Whizzing through TV's first 40 years. Eight-part series recalls achievements and some drawbacks
New York — Television PBS, Mondays through March 14, 8-9 p.m., check local listings. Narrator: Edwin Newman. Writer: Michael Winship. Producer: Susan Kim/Michael Winship. Executive producer/director: Jack Sameth. ``Television'' is as gloriously effusive as the medium it aims at illuminating.
In its eight segments, this series attempts to be so all-encompassing that in the end it is almost incoherently entertaining. It hails TV as a time waster, a grand educator, a master entertainer, a recorder of events, a teacher, a spoiler. It calls television programming magnificent, trite, horrifying, miraculous. And it shows examples of just about everything it mentions - in a grand pastiche of moving images from all over the world.
The initial segment, ``Live Pictures,'' opens with a collage of footage ranging from Laurence Olivier as Lear, through ``Kojak,'' Cosby, ``The Flying Nun,'' the Olympics, Jacob Bronowski, the moon walk, and MTV to the shuttle explosion.
There are plenty of talking heads, too. In particular, Fred Friendly, the Columbia University professor and former CBS producer, is memorable as he says: ``Commercial television makes so much money doing its worst that it can't afford to do its best.'' But then there is Ed Asner declaring that ``it's amazing we wind up with as much good stuff as we do.''
Whereupon avuncular narrator Edwin Newman proceeds to show just how marvelous some of the world's TV programming actually is, with footage from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill's funeral, Walter Cronkite's announcement of President Kennedy's death, Edward R. Murrow's remarks about Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the 1952 test in Nevada of the 17th atomic bomb, and Neil Armstrong's moonwalk. Then he ends with a bit too much on Howard Cosell, Roone Arledge, Olympics coverage, and the role of sports in world television.
Later episodes concentrate on comedy, the technical development of TV, the political power of the medium, drama on the air, and game and variety shows. The series ends with ``The Promise of Television,'' which, on the whole, gives very high marks to public television in its battle to, as Bill Moyers says on camera, ``treat viewers as citizens, not as consumers.'' There is a fair look at the way blacks, women, and children are presented on the air, as well.
The series is based on a similar series made by Granada Television of Britain a couple of years ago. Writer/coproducer Michael Winship has written new narration and added much footage, so that what results is up to date. The series' strength, though, is in its examples rather than its interpretations.
Throughout the series, every now and then there is an attempt to pull back from the fascinating clips and look at television with a broader perspective. But, like the medium it is explaining, the series succeeds more at entertaining than at informing. But what grand and varied entertainment!
``Television'' is a glittering kaleidoscope of images of contemporary society. Throughout the series you will probably find yourself shaking your head in disappointment and disbelief at many of the failings of the medium. But you will also be impressed and amazed by the many things television has done brilliantly. ``Television'' may leave you yearning to visit New York's Museum of Broadcasting to see the complete tapes of some of the programs mentioned.
Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.