Date: FRI 02/28/86
Section: HOUSTON
Page: 10
Edition: NO STAR

'Acceptable Risks' is strong story of an unacceptable event

By ANN HODGES, Houston Chronicle TV-Radio Editor

Issues without answers are a fast track to a TV movie today, and a chilling sample of that define-the-dilemma breed turns up Sunday on ABC.

Like so many dramas of social conscience, this one was born of a statistic: There are more than 6,000 chemical plants in the United States. This one was also born of a tragedy: the chemical disaster in far-off Bhopal , India, that killed 2,500 people last year.

ABC's "Acceptable Risks" (8 p.m. Sunday on Ch. 13) poses the premise that it can happen here. It's the story of a disaster on its way to happening.

A repetition of Bhopal is one of those unthinkable things that nobody wants to think about. But this suspenseful and carefully balanced scenario for backyard tragedy raises some questions we should all think about.

In a way, in fact, the questions raised by "Acceptable Risks" even raise the spectre of current investigations of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

There is no villain; no one person is to blame. This tragedy turns on a chain reaction.

The home office is losing business and demands double production from its branch office. That order squeezes the safety margins. Then add human error - somebody sends the wrong part in an order for backup safety gear, and somebody else makes a wrong decision. It's not too farfetched.

This chemical plant has been a good neighbor of the nice little city of Oakbridge, Anywhere. It's been there so long, it's part of the landscape and the foundation of the town's economy. Nobody in town knows, though, what chemicals this plant makes or what chemicals it uses to make them.

Cicely Tyson plays the dedicated city manager of Oakbridge. She's the only one in town who's worried about what to do in case of chemical spills, and whether it's smart for a subdivision to build in the shadow of chemical storage tanks.

Brian Dennehy is the beleaguered plant manager, and he is believable. He's caught in the middle between caution and the company's threat to phase out his plant if it can't produce.

There's a rather silly romantic subplot here that this drama doesn't need. But when it tends strictly to business, "Acceptable Risks" hits the mark.

As the chemical-company man says, "There's only one way to eliminate safety risks in the chemical industry, and that is to eliminate the chemical industry." But, as is also pointed out, to do without the goods and services the chemical industry provides, modern society would move back to consumer dark ages.

The inevitable finally comes, and the scene is a replay of news film horror from Bhopal , only this time the bodies fall on lawns, playgrounds and streets of a spanking new American suburb.

One can hardly fail to get the message, and in Houston, that message has added impact.

The script for "Acceptable Risks" was carefully studied by a chemical-industry expert, I'm told.

Dr. Frank Lockhart served as technical adviser, and he judged this drama to be about as fair as it can be. There's been no protest from the industry, he said.

"The chemical industry has its own watchdog committees," said producer Bob Goodwin. "This drama is just another way of getting the information out."

PBS on parade

March is the month for moneymaking on public television, and Ch. 8 needs money.

Festival '86 starts Saturday, with 16 days of special programs punctuated by pitches. And Ch. 8 has set its biggest goal ever for this festival - $800,000.

"Our membership contribution for this year must be $3 million to keep the station going," said Ann Crider, Association for Community Television (ACT) associate development director. "We have just under $1 million now, and we need 15,000 new members to make the mark. We have 37,000 members now, and we must get over that 40,000 mark."

This is not one of Ch. 8's "quiet" drives, Crider warned.

"This is a full-blown campaign with telephone banks and all kinds of things going on in the studio. We're getting a lot of help from local companies to do this one."

ACT is Ch. 8's citizen support group, and without it, Ch. 8 would be up a creek.

Saturday's starters should be big with the country music crowd - "Legends of Country Music" at 4 p.m., and "A Tribute to Country Greatness," co-hosted by Glen Campbell and Minnie Pearl, at 7 p.m.

The fine "Lone Star" history of Texas starts an encore run at 10:10 p.m. Sunday, with Larry Hagman as native-son host. Thursday night, Ch. 8 does its own special thing, "Monteith and Rand in Houston." That program features the comedy team in performance at January's Friends of ACT Dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel

Festival's coming attractions include everything from all kinds of music to Mother Nature's wonders and wildlife, special dramas, and documentaries.

