TV drama `Murrow' proves as controversial as the man himself. Oversimplification doesn't obscure its importance

NEWSMAN Edward R. Murrow, who waged a career-long battle to keep the presentation of television news free of outside influences, was a controversial figure in his lifetime. A television drama based upon his life is bound to be controversial as well. Murrow (HBO, Sunday, 8-9:55 p.m.; check repeat times on Jan. 14, 27, 30) is controversial mainly for a simple reason: Like all docudramas, it tends to oversimplify complex people and events. That, as the saying goes, comes with the territory.

The screenplay by Ernest Kinoy falls into a familiar docudrama pattern: Characters are one-dimensional because there simply isn't time to delve deeply into motivation; people speak in epigrams in order to squeeze in memorable quotes from their legends; just about everybody is made to be symbolic, representing a simplistic point of view.

All that said, ``Murrow'' is still significant. It probes, however superficially, the ongoing battle between TV news and TV advertising over what each considers proper use of the airwaves; between entertainment television and public affairs television. Nobody else -- in cable or over-the-air broadcasting -- is doing that kind of vital and significant investigation.

In some ways, ``Murrow'' falls between the electronic cracks: It is not action-oriented melodrama, and it does not quite hit the intellectual mark it seems to have set for itself. Because of the nature of the material, Daniel J. Travanti obviously chose to underplay the role, using only a few recognizable Murrow gestures, allowing the moral strength of the man and his ethical positions in deed and dialogue to carry the day. It makes for a valid, if cerebral, portrait. If there is a failure, it is mainly in the texture of the voice, which lacks the involved vibrancy of Murrow.

In a period when CBS News tries sportscaster Phyllis George in a news spot, introduces disco-beat documentaries in ``West 57th,'' and economizes by cutting news staff, ``Murrow'' is especially relevant. It pinpoints the changing nature of TV news. We are in an era where the determination to have news remain a profit center far outweighs a need for news to be a symbol of network integrity.

It is unfortunate that in this docudrama a decent man like Frank Stanton (head of research, later president at CBS) may be perceived as the villain of the piece, forced to bear the entire burden of changing attitudes toward news vs. profitability. But the fact is that at least the film focuses on the matter of honesty and integrity in news presentation, something all networks as well as all viewers need to be concerned about these days. HBO is to be congratulated for at least acknowledging publicly that the issue exists.

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