TV drama on teen joblessness -- and a talk with Jessica Savitch
New York — Good intentions have produced a television treasure. High-minded goals don't always result in high-level accomplishment in TV drama . . . as in many other creative projects. But one of the year's most impressive independent programs is a modest but faultlessly executed, straighforwardly do-good drama which is now appearing throughout the nation, produced for Capital Cities TV Productions by Paulist Productions: Hang Tight, Willy-Bill.
The syndicated show airs in Boston Sunday, Jan. 16 (Channel 38); in New York on Wednesday, Jan. 19; in Los Angeles on Jan. 28; in Dallas on Feb. 13; and in most other major cities on dates throughout January and February (check local listings).
This simple but not simple-minded drama, starring Todd Bridges, who plays Willis Jackson in NBC's ''Diff'rent Strokes,'' and John Amos of ''Good Times'' and ''Roots,'' and written by Jim Moser and directed by Gilbert Moses, joins forces with society at large in attempting to cope with the problem of teen-age unemployment, more specifically black teen-age unemployment. Bridges plays a young black school dropout who finds himself jobless; Amos plays a job counselor who is forced to play the role of father-teacher-employer figure in the life of the boy.
I spoke here recently with Mr. Amos, who lives in New Jersey these days, writing, directing, occasionally acting, and working on the World Hunger Project , which attempts to call attention to the problem of starving children. He made an abrupt departure from ''Good Times'' almost 10 years ago - according to him mainly because of the lack of black creative input into the show. Now he sees ''absolutely no evidence of blacks being portrayed more accurately on TV. If anything, I see a further substantiation of the old stereotypes.''
Most inexplicable to Mr. Amos is the fact that there are no blacks in dramatic shows. ''Certainly, 'Roots' proved there is a large audience, but obviously someone is of the opinion that blacks should not be seen on dramatic TV.'' He believes that blacks watch ''The Jeffersons'' for laughs because there aren't any alternatives for them if they want to see blacks portrayed on TV. ''But 'The Jeffersons' is a sort of sophisticated 'Amos and Andy,' '' he said.
Mr. Amos is also upset because, when he grew up, there were always strong father figures (albeit white) on the TV screen in such sitcoms as ''Father Knows Best,'' ''The Danny Thomas Show,'' and ''Ozzie and Harriet.'' Now there are few such shows, white or black. ''Where are the fathers who are responsible for their own kids?'' he asks. ''We've got to try to obliterate that image of the black matriarchal family which is based in part upon what slavery did to the black family. . . .''
Amos believes that ''Hang Tight,'' although it purports to be the case history of an unemployed black teen-ager, contains good advice to all teen-agers hunting for jobs. ''Don't go to an interview with the idea that the employer owes you a favor, or that there's no chance for a job. Black kids, in particular , feel so beaten down that they go into a job interview almost as a joke. You can't take anything but yes for an answer in the long run.''
He is particularly pleased that in the show he removes an Afro comb from the hair of a black teen-ager who is job hunting. ''They were a symbol of black identity in the 1960s,'' he explains, ''but now the comb in the hair is only a sign of bad grooming and maybe even arrogance to the employer.''
Does Amos feel - given the almost 50 percent black teen-ager rate of unemployment as against the less than 20 percent rate for white teen-agers - that there should be some sort of job preference given to the blacks?
He shakes his head, smiling quizzically. ''I'll be attacked no matter how I answer that,'' he says. ''Well, not preference but certainly some sort of affirmative-action, training, Job Corps programs to alleviate the awful employment situation. . . .''
''Hang Tight'' is a tightly crafted, case-history type of drama, skillfully acted and directed, which does not make the mistake of oversimplification. The problems are admittedly there, and the show makes no attempt to deceive viewers into believing that the solutions are easy. What would Amos like the show to accomplish?
''If a large number of teen-agers, black and white, but primarily black, see the show, appraise their own attitudes, make a change, and carry a more positive approach out into the job market, there will be a decrease in the percentage of jobless black youths. But even more important, a decrease in the number of hopeless young people. That would make me happy and satisfied that the show has had some positive impact.'' Savitch on the 'Frontline'
Is ''60 Minutes'' finally in for some real competition?
Television's only weekly documentary series premieres Monday, and it promises to be public television's answer to commercial TV's ''60 Minutes.''
Frontline (PBS, Mondays, starting Jan. 17, 8-9 p.m., check local listingsm) will be anchored by NBC's Jessica Savitch (on loan to PBS for the purpose). And the series' first show, although it was unavailable for previewing at press time , promises to be a ''hot'' and timely one - ''An Unauthorized History of the National Football League.'' This documentary will review the ''scandals'' involving alleged professional gambling and the NFL. I have sampled the second in the series, ''88 Seconds in Greensboro,'' about the alleged KKK and Nazi murder of five Communist Party workers in North Carolina, and it is a shocking but educational exercise in tracking police responsibilty.
At the Overseas Press Club the other day, I managed to chat for a few minutes with Miss Savitch, just before she turned in her temporary PBS credentials and returned to daily news chores at NBC News. ''It's to NBC's credit that they allowed me to do this show,'' she said. ''After all, we are all in the business of informing the public.''
Miss Savitch feels, aside from the fact that ''Frontline'' will be the only weekly documentary show on TV, that what is most exciting about it is the fact that it will use state-of-the-art technology to update every show. Thus, there will be last-moment reports on what has happened concerning the subject of each documentary. ''I hope viewers come away from these shows convinced that we have not only presented the facts, but posed the correct questions, making it incumbent upon them to formulate their own answers,'' she said. ''TV is constantly faulted for being superficial. I think what TV news does, it does very well. But it is incumbent on viewers to check all other sources. This series as well as newspapers are fine alternatives.''
If ''Frontline'' is a success, might it influence the commercial networks to start airing documentaries on a regular basis?
She laughs a charismatic laugh and her eyes sparkle mischievously: ''Listen, if you've got the viewers, you've got the networks.''