IN 1972, 7-year-old Steven Sayner was kidnapped on his way home from school. He returned to his parents eight years later, having been called by a different name through most of his formative years. The two-part miniseries is called "I Know My Name Is Steven." It airs at 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on Channel 2.
Two years ago, baby Jessica McClure fell down an 8-inch well hole in Midland, Texas, and survived. The entire country tuned in to the events in Midland for 58 1/2 hours while rescuers attempted to get to her. ABC's TV movie begins at 9 tonight (see the piece across the way).
In 1972, a woman calling herself Jane Roe won a Supreme Court decision which overturned anti-abortion statutes across America. "Roe vs. Wade" was last Sunday's movie on NBC.
In some future Sweeps Week, we will no doubt be able to see ABC's and CBS' docudramas on the Joel Steinberg trial as well as ABC's "The Preppie Murder," the docudrama whipped up out of Robert Chambers' sex strangling of Jennifer Levin in Central Park.
No network has dibs on it yet -- at least not publicly -- but you can bet your Reeboks that teams of writers have already been turned loose to transform the horrendous raping and mauling of a 28-year-old investment banker who was attacked in Central Park during her nightly run.
In fact, a creative and not overly scrupulous network might seriously consider making New York's Central Park into a weekly series. The way I see it, every week some new atrocity takes place -- a mugging, a rape or a gang fight -- and all in some picturesque sylvan location. The statue of Alice in Wonderland would be nice; the zoo, of course, would always be good for ambient background noise.
In 1989, tabloid TV has taken over the whole tube -- not just those strange out-of-the-way little TV time slots that are out of network reach, but ordinary prime time, too.
The contemporary front-page docudrama is now the Sweeps Weeks genre of choice, having superseded both the early '80s favorite -- Daddy-as-Godzilla ("The Burning Bed," "Fatal Vision") and the old '70s favorite -- the atrocity miniseries ("Roots," "Holocaust," etc.).
We tube-obsessed Americans aren't really into Nazis anymore, or slave genealogy either. It seems that what we want is to see little boys snatched from parents at the age of 7 and subjected to sexual abuse (off-camera, of course, always off-camera).
Or we want to see Hollywood re-creations of heroic baby rescues which were, after all, garishly and amateurishly lighted the first time around. (Apparently there were some people who were so shortsighted back then that they were actually more concerned with extricating a battered baby from a deep, dark well than they were with proper camera lighting.)
Why this sudden ravenous appetite for re-creations of contemporary "reality" at its most extreme? Take your pick from the following:
1. No one in Hollywood has any imagination anymore. And even if they do, the rest of us don't. Fiction has become something of an annoyance in the world. Because . . .
2. Journalism is the primary art in the winking twilight of the 20th century. That sounds as if it would be good news to many of us actively engaged in it. In fact, it isn't. Reportage isn't really the point; nor is commentary or criticism. Invasion of privacy is the point -- raising society's information level to the point where everyone honestly thinks it a God-given right to know everything about everyone, whether they get kidnapped, fall down wells or take part in epochal Supreme Court cases.
Marshall McLuhan and his friend anthropologist Edmund Carpenter told us decades ago that this would happen. Eradicating the very idea of privacy is in the very nature of television.
3. TV docudramas are the ideal form for Hollywood actors and actresses who can't get all the good movie scripts (because they're all going to Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep). After "Broadcast News," Holly Hunter was one of the hottest young actresses in America; Amy Madigan has been something of a cult favorite for almost a decade.
To appear in a prestige TV docudrama like last week's "Roe vs. Wade" is a canny and high-profile career move while they both wait for the truly gilt-edged movie scripts to flutter down to them from the loftier aeries of Hollywood's Olympus.
For better or worse, "Roe vs. Wade" at least essayed a point of view -- simply because the actual outcome of the Supreme Court decision demanded it. Television's usual way of handling hugely inflammatory issues is to allude obsequiously to both sides without saying anything at all.
Television's way is to assume that "objectivity" is the same as saying nothing.
Consider, for instance, the flap over Dr. Peter Ostrow of Channel 4 signing a pro-choice petition and then appearing on the Channel 4 news special on abortion. It was considered by some -- including my colleague Alan Pergament and even some at Channel 4 news -- a smudging of journalistic ethics.
The truth, fully and fairly and intelligently told, is what journalism is supposed to do. Saving lives and healing the sick is what doctors are supposed to do.
To elevate journalistic ethics over medical ethics is bizarre, it seems to me. If the choice is between telling the truth and saving lives, I'd personally prefer that doctors act like doctors first and everything else later.
Coldly and intelligently considered, the medical ethic may simply be a higher ethic.
Truth insists that I make a confession: Though Peter Ostrow and I are not friends, we have a lifelong friend in common. But even if I didn't know him from an aardvark (or, worse, a TV anchor), I'd still insist on his -- or anyone else's -- right to consider his medical ethic a far higher value than his job with Channel 4 News.
Let television, whether news or entertainment, feed on front pages the way sharks feed on salmon. It seems to me that without some people in the world who maintain a higher value or two, we're all doomed.
The world, after all, is a much bigger and more complex place than what we see of it on television.