On March 9, "Masterpiece Theater" celebrates its 15th anniversary with a two-hour special, and the festival finale, March 16, is a three-hour "Gala of Stars" staged at the Vienna State Opera and hosted by Beverly Sills and conductor James Levine.

The specials in this festival lineup live up to PBS' favorite slogan, "Television Worth Watching is Television Worth Paying For." Check the logs for further details.

Texas proud

Texas Independence Day is Sunday, and Ch. 2 celebrates that Sesquicentennial with a stirring special edition of one of the finest locally-produced series anywhere, "The Eyes of Texas."

Ch. 2 anchor and host Ron Stone loves Texas history. He did one of the best TV series on this state I've ever seen, back in the days when he was anchoring for Ch. 11. Since he switched stations, that series has gone into limbo, but last year he wrote a fascinating footnote to history in "Ron Stone's Book of Texas Days."

Stone's knowledge serves him well in this moving "Eyes of Texas "visit to the birthplace of Texas, Washingtonon-the-Brazos, and to the shrine of the Alamo.

To re-create the siege, Ch. 2 artist Del Englishbey designed a scale model of the Alamo as it was at the beginning of those Thirteen Days to Glory. But this report is more than mere history of battle. It tells a lot about the men who died there, and the heritage they left for Texans of today.

"Eyes of Texas" producers Gary James and Bill Springer give us a TV birthday present to treasure, at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on Ch. 2.

More movie marquee

CBS' Sunday movie begins with the killing of a killer, and with the man who did the killing turning himself in to the police.

He wants them to know he did it - and why he did it.

"Outrage" (8 p.m. Sunday on Ch. 11) is courtroom drama both topical and of a different kind. In this murder case, the judicial system comes to trial and is found guilty. It's based on a novel, with screenplay written by the author, Henry Denker.

Robert Preston plays Dennis Riordan, a mild-mannered man devastated by the brutal rape and murder of his daughter and the death of his heartbroken wife. The daughter's killer was caught and confessed, but he was never tried. The judge let him go on a legal loophole.

"What good is a justice system if it allows a confessed criminal to go free?" Riordan asks. Because the law refused to punish, Riordan took the law into his own hands.

Beau Bridges is Riordan's court appointed lawyer who ultimately brings the system to trial. Burgess Meredith is the trial judge, who finds himself defending the indefensible. William Allen Young is the prosecutor. Mel Ferrer is the judge who takes the stand to explain why he had to release a killer.

There's also a smarmy "literary agent" played by Anthony Newley, of all people. He hangs around court, trying to buy up the rights for a "based on fact" TV movie, a book, and a guest spot on the "Today "show. That part isn't just "based on fact." It's a fact of life

"Outrage," though, is a disappointment. It should be a much better drama than it is.

One reason it isn't is that it doesn't have the courage to let the courtroom tell the tale.

There's a totally out-of-synch love plot with Bridges and his high achiever girlfriend - Linda Purl in round glasses and slinky nightgowns. . . NBC goes to the box office for its Sunday night at the movies. "48 HRS" marked the movie debut of Eddie Murphy. He played a con-man crook who got sprung from jail to help a cop - Nick Nolte.

The numbers game

NBC and CBS are tied in the Arbitron February sweeps. Both networks had ratings of 17.8 and audience share of 27 percent. ABC trailed with 15.1 and 23. Nielsen's version is still to come.

The last time NBC won or tied in February was 1969, and this is NBC's highest February rating since 1980.

Person to person

Doctor Who's traveling festival and exhibit is in residence at the Shamrock Hilton from 5 p.m. today to 2 a.m. Saturday; admission free. Guest speaker is a Doctor Who himself, Colin Baker. Doctor Who is one of Ch. 8's cult favorites, a British-made entry that claims to be the longest running science-fiction series on TV. It's been on since '63.