One of French television's most controversial docu-dramas, long witheld from American TV, is quietly slipping onto US cable this weekend. It concerns the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted and executed for peacetime espionage in the early '50s.
Around 10 million cable homes on over 700 cable systems around the country will now be able to view The Rosenbergs (TeleFrance USA; Part I, Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 6 and 7; part 2, Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 13 and 14; check local listings for times). TeleFrance USA is an advertiser-supported cable-TV service on the SPN network via Westar IV.
This program's use of a questionable genre focuses even more attention on the long-simmering controversy about the legality and even morality of docu-dramas. Elizabeth Taylor, for instance, is suing ABC to prevent the showing of a documentary-style dramatization of her life, which she alleges invades her privacy, distorts her life style, and steals her moneymaking persona. She said she is taking the action on behalf of all of her peers as well as for herself.
The issue, however, goes far beyond the privacy and commerciality of entertainers who have become public figures. It concerns the growing tendency in television drama to re-enact not only people's lives but national and international events. Depending on the individual program, these dramatizations may stick closely to acknowledged fact, conform to a particular interpretation of history, or distort simply for dramatic effect.
The main problem is that the viewer is often confused as to how much of what he is viewing is straight fact and how much is fiction. What worries some scholars even more is that so many schools use docu-dramas as teaching devices that a distorted picture of history may become fact in the minds of millions of young students.
One response is that there has probably been just as much distortion in history books written by partisan authors as there is in docu-dramas. So why focus on TV docu-dramas, which, after all, are simply following an old literary tradition?
Because television has become an all-pervasive part of our environment, that's why. Never has there been a medium of entertainment, education, and communication in which so many millions place so much trust.
''The Rosenbergs'' was titled ''The Rosenbergs Must Not Die,'' when this 51/2 -hour drama was aired on French television five years ago. It was hailed by the French press, and rebroadcast twice. But because of the need for subtitles or dubbing, the ticklish nature of the material, and the objections of some American previewers, it was never shown in the United States.
Written by Alain Decaux, directed by Stellio Lorenzi, the docu-drama is being aired in the US at this time because, according to Jean Vallier, director of programming for TeleFrance USA, the recent antinuclear demonstrations that swept the world have helped create a more favorable climate for the film. In addition, there is also an upcoming Sidney Lumet film based on E.L. Doctorow's ''The Book of Daniel,'' which allegedly deals with similar material.
''The Rosenbergs,'' with English subtitles, is biased, melodramatic, and filled with generalizations. By combining fact with fiction it almost deliberately prevents the viewer from coming to any balanced opinion, based as it is upon near-hysterical partisan material. But strangely it is also a compelling and disturbing drama.
According to Mr. Decaux's version of reality, the Rosenbergs were without doubt the victims of the anti-USSR hysteria of the times, latent antisemitism in America, and a conspiracy to convict them, organized by the FBI and orchestrated by the American press and television. Considering recent revelations concerning CIA and FBI underground and sometimes illegal activities during that period, it is not easy to discard out of hand the accusations.
But many American viewers may feel, as I did, a sense of outrage at the over-simplification of motive and action depicted, at the portrayal of the Rosenbergs as martyrs, ''the first victims of American fascism,'' as the script quotes Ethel Rosenberg. It is a point of view, but it is treated as generally acknowledged fact.
While the script utilizes what are supposed to be the actual last words of the Rosenbergs from letters written in jail, there is interspersed a continuing flow of images of familiar newspapers identified by their logos, but with phony ''headlines'' inserted underneath. If the docu-drama were striving for truth rather than mere dramatic impact, why not use actual headlines, too? (Through a TeleFrance USA official, the director responded to my objections to the use of newspaper ''headlines'' by saying that what appear to be headlines are actually excerpts from articles from those newspapers.)
A 45-minute panel discussion, not available at press time, has been added at the conclusion of part two on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 13 and 14. Among those taking part are lawyer Roy Cohn; Michael, the elder of the two Rosenberg sons; and the lawyer for the two sons. It is reportedly a very heated discussion, which clarifies some points raised by the drama.
Thus, ''The Rosenbergs'' is a prime example of what is most dangerous about docu-dramas that intermingle fact with fiction. Will its revisionist theory be accepted as truth by millions who may see this convincing and touching portrayal?
If it causes viewers to delve further into the case, question government actions of that period, ponder the death penalty, ''The Rosenbergs'' will have performed a valuable function.
But if, as may very well be the case, the pseudo-docu-drama format of ''The Rosenbergs'' merely spreads confusion and inspires bitter and questionable accusations, it will have done a disservice both to French and American TV viewers.