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SHOULD ABC DUMP SAM AND MAKE IT “THE DIANE SHOW”?

SHARE SHOULD ABC DUMP SAM AND MAKE IT “THE DIANE SHOW”?

Let's get this "Dump Sam" movement moving. Ever since it premiered in August, there's been something wrong with the ABC News show "PrimeTime Live." Actually, several things, but one of them seems more easily fixable than the others.

Sam Donaldson, who cohosts with Diane Sawyer, is out of his element on this show. He seems awkward, hapless and hokey. He comes off looking foolish