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CBS' 'America Tonight' Feels Like Old News

HOWARD ROSENBERG

October 03, 1990|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The face is the face you like, the voice is the voice you trust. "Here we begin something new," Charles Kuralt said at 11:30 p.m. Monday.

Well, yes. But the debut of the CBS News series "America Tonight" was less like "Nightline" than "The Night of the Living Dead." Not that co-anchors Kuralt and Lesley Stahl are flesh-eating zombies, only that this latest addition to wee-hours viewing arrived looking very much like an unearthed stiff. You didn't know whether to watch it or re-bury it.

Just as ABC's "Nightline" with Ted Koppel evolved from unexpectedly popular late-night programs keying on the Iran hostage crisis a decade ago, so has "America Tonight" emerged from six recent late-night specials on CBS titled "Showdown in the Gulf" co-anchored by Kuralt and Stahl.

Initially, their ratings approached those of "Nightline," raising expectations at the network that its long-running late-night woes--entertainment reruns had been filling the hole left by last season's cancellation of "The Pat Sajak Show"--were possibly at an end. A news program--low-priced, profitable and prestigious: Perhaps this was the windfall CBS had been waiting for? So. . . .

From "Showdown in the Gulf" to Showdown in Late-Night.

Although CBS de-emphasizes the competitive element, "America Tonight" and "Nightline" are seeking the same audience. If the earlier CBS News specials and Monday's premiere are any indication, however, the showdown could be as much a mismatch as Iraq-Kuwait.

The bi-city co-anchor format, with the seemingly relaxed Kuralt in New York and the seemingly tightly wired Stahl in Washington, is awkward and disjointed. And in terms of chemistry and cohesion, this is not a pairing made in heaven.

Even beyond that, however, there is simply nothing fresh or distinctive about "America Tonight," whose mood of musty \o7 deja vu\f7 --as if this were just another newscast--is its most identifiable trait.

Night One went like this:

Kuralt interviewed former Marine Gen. George B. Crist about whether the United States is prepared for a ground war in the gulf region. Stahl heard out Richard N. Perle, former assistant secretary of defense, and James H. Webb Jr., former secretary of the Navy, on whether the U.S. should attack Iraq. The anchors read headlines.

Yadda yadda yadda. . . .

All of this is so tired. Hasn't it been on CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN, again and again and again? Even usually revved-up economics specialist Robert Krulwich seemed listless on "America Tonight" in applying his own spin to the budget agreement that had been worked out Sunday by the White House and congressional negotiators.

The half hour's only vibrant component was a 40th-anniversary tribute to Charles Schulz's "Peanuts." Kuralt quoted Charlie Brown: "I feel like a dented fender in a parking lot." Kuralt added: "He is us."

Exactly. Initially, at least, this program is a dented fender.

A "Nightline" without Koppel almost certainly would be less popular over the long haul. On a nightly basis, however, his show's ratings have risen or fallen depending on the news of the day, and surely that will also be the case with "America Tonight."

Whether it can seriously threaten the "Nightline" hold on late-news junkies is questionable, however, in light of skepticism about the new series from CBS affiliates, some of whom reportedly are delaying it until still later in the evening, further diminishing its chances for survival.

Just as late-night/overnight news had a brief heyday in the early '80s, it is resurfacing in a big way, with ABC planning a 1-to-6 a.m. newscast and NBC a 24-hour news service for its affiliates in January. CNN has been in the 24-hour business for a decade, and CBS' "Nightwatch" has remained on the air overnight through several incarnations.

This is one time a crowd is welcome. And the same applies to 11:30 p.m.

With really not a lot to lose by being bold, however, CBS could have added to this mix with an alternative news program that breaks ground the way "Nightline" once did and Jesse Jackson's new syndicated series seems to be doing, by providing a forum for dissident voices and points of view, the kind usually excluded from mainstream television. With the chances for success so slim anyway, why not take some risks?

Instead, it's "America Tonight." Here we begin something new that looks like something old.

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