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Television Travelers Can View the World From the Comforts of Home : Media: Commercial, public and cable TV offer a growing number of travel-related shows. Many are long on visual impact but may be short on nuts and bolts.

February 23, 1992|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

As many as 80 out of every 100 Americans take a planned vacation away from home at least occasionally, according to a recent travel industry survey. With so many people on the road, it's not surprising that there is a strong consumer demand for information about where to go and what to do next. Enter television as a fairly recent and modestly effective resource in aiding travelers in their vacation decisions.

Travel and travel-related shows are now appearing with some regularity on commercial, public and cable networks. In fact, there is a cable network called the Travel Channel that broadcasts travel features and news 24 hours a day.

All three of the major network morning shows transport cast and crew to different locales on occasion, a good indication of television's interest in travel programming. NBC's "Today" show, for example, set up shop for a week in Hawaii in November. One reason is that "the ratings go up when the shows go on the road," says "Today" spokeswoman Lynn Appelbaum. "More viewers tune in."

In addition: PBS has just launched its third season of the 15-part series "Travels," in which viewers are taken to a mix of exotic and popular destinations, including Ireland, Madagascar, Sarawak and Barcelona. The shows are the kind that have appeal both for armchair travelers and those who may decide to venture to some of these places.

"Weekend Travel Update," a regularly scheduled half-hour travel feature and news show originating from San Francisco, is broadcast nationally on commercial networks, including KNBC Channel 4 in Los Angeles.

"Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" is a new geography game show on public television for youngsters 8 to 13 years old. With each afternoon's tough geography quiz, there's a substantial dose of kid-oriented travel information about destinations in the United States and abroad.

As a source of travel information, television works best as a supplement to such traditional resources as guidebooks, magazines and newspaper travel sections. The visual impact of a full-color video report--depicting what a place really looks like--cannot be duplicated by the print media, even in magazine photo spreads.

But the tube generally falters when it comes to providing such important backup details as what a trip will cost, where to stay and how to get there. Also, no TV show can offer all the historical and cultural information that dedicated sightseers consider essential to pre-trip planning.

And the TV tours are not free of error. Last year, the Travel Channel aired a totally inept program called "Inside Travel"--a round-table discussion featuring travel authorities--that left the ridiculous impression that visitors to the Caribbean must pay $200 to $300 a night for lodging. (The truth is that fine lodging is available at $50 to $75 a night for two.)

In short, TV gives a taste of a destination, but for a satisfactory meal, consult other information sources.

Despite the near universal appeal of leisure travel, many of television's travel reports seem strangely hidden in little-watched time periods or used only as filler material to plug a gap in the day's material. And much good travel information appears only irregularly. To keep abreast of what's available locally, check daily and weekly television programming guides for the latest schedules.

Among the travel-related offerings on television:

--Having begun its sixth season on the air this month, the 24-hour-a-day Travel Channel is devoted exclusively to travel programs--a mix of scenery-filled travelogues and practical consumer advice for both novice and experienced travelers. A number of cable systems in Southern California carry the channel, including Century Cable, Falcon Cable, United Cable and Comcast Cablevision.

One of its more popular shows is the half-hour "Almanac of Travel," hosted by Arthur Frommer, the famous guidebook author, who skips about the world visiting popular destinations such as London and Las Vegas on a budget. "Business Travel News Brief" is a daily minute of airline and hotel advice for frequent business travelers. "Travel Bargains" is the network's booking service, offering phone-in viewers discounted air fares and lodging. Shows are repeated frequently.

--As the title suggests, "Weekend Travel Update" attempts to keep travelers alert to developments around the world that could affect their plans. A recent report, for example, provided an update on flooding that occurred on the Hawaiian island of Kauai following heavy rains. The show regularly visits vacation destinations, reporting both pros and cons, and it often highlights popular adventure activities such as scuba diving and snowmobiling. One standard feature is a look at interesting or unusual events in the coming week.

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