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TV Gets Down to Earth

April 15, 1990|Diane Haithman

"Global warming, deforestation, toxics, desertification, garbage overload, water pollution, ozone depletion."

That's the alarming diagnosis for Mother Earth (played by Bette Midler) in "The Earth Day Special," a two-hour, all-star program scheduled to air next Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day.

Among the myriad Earth Day documentary and entertainment specials airing in the next few weeks, this one is perhaps the most ambitious. Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Robin Williams, Carl Sagan and Magic Johnson will participate, along with the casts of "The Cosby Show," "The Golden Girls," "Jeopardy!" and "Married . . . With Children," plus 300 extras and a high school marching band.

The program, whose full title is "Time Warner Presents the Earth Day Special," will weave the performers into a narrative story in which Midler's Mother Earth, dressed in a spectacular gown of garbage designed by Robert Turturice, lies dying in a hospital in Anytown U.S.A.--and it's up to the residents to save her.

Armyan Bernstein, executive producer of the special with Richard Baskin and Paul Junger Witt, said he was inspired to create an environmental program when he and his girlfriend were watching news reports about hypodermic needles, vials of blood and other medical refuse washing up on East Coast beaches.

"My girlfriend sat there and started to cry," Bernstein said. "I asked her what was wrong, and she said: 'I just feel so bad for the Earth.' So we decided to write a book called 'A Practical Guide to How You Can Begin to Help Save the Earth.' "

Instead of writing the book, however, Bernstein decided to do a TV special: "We said: 'Let's talk to the whole world one night.' " Bernstein then teamed up with Baskin and Witt. Any profits from the show will be donated to the nonprofit People of the Earth Foundation.

The three executive producers originally planned the special as a global simulcast, but found it would take three years to cut through the red tape involved in getting every station in the world to air one show at the same time. "The experts say we only have 10 years to save this planet," Baskin said. "We couldn't afford to burn three of those years on legal deals."

The producers deliberately avoided imitating the "We Are the World" concert and other previous entertainment-meets-social-conscience events. "You cannot do 'We Are the World' better than they already did it," Baskin said.

"We felt the best thing any show could accomplish would be to change people's consciences. If we just wanted to give information, we could write a book. But we thought people could get a better understanding from a story. That felt right to us."

Bernstein said the producers decided to use celebrities only because they believe people will listen to them. "If they'd watch me, I'd do it," Bernstein joked.

What they're asking, he said, is for people "to gather around the hearth--the TV set is today's hearth--and become part of an electronic town square meeting and contemplate where we are and where we're going.

"Nobody involved in this show has any pretensions that this show will save the Earth," he added. "You hope to empower people, so that they can make the difference. We don't own the Earth. We are of the Earth."

While ABC's star-studded program may be the most ballyhooed, it's not the only one to commemorate Earth Day.

CBS has two earth-related specials Friday. Peter Horton, model Elle Macpherson and Matt Biondi appear on "Dolphins, Whales and Us" at 8 p.m., with "Save the Planet," a late-night special, airing at 11:30 p.m.

Public television also has special programming this week and next, and will focus on environmental issues long after Earth Day is over. PBS' yearlong Operation Earth includes earth-related segments on series, locally produced programs on regional environmental problems, educational outreach to schools and community based activities.

Coming up this week on PBS, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" will offer ways to help children appreciate and conserve the environment, 11 a.m. Monday-Friday, KCET.

"For Earth's Sake: The Life and Times of David Brower" profiles the environmentalist who founded the Friends of the Earth, 9 p.m. Monday, KCET and KPBS; 10 p.m. KVCR.

Local stations are tuned into earthly matters as well.

On KCBS, "Happy Earth Day 2 You" examines how global environmental issues and local efforts can come together, 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. next Sunday.

Saturday at 7 p.m., KNBC has Dennis Weaver hosting "Earth Day 1990: A User's Guide to Saving the Planet," a countdown of 50 actions every family can take to save the Earth.

KABC-TV's "Project Earth," a three-hour special, will focus on how Southland residents can help the conservation movement, 3 p.m. next Sunday.

Cable television is involved as well. Here are some highlights:

"Challenge of the Seas," a 26-part series on the role oceans play in the balance of ecology, debuts next Sunday on Arts & Entertainment, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., with Ted Danson as host.

"Earth Day Birthday" celebrates Earth Day with the help of Zwibble Dibbles, baby dinosaurs who want to save the planet from pollution, 9 a.m. next Sunday on HBO.

"Attitudes" offers "How You Can Make the Earth a Better Place," 3 p.m. Monday-Thursday, Lifetime.

MTV will highlight musical artists heavily involved in environmental causes between 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. next Sunday. MTV also will broadcast live reports from the Earth Day concert in Washington during that time period.

Susan King contributed to this story.

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