC News from government files shows the potential violations as of last September adding up to $3.192 billion. DOE projections allegedly in ABC News's possession indicate the total could go as high as $10-15 billion for the entire industry. However, ABC asserts that much of that will probably never get collected.
According to the documentary, ''given the present political climate in Washington and the attitudes of the people now running the program, many of the companies involved in overcharges and overpayments have yet to be fully audited . . . and many probably never will be.'' Why? Because, says this documentary, ''one of President Reagan's first acts (after he took office) was to abolish all price controls on oil . . . and, with a new emphasis on cutting the federal budget, some in the government worried about the costs of the enforcement program.''
Says ABC's Dan Cordtz: ''That's a message that's not going to be lost in the oil fields.''
ABC has been trying to include some comments from oil companies on the allegations. But according to producer Phil Lewis, it has been impossible to get an oil company representative to go on camera with a rebuttal. He told me that neither the Petroleum Institute nor the oil companies contacted would agree to reply. As an example, ''Mobil,'' the script says, ''has turned down repeated requests from ABC News for its side of the story.''
A Mobil representative, when requested by the Monitor to confirm this charge, said Mobil has indeed refused to answer ABC charges, but added that these charges were based on documents the company was not allowed to see. Also, this representative said that Mobil would not wish to make a reply that could be distorted by editing by the network. ABC has so far refused the Mobil requests to see the documents and be provided with unedited air time. 'Misbehavin' behaves too well
The airing of the Columbia Pictures Television production of the Tony award-winning Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin' (NBC, Monday, 9-11 p.m.) may be the beginning of a new pattern of distribution for viewers of commercial TV.
Taped by Columbia in conjunction with NBC executive producer Alvin Cooperman, ''Ain't Misbehavin' '' will probably go into what has been called ''tiered'' release. This means that it will be aired first on the medium that pays the most - in this case commercial TV. It will probably then be sold to one of cable's pay-TV companies, then to one of the free cable channels, and finally, perhaps, to PBS. There may even be a release for theatrical showings, which could preceed any cable airings.
There is beginning to be much video-tape competition for original-cast Broadway shows. The Entertainment Channel, for example, has arranged for the videotape airing of Angela Landsbury in ''Sweeney Todd,'' and they are already showing Ben Vereen in ''Pippin.''
NBC's ''Ain't Misbehavin' '' features the original cast - especially evident is Nell Carter who has, since her Broadway debut, become a TV star as well in NBC's ''Gimme A Break.''
''Ain't Misbehavin' '' is, perhaps, too much of a good thing. It lacks the excitement of live performance, despite the attempt to simulate live performance by videotaping before a formally dressed ''nightclub'' audience. What in the theater may have worked, TV comes across as a marvelously vigorous but slightly repetitious series of performances by a group of overactive performers. But it's fun -- especially for those who have not seen the original in a theater.