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NBC’s Newest Weekly News Magazine, ’1986,′ Debuts Tonight

June 10, 1986

NEW YORK (AP) _ With stars and red lines shooting through video space, the opening of NBC News’ news magazine, ″1986,″ looks like the introduction to ″Monday Night Football.″ But, when the show gets down to business, it drops the flash for more of a ″60 Minutes″ edginess and seriousness of purpose.

It’s clear that ″1986,″ which tonight becomes NBC’s 14th attempt to dent prime time with a weekly news program, took to heart the criticism of NBC’s news executives who said that ″American Almanac,″ the predecessor of ″1986,″ was too featurey in content and too leisurely in style.

But that broadcast, which was on monthly the second half of 1985, better suited venerable anchor Roger Mudd, who seems out of place in his new ″1986″ digs.

On ″American Almanac,″ Mudd, in a rumpled suit, sat behind a quaint desk and said he was searching for Americana. On ″1986,″ the cut of his suit hasn’t changed, but he seems to be uncomfortable sharing a modernistic V- shaped bench with co-anchor Connie Chung in a studio that resembles the school cafeteria before the dance decorations have gone up.

At least, the co-ed anchor team, reported not to be best of friends, doesn’t engage in mindless chit-chat between the pieces.

In the future, more can be expected from Mudd journalistically, but the man who helped derail Sen. Edward Kennedy’s presidential ambitions in a famous, probing interview in 1979 does tonight’s only soft piece - a lackluster, gushy profile of the 72-year-old stage star Mary Martin.

The other three stories take a tougher stance, in the realm of watchdog journalism, intending to involve the viewer in tales of the exploited or the vulnerable.

The best comes first. It’s from correspondent Ed Rabel, who like Chung, Mudd, Executive Producer Ed Fouhy and Managing Editor Bob Chandler all made their early journalistic marks at CBS, home of ″60 Minutes.″

Rabel looks at the door-to-door sales industry and finds that some of the itinerant youths peddling household cleaners and magazines are physically and psychologically brutalized by their bosses. In ″Sell or Else,″ Rabel says the dream of money, travel and independence has turned into a nightmare of broken promises, violence on the road and virtual slavery.

The most damaging information comes from two former salespeople, whose interviews are shot in extreme close-ups that frame them between their foreheads and chins, focusing intently on their eyes. The technique apparently is meant to draw viewers into the emotional anguish of the subjects.

The young woman says she was beaten and raped by her supervisors when she didn’t meet her sales quota. She also says she was blackmailed into keeping silent. The young man says he was beaten. The owner of the company that employed both salespeople says nothing of the sort ever happens and says such allegations only come from disgruntled employees.

Rabel says there are 200 such companies employing 20,000 youths, but he doesn’t cite any successful prosecutions. A detective in Arlington, Texas, where one company is based, says the police receive many complaints, but says nothing happens because the kids leave town, get intimidated or get paid off.

Rabel does a good job pulling the piece together with his low-key narration.

The second story, ″Safety Lost″ reported by Chung, says that light trucks, which include pick-ups, vans and utility vehicles, may be dangerous to your health because they are not covered by the same federal safety standards that apply to passenger cars.

Chung explains that trucks have a higher center of gravity and turn over more easily than cars, and passengers are more vulnerable because the trucks don’t have headrests or steel reinforcement in the doors.

Chung’s style is more breathless than Rabel’s, and her supporting evidence is not as clear. For example, she says that last year 6,600 people died in light truck accidents, but is that high or low, considering there are 25 million light trucks on the road? What about comparison figures with cars?

Chung interviews an engineer who wrote the first auto safety regulations in the 1960s. He says light trucks were ignored and the government never got back to them. There also are interviews with victims and their family members.

Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca is interviewed and says that headrests and door beams aren’t that meaningful for safety. He doesn’t come off as well as he does on his own car ads.

NBC News spokesman Jim Boyle said Iacocca had turned down Chung’s request for an in-depth interview. But Chrysler officials said she could talk with him on the run when he made an appearance in Washington. Those comments appear on the program. Iacocca then asked for a longer one-on-one interview in his office, provided NBC wouldn’t use the first encounter, Boyle said. NBC refused.

After Chung’s story, she does a studio postscript in which she says that Chrysler claims that its light trucks have fewer fatalities than subcompacts. ″That was for perspective,″ Boyle said.

In tonight’s third segment, Mudd guffaws his way through the Mary Martin interview, then, in the concluding piece, correspondent Peter Kent reports how America’s borders around Florida are open, and suggests that if they’re vulnerable to drug shipments they’re vulnerable to future terorrist invasions.

To illustrate the danger, the report opens with a speed boat testing security by hurtling unchallenged into Miami. It was part of an NBC simulation, says Kent. It’s also a symbol that NBC, at least in the opening night’s installment, is going extra lengths to give ″1986″ a hard-line identity.

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