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A CBS Series Born and Killed in Gulf Crisis : Television: 'America Tonight' is topical, timely and engrossing. But as the threat of war looms, the network is only thinking of its own survival.

January 12, 1991|RICK DU BROW

There are lots of reasons for CBS' decision to cancel the Charles Kuralt-Lesley Stahl news series, "America Tonight."

And all of them are wrong.

The ax is scheduled to fall after next Friday's broadcast--the worst possible timing considering the peaking of the Persian Gulf crisis, the very story that helped launch the series.

Moving into the program's 11:30 p.m. time slot, starting Jan. 21, is just what American television needs--five more action-adventure series.

Instead of "America Tonight," we'll be blessed with "Sweating Bullets," "Fly by Night," "Scene of the Crime," "The Exile" and "Dark Justice."

It's hard to believe that "America Tonight" will be yanked for such fluff just three days after Tuesday's United Nations deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face war.

Anyone who's kept pace with the war-crisis coverage this week knows the significant part TV is playing. And that includes the Kuralt-Stahl series, which Thursday night originated from the University of North Carolina with an emotional, engrossing and expanded 90-minute broadcast of the views of residents there on the crisis.

"A short war is a contradiction in terms," a Vietnam veteran said during the broadcast.

On Wednesday, even the penny-pinching networks preempted hours of soap operas and game shows for the news conferences of Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz after their futile meeting in Geneva. President Bush's gloomy reaction to the meeting was equally dramatic.

On Thursday and Friday, TV's national town meeting escalated as PBS and C-SPAN began major, ongoing coverage of congressional debate on whether America should go to war--and whether Bush should be given the authority to take that final step.

It was unprecedented and incomparable TV viewing to watch senators and representatives come forth, one by one, to argue the war-and-peace issue that has torn the nation. As analysts David Gergen and Mark Shields said on PBS' MacNeil-Lehrer report, the quality of the debate was impressive as the speakers sensed its historic importance.

Why in the world, then, is CBS choosing this time to take off the air one of its principal contributions to the national coverage--just when it's needed most? Is it another bonehead play by the last-place network?

Even if war is averted next week, or entirely, the Persian Gulf story that brought "America Tonight" into being as a group of specials--and then led to the series last Oct. 1--will not suddenly evaporate. And there is, after all, other news as well.

CBS realizes that it's in a pickle--that its pressing financial and competitive needs have run smack into history. It must be embarrassing to think of something called "Sweating Bullets" displacing a series about the Iraqi crisis in a wartime atmosphere.

Thus, CBS executives apparently are keeping the door open for "America Tonight" to be recalled to duty. That position was stated by Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast Group, who said when the final date of the series was announced:

"We are fortunate to know that we can count on the 'America Tonight' franchise as soon as breaking news warrants late-night CBS News specials."

The way things are going, CBS could find itself with breaking news that warrants those specials every night.

CBS representatives say that the five new action series are still set to replace "America Tonight," despite the heating up of the Persian Gulf situation. "I'm not aware of any changes," said one executive.

However, another CBS official said the programming dilemma "has crossed everybody's mind. But we have no hard information about what's going to happen in the gulf. The entertainment programming will premiere on Jan. 21, at this point."

But underlying all network conversation about programming these days is the simple understood fact that if the unthinkable happens--if war breaks out--any and all scheduled broadcasts, at any time of the day or night, may be wiped out for instant satellite reporting from the scene.

Thus, any entertainment show seems trivial in the scheme of things.

But when CBS made its decision to cut short "America Tonight," before the heightened war threat, the network had more mundane television matters on its mind--and its own survival.

The late-night programming arena had become a void for CBS with the failure of "The Pat Sajak Show," and its affiliate stations were defecting to other programs such as the syndicated Arsenio Hall show.

CBS tried to hold the fort with adventure series--curiously, the same formula that failed for the network in the past against NBC's "Tonight Show" and ABC's "Nightline," yet which it now seems to think will succeed.

"America Tonight" was to be just a stop-gap, 3 months or so of honorably treading water at 11:30 p.m. until something more glitzy and commercial could be concocted. The series was thrown into the breach so suddenly, and apparently with so few expectations, that it received minimal promotion.

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