PBS Gets Swept Away by Natural Disasters

Article excerpt

Byline: Ted Cox

PBS - yes, PBS - gets caught up in sweeps-month turmoil tonight, believe or not with a nature special, of all things.

It's called "Savage Skies," and if it appeared on the Fox network it would probably be outfitted with a sensational subtitle along the lines of "Nature's Beastly, Violent Ways of Torturing Us Day In, Day Out."

"Savage Skies" features tremendous film footage of tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, blizzards and other natural disasters. But unlike the usual PBS weather special, it also displays a truly macabre infatuation with human suffering.

The four, hour-long segments, which air two today and two on Tuesday, both days beginning at 8 p.m. on WTTW Channel 11, could easily be plugged into the same time slots as reality shows like "Cops" or "America's Most Wanted." The thrill-seeker element of the TV audience would barely notice a difference.

"Savage Skies" interviews people who calmly discuss being struck by lightning, finding their house destroyed in a hurricane and turning their backs for a second only to find their children swept away in a flood.

It's kind of creepy.

But this is a PBS special, after all, so the filmmakers needed to find a narrator who could put a happy face on all this.

"I think it's wonderful," said Al Roker, the cheerful NBC forecaster, CNBC talk-show host and "Savage Skies" narrator, as he spoke on the phone from the WNBC-TV weather office in New York City. "There's some really incredible video in it, but it's not a voyeuristic sort of thing. There are stories and tales to be told about how this weather affects people."

Are there ever. But it takes a while to get to them. "Savage Skies" begins with a typical PBS gambit, daring to bore the viewer. The first episode, "Fire and Rain," examines the sun's influence on the weather, but it starts off with a husband-and-wife team of photographers who specialize in taking pictures of clouds. They actually put on a slide show.

Yawn. What else is on?

But if you give up on "Savage Skies" tonight for the even cheaper thrills of "No One Would Tell" or "My Son Is Innocent," you'll regret it, and not just because it won't be as fun as you think to watch Fred Savage and Marilu Henner debase themselves. "Fire and Rain" soon moves on to the tale of a mountain climber who puts an eerie spin on his story of being caught on the side of a rock in an electrical storm.

"It was like someone opened a door and there was the storm, waiting, behind the open door," Jerry Gore says. "I sensed, smelt and almost tasted fear. Maybe it was death, I don't know, but it was evil. …