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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Showy Slick In 'Sexual Revolution'

July 30, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Once upon a time, the ABC News "Closeup" unit produced some of TV's best documentaries. Its three-hour programs on the nation's schools and the nuclear arms race were splendidly revealing video achievements in an era of otherwise documentary doldrums.

And now?

"After the Sexual Revolution" is very watchable, all right--and very forgettable.

The ABC News "Closeup," 8-11 tonight on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42, is less a documentary than a documusical. It's smothered by slick production, a chain of 20-second sound bites supported by manipulative music ranging from sentimental schmaltz to a driving, heavily juiced "Miami Vice" track crackling with excitement. Oooooooh!

The result is three hours of largely finger-snapping, toe-tapping testimony mostly from females about the impact of the women's movement on their lives.

To its credit, the program lowers the boom on those perfectly tuned, relentlessly upbeat career superwomen seen bouncing their way through TV commercials. It makes clear that "this extraordinary revolution," as ABC's Peter Jennings labels it tonight, has extracted a price from both sexes. And in some respects, the revolution has been in name only.

Out come the statistics governing this two-paychecks-per-family society:

Ten million women are their family's sole support, yet there is a critical shortage of child-care facilities. More and more women are working, yet 70% continue to do so-called "women's work." A third of the female work force is clerical, with diminishing pay. And many women who do have jobs comparable to men's get less pay than their male counterparts. Women attempting to climb the executive ladder find no room at the top. And so on and so on.

What the program doesn't do, though, is adequately define the revolution and fully explain the changing roles of the sexes in society. How does "After the Sexual Revolution" fail? Count the ways:

--There are three segments, each separately produced, each introduced by Jennings and reported by Betsy Aaron and Richard Threlkeld. This is essentially a program of echoes, however. The topic is a longtime staple of TV programs ranging from local news minidocs to "Donahue"--you feel you've seen and heard it all before. "If you really love somebody, it's difficult to put your career ahead of your relationship," says a divorced mother of two. Yes. Sure. Ho hum.

And give us a break, too, from the repetitive, overused language of the sexual revolution. There's just no counting the times "relationship" appears in the documentary.

--The program's emphasis is almost entirely on white Americans. There are oodles and oodles of profiles here, but only two of them concerning non-whites--a businesswoman in the first hour, a couple in the second hour. Two in three hours! The nation's most popular family is the black Huxtables of "The Cosby Show," but on this program blacks and other non-whites don't count. Thus, how can it be representative?

--"After the Sexual Revolution" also suffers from provincialism. Its geographic focus is New York, as if that city were the nation's epicenter and a metaphor for Peoria, Topeka, Little Rock and Boise.

Sure it is. You've got to love the woman in the matching leather jacket and skirt who says she decided to get pregnant by her lover who is married and has his own family. Just like in your neighborhood, right?

She and some of the others in this program are an example of how the media arbitrarily designate individuals as spokespersons for significant segments of the population. Why? Because they suit the media's purpose, being accessible or appealing or quotable or willing or all of the above.

--Tonight's program also seems narrowly skewed to females ages 18 to 34, the demographic group most sought by advertisers. There's an extended portion in the second hour, for example, when "Closeup" seems to have emptied a singles bar and lined up all the females for interviews.

--There are numerous seemingly spontaneous cinema verite scenes that are questionable, to say the least. You have to suspect that "Closeup" did a little fudging.

More often than not, the presence of cameras alters reality. So be skeptical about seemingly private moments in front of the camera. Even worse, are we supposed to believe that a "Closeup" crew just happened to be present when a downtrodden divorced mother gets a call about her unpaid phone bill?

--Unmentioned is the sexual revolution's impact on the media, such as it is. You'll note, for example, that the networks' news executives are men (Pamela Hill, "Closeup" vice president and executive producer, being an exception).

"After the Sexual Revolution" program grants equal time to Aaron and Threlkeld, who are a couple. Yet network correspondents with the highest visibility mostly are male, a fact that ABC newswomen in particular have firmly noted to their male bosses.

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