After a shaky start in 1978, “20/20” has become the most durable “60 Minutes” imitator, while remaining flashier in packaging than its venerable model. It continues to rack up high Nielsens.
Solid, dependable, urbane co-host Hugh Downs, who has been around since the second show, gives “20/20” a good deal of its credibility. In general, though, the series radiates a softer image than “60 Minutes,” mainly due to three factors: Co-host Barbara Walters (still an acquired taste, to put it kindly), the post-seg chatter that’s just a cut above the inanities of local news, and the busy, hectoring intros at the top of the show.
The three-stories-per-hour magazine format remains its base. Last Friday in the hard-news segment, “20/20” sent ABC News medical editor Dr. Timothy Johnson after AcroMed, a company that had been marketing an experimental device implanted by back surgeons to alleviate pain. It turns out that up to a third of the screws used in the device had a tendency to break, creating even more pain and disabling many patients.
The segment was devastating, although the screw’s developer, Dr. Arthur Sheffe, was never directly confronted on camera; Johnson and writer/producer Roger Sergel were most effective interviewing the patients.
With an eye on the national revulsion over urban crime, Downs took viewers to Singapore, where the streets are clean, almost everyone has a job, only the police have guns, and there is no fear of criminals in the shadows.
The reason for this Shangri-La, it turns out, is a Big Brother governmental apparatus that spies on its citizens, even to the point of making sure they flush public toilets. Yet producer/writer Richard Gerdau presents a rather even-handed look at this Orwellian city-state, leaving viewers to wonder whether America is at a point where such measures ought to be considered.
The fluff celebrity piece was a profile of the gifted Dana Carvey, who, after making “Saturday Night Live” worth seeing again, has — like many of its past stars — abandoned the show for the riches of Hollywood. As impeccably timed hype for “Wayne’s World 2,” the seg was harmless, although one came away feeling that Carvey’s real masterpiece is his screamingly wicked/funny parody of Ross Perot.
The show concluded with an unabashed Walters love letter to Walter Annenberg, who had just given $ 500 million to public education.