'On the Road' and 'Our Times'
Phoenix, Ariz. — ''The laureate of the common man'' meets ''the conscience of American TV'' on television Sunday night and what results is superb TV. On the Road With Charles Kuralt and Our Times With Bill Moyers (30 minutes each; CBS, Sunday 8-9 p.m., then Tuesdays, 8-9 p.m., for eight weeks) constitute an hour of the most penetrating nonfiction viewers are likely to see all summer - if not all year - on commercial television.
This welcome CBS news trial balloon for a possible regular spot on the schedule next year combines two of the most incisive minds on the air. The result is an odd but effectively coupled series of highly personalized documentaries.
While Charles Kuralt determinedly sets out to film only items of seeming insignificance, with no relationship to the news, Bill Moyers sets out to do exactly the opposite - film items of insignificance that heavily affect the news.
I hate to disillusion Mr. Kuralt, but his open ''insignificant'' portraits of the nation's unending stream of eccentrics come across as just as important as Mr. Moyers's carefully selected choices of Americans reacting to heavy issues in our society. Individually, the work of each man has its own peculiar relevance. Taken together, their works are a kind of paean to American individuality and self-awareness.
The premiere of ''On the Road'' contains the kind of material you would expect if you are used to seeing Mr. Kuralt's work on the ''CBS Evening News.'' It is a series of straightforward chats with people who are doing fascinatingly ordinary things - building bridges, bottling old-fashioned ginger ale, repairing bikes for neighborhood kids.
When Kuralt rolls up in his CBS van and starts asking his nonconfrontational questions, the loveliness of simple truth gets a unique airing, accented only by the glint of joy and recognition in Kuralt's eye. It is a wry adventure in subtle characterization of a kind not available anywhere else in the world of TV news or entertainment.
On the other hand, in the other half-hour, Moyers finds almost terrifying relevance in a study of the varied attitudes of Los Alamos, N.M., residents toward the nuclear bomb. The fact that some people seem to be able to dissociate themselves from the moral consequences of their jobs is almost as disturbing as the bomb itself.
Mr. Moyers takes insistently revealing looks at the nature of man in his environment in this premiere sequence - as well as in two other sequences I have seen. One is about the changing commitment to marriage and the other about Arthur Miller directing ''The Death of a Salesman'' in China. He forces viewers to sit up and think as insistently as Mr. Kuralt encourages his viewers to lean back and relax. Altogether the two shows make a marvelously stimulating, thought-provoking hour.
Chat with Kuralt
''We scrupulously stay away from the news,'' says newsman Kuralt - here in Phoenix for a conference - about his new version of ''On the Road.''
''If a fellow is building a windmill for electric power, I would not include him on the show, because it might look too much like an energy story. I just do stories about people I like. Insignificant stories.''
Kuralt insists that his shows do not have any hidden meaning. ''I don't have any sense of mission or any axes to grind. I guess if you take all the stories about individual people as a whole - which nobody does - and add them up, they might make a fair picture of an America which exists off the front pages of the newspapers.''
Does seeing this side of America make Mr. Kuralt feel better about the country?
''You cannot travel about America for 16 years, as I have, without finding a lot to be reassured about. I recognize that I am not seeing the whole country, because I'm not covering politics or calamaties. But it has given me an admiration for the country. I think America today is a fairer and more humane place than it was 16 years ago.''
Mr. Kuralt and his two traveling companions - a sound man and a camera man - travel in a used 1978 van with the CBS eye for identification. They used to sleep in the van, but now stop at local hotels. ''What we do for recreation every night is have dinner. But it always makes me happy to set out in the morning down the road, never entirely sure where we are going to spend the night.''
Kuralt makes it clear he has no hesitation in stealing good ideas for stories from local newspapers, but confides that most of the best tips come in the mail. Once a woman spotted them on the road and came running out of her home in a housedress just to tell them about a local character she thought they should interview. ''Not too long ago, we were meandering down the road and we saw a sign that said, 'Welcome home, Roger.' We stopped to find out who Roger was, and it turned out to be a Vietnam veteran, so we waited for him, too.''
Has ''On the Road'' celebrity caused trouble for any of his interviewees?
''Well, there was this story we did about a man in Arkansas who taught himself to read and bought himself a beautiful library. Then the library burned down, and we did a story about that. People sent him books from all over the country. Somebody even rented a 10-ton truck and filled it with books. One day he hitchedhiked into town and called me in New York, begging me to tell people to please stop sending him books. Is that a bad effect? Every library and orphange in Arkansas now has books that he gave them from his surplus.''
Where is Kuralt headed after our interview?
''Well, I go back to New York to do the CBS Sunday morning news show, then I fly to Milwaukee to meet the van and we will drive to Sheboygan (Wis.) to do a follow-up story about the farmer who built a boat in his barnyard. He's ready to launch the boat in Sheboygan.
''After that, we will continue on our way, picking up material for our segments on expressive clothes lines, unusual mailboxes, and old signs still on the road. It's amazing how many things used to sell for 5 cents.''
Charles Kuralt, a man seriously in search of insignificance, seems destined to stumble almost unwillingly on the significant. Chat with Moyers
''My work has nothing to do with being moral, but morality has a lot to do with my life,'' protests Bill Moyers, also in Phoenix. ''I just look for good stories.
''I come from a religious environment; I studied moral philosophy and a long time ago became convinced that most of the issues which concern society are moral transactions between government and citizens. When I look for stories that are interesting, it just happens that there is almost always some kind of moral concern in them.
''Audiences too often seem to be keeping their minds in neutral, which is why I want to do TV that challenges people. They expect us to do certain things for them, but it is only fair for us to expect the audience to rise to the challenge of a program that makes them think.
''In this new show I am trying to tell interesting and informative stories using a dramatic form which will help the viewer understand larger issues. I will consider it a success if people look at what we do and say, 'Uh-huh, I know more now than I did before I watched it.'
''In the first show of this new series, all I try to do is tell about the predicament - moral dilemma if you will - of those people involved in building nuclear bombs today. I did not want to raise larger issues. Here it is the 40th anniversary of the first Los Alamos bomb, and how troubled are those people there?
''In our second show, I spoke to people in the throes of divorce, because I wanted to sum up the way the nature of commitment to marriage seems to be changing. Most of the time I only do a summing up when I feel it is necessary. For instance, Arthur Miller himself does the summing up in the segment we shot in China.''
Has Moyers seen changes in the country since his days as press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson?
''I find as many decent and gentle people as Charlie (Kuralt) does. But I also find a lot of resignation, frustration, and bewilderment. I find a lot of victims of our society, although the civil rights legislation of the past few years has made our society more just if not perfect. Generalizing about America is generally wrong. America at the moment is a society of fractured vision.
''Society is groping. Any reporter longs to find a decent and gentle people, but at the same time somebody else can come along right behind him and find the victims of power. I am a survivor of many sweet and sour aspects of our society. I was in politics for a number of years, and that is the art of the impossible.
''But I still remain an idealist, in the Jeffersonian sense that I believe a society when informed will work more efficiently for justice than any other kind of society.''