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Television Reviews : 'Oil' Story On Pbs

October 20, 1987|BILL STEIGERWALD

The first installment of "Oil," an ambitious, eight-part PBS series about the history and importance of the oil business (debuting at 10 tonight on Channel 28), passes as quickly as an episode of "Dallas."

Originally made for British TV in 1986 and re-narrated for U.S. audiences by WHYY-TV of Philadelphia, "Oil's" first segment, "God Bless Standard Oil," centers on the godfather of the modern oil business, the much-hated John D. Rockefeller, and the corporate creation he loved.

It shows Rockefeller's futile attempts at price fixing and how his dream of monopoly control was repeatedly dashed by new oil strikes in Texas and in Russia.

After seeing film footage of Rockefeller hacking around the golf course in his 90s (age, not score) and sweetly chirping "God Bless Standard Oil," it's hard to believe that muckraker Ida Tarbell could have ever called him a "dead jellyfish" in "History of Standard Oil Company," her epic, turn-of-the-century attack on his predatory business habits (until, that is, you learn Rockefeller swallowed up Tarbell's father's tiny oil business on his way to building the world's first multinational mega-corporation).

The program drills a Populist slant that Tarbell would have approved, equating bigness with badness and stressing the damage done to smaller oil producers and refiners. It downplays the fact that, despite their many sins, the smarter business tactics and greater efficiencies of Standard Oil and its ilk, while ruthless, are what brought consumers increasingly cheaper oil and changed our world--mostly for the good.

And because criticism of the oil industry is voiced by "objective" historians and experts, while its defense is invariably left to oil men themselves, it seems that the only defenders of the oil business are those with a vested interest in it.

But these biases are minor blemishes in a well-crafted hour that gushes with interesting information and great archival footage from the pioneering days when oil was on its way to becoming the modern world's most important resource.

Next week's segment, "Floating to Victory," about the growth of European giants Royal Dutch/Shell and British Petroleum against the background of two world wars, is even better. Future programs cover the rise of OPEC, independent oilmen like T. Boone Pickens and the future challenges of getting oil from places like the Arctic.

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