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PBS floats into mainstream with two commercial-type programs

Tuesday, November 03, 1998

By Rob Owen, Post- Gazette TV Editor

To the dismay of the "I only watch PBS" crowd, the non-commercial broadcaster goes mainstream this week with two programs that could easily have aired elsewhere.

    TV Reviews:

"NOVA: Special Effects - Titanic and Beyond"

When: Tonight at 8 on PBS.

"Anatomy of a 'Homicide: Life of the Street'"

When: Tomorrow at 9 p.m. on PBS.


Actually, one of them already did.

Tonight at 8, "NOVA" looks at movie magic with "Special Effects - Titanic and Beyond," and tomorrow PBS premieres a documentary about the making of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," including a complete episode (minus commercials, of course).

The "NOVA" special is relatively risk-free and seems like a calculated move to draw non-PBS viewers away from cable outlets like Discovery that frequently go behind the scenes of big-budget, special effects-heavy films.

The special effects of "Titanic" get the most time, perhaps marking Leonardo DiCaprio's PBS premiere. (The best special effect may be seeing PBS's ratings among teen girls reach their highest level ever.)

Edward Herrmann narrates the one-hour production, which also explains movie explosions, demonstrated in the destruction of an office building in "The X-Files" movie, and digital character design, as exemplified by "Flubber."

The documentary tries to elevate itself intellectually by interviewing a neuroscientist about how the brain gets tricked by special effects, but even his talk of depth perception and the science of how the mind and eye see the world is pretty standard for a special effects show.

Some segments on the history of movie effects offer fun factoids (the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 version of "The Ten Commandments" was actually two slabs of Jell-O), but those with knowledge of special effects - especially younger, media-savvy viewers - are unlikely to learn anything new.

It's a far different story with the second PBS "making of" special of the week.

Tomorrow's "Anatomy of a 'Homicide: Life on the Street' " (9 p.m.) offers a rare glimpse behind the scenes of a network TV show. Rare, because TV doesn't usually reveal details about itself. It's nice to see PBS pulling back the curtain on its competition, and I wish it happened more often.

Cable's E! does behind-the-scenes specials on all the hot TV shows-of-the-moment, but those specials are about the stars, not the writers and producers who are responsible for the TV programs.

"Anatomy" spends most of its two hours following supervising producer/writer James Yoshimura as he works to bring last fall's acclaimed "The Subway" episode from script to screen.

Written, directed and produced by Theodore Bogosian, "Anatomy" clues viewers in to Yoshimura's inspiration for this riveting, wrenching "Homicide" about a man who gets pushed in front of a Baltimore subway and wedged between the train and platform. Once extracted, he will die in less than a minute.

The special effect devised to ensure no harm comes to the actor (Vincent D'Onofrio) portraying the trapped man, the logistics of filming in an active subway system and the role of the TV director (inconsequential compared to a feature film, where the director's vision leads) are all covered in satisfying detail.

But the documentary proves most enlightening when it explores the conflict between art and commerce. "Homicide" is a television series of depth (and one of the few to come with the intelligentsia seal of approval, no doubt the reason PBS chose to air this documentary), but it is on commercial television, an environment historically impatient with quality TV ("I'll Fly Away" and "Brooklyn Bridge").

"[The network] wants a satisfaction factor, they want every murder solved," says supervising producer Julie Martin in "Anatomy." "We've managed to get by doing a lot of things I don't think the other shows would."

On "Homicide," some crimes aren't solved, some criminals get away. Network execs want black or white rather than the gray "Homicide" so expertly delivers.

One of the more humorous sections of "Anatomy" explores NBC executives' "notes" on "The Subway" script and Yoshimura bargaining for profanity.

"You won't get 'dump' and 'crap' back-to-back," executive producer Tom Fontana warns Yoshimura.

I'm generally not a fan of unwarranted sex, violence or profanity in prime time, but in the attempt to create a realistic atmosphere, semi-graphic language has a place on "Homicide" (there's seldom violence and I can't recall an episode with blatant sex).

"Anatomy" also explores the role ratings play and how this show has been in ratings crisis since premiering in 1993. In July 1997 NBC gave "Homicide" producers an ultimatum: "become more popular than 'Nash Bridges' or be canceled."

"Homicide" remains in production, despite consistently losing to "Bridges," and one has to wonder if the creative forces behind the show are now taking NBC's threat seriously. "Anatomy" reminds regular viewers how intense "Homicide" used to be and how watered-down it's become this season with too much attention paid to who's dating whom in the squad room.

"Every once in a while we have to break the rhythm of the show to make sure we're maintaining it," Fontana says about "The Subway" episode. Perhaps that's his view of this season's episodes, too, and maybe - we can hope - the gritty "Homicide" will return.

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