Is It Prime Time For Vietnam ?

CBS will pit "Tour of Duty" a series focusing on one platoon, against 'Cosby'

The New York Times, Sunday, August 2 , 1987

By Peter J.Boyer

Its Back- NAPALM, FIRE FIGHTS, Bodybags, Hueys, rice paddies, Victor Charlie, search-and-destroy, the quagmire, the Living Room War. After 16 years, the Vietnam War returns to American television. This time, it's playing primetime and the enemy is Bill Cosby.

This fall , CBS will attempt something that some of its executives believe it has no business trying and little chance of succeeding in; Sensing a Vietnam vogue, CBS means to make a weekly entertainment of the Vietnam war with a series called "Tour Of Duty" and use the show in a counteroffensive against NBC's hugely popular Thursday night line-up, headlined by "The Cosby Show"

It is a high-risk, high-cost undertaking for CBS, appropriately framed in contradiction "Tour Of Duty" means to tell the story of a politicized war without being political; it will try to draw a portrait of American foot soldiers, "Grunts" , without employing foul language or Dope or graphic violence; it means to depict war with only sparing use of costly battle scenes; and although it's one of the most expensive new series ever mounted by CBS - the pilot episode alone cost $2 million - its being thrust into the most difficult time period CBS has ever faced. Its chances , in short, would not appear to be good. Brandon Tartikoff, the NBC entertainment chief, has jokingly referred to the show as "the six day war", that's how long he figures it will last against "Cosby".

But "Tour Of Duty" is a kind of crucible for a young CBS program executive named Earle h. LeMasters 3rd,the Vietnam-generation vice president of CBS Entertainment who is pressed to develop some hits. He is convinced that the Vietnam drama can work, and that if it does it could be the most important television series of its time. Some Vietnam Veterans who have seen the pilot find balm and redemption in a network series seen from their perspective, and hope that Mr LeMasters is right.

"Tour Of Duty" looms as the biggest bust or the biggest breakthrough of the coming season. It is certainly the most interesting programming schedule for the most practical and compelling of television reasons-desperation. After two seasons of being roundly trounced by NBC in the prime-time ratings after a year in which network's profits dropped precipitously, CBS needed to make a bold move. The network is traditionally conservative in its programming approach, but this season, CBS is trying to attract   a new, younger and more urban audience, not only to combat NBC but in the hope of winning back some viewers from cable. When network program executives consulted with the producers of "Tour Of Duty", they would frequently mention that a third of CBS's viewers are cable viewers, the very people (mostly men) who have been abandoning the networks for the unrestricted fare of pay TV.

But more immediately , "Tour Of Duty" is a direct assault on the hitherto unassailable allure of "The Cosby Show", NBC's enormously successful family sitcom that has turned Thursday night into a quagmire for the other two networks. The strategy of positioning "Tour Of Duty" directly opposite "Cosby" and its new spin-off, "A Different World", is a drastic departure from the meeker approach tried by both ABC and CBS last season. Essentially conceding the time period to "Cosby" ABC scheduled a news-magazine program and CBS went with a waning detective series, "Simon & Simon" to lead off the night. This year, that changed, "We are not comfortable with being No.2" said B. Donald Grant, president of CBS entertainment, when he announced his network's schedule.

Mr LeMasters, who is starting his second season as vice president of programming at CBS, became intrigued with Vietnam as a television material when he was the CBS executive in charge of television movies, and worked on the abandoned attempt to make the book "Saigon" into a mini-series in 1985.

Mr. LeMasters, who as a U.C.L.A. student in the late 1960's and early 70's had been a antiwar protester, perceived a shifting aloof attitudes towards Vietnam, almost a kind of nostalgia." I began to notice that the country was undergoing a chance about Vietnam," Mr LeMasters said recently, " revision of it ,especially its attitude towards the grunts." The success of the feature film "Platoon" last year confirmed that instinct. The former protester responded as a network executive "I wondered if there might be an application for television"

MrLeMasters' idea for a weekly series about the war was not warmly received inside CBS. "I was roundly told that it was idiotic, "Mr LeMasters said. His boss, Mr Grant, thought that too many Americans still felt too strongly about the war to accept it as a weekly entertainment ( William S. Paley, the founder and chairman of CBS , said that his feelings about the Vietnam War remained so strong that he withdrew from offering an opinion on the series ) .Mr LeMasters himself worries that women will not watch a war drama. But there remained that pressure for innovation, to get CBS moving, and Mr LeMasters was allowed to commission a script.

At each step - from script to pilot to series commitment - there was opposition from within the network, but revisions were made, and the storyline that CBS and the series' producers finally agreed on is remarkably similar to that of "Platoon" - the one year Vietnam tour of a platoon of Army ground troops.

That would seem to have become the storyline of choice in the new Vietnam nostalgia, the grunt's-eye-view approach that considers the political and moral questions of the war   implicitly and only secondarily to the first purpose, which is capturing the "feel" of the war. HBO is also producing a series about the war," Vietnam War Story", whose theme, as put by producer Edward Gold , is an apt description of "Tour Of Duty's" vision, as well:" Why everything happened has been hashed out. Now I think it's time to learn about the 'how's'. How did the boy's get into these positions? How did these young guys get in the middle of a jungle halfway around the world and become what some people believed to be brutal killers, when they were not brutal killers?"

It may be the most dramatic approach, which is convenient, because it is probably the only approach safe enough for commercial network television to consider. A network aims for the broadest possible audience, which means offending the fewest viewers.

That points up the particular difficulty that "Tour Of Duty" presents to CBS. On the one hand, the network needs to win cable-wise viewers, who have grown accustomed to unrestricted programming on pay television; on the other hand, CBS still has to answer to affiliates, Government agencies and all manner of interest groups just waiting to pounce on graphic violence, relaxed portrayals of drug use or a political point of view to which they object.

"We're not going to shy away from any story possibility," Mr LeMasters has said, and yet , he acknowledges that the writers on the show began to bump into the boundaries of network rules almost from the beginning, often on what seemed to be the most mundane matters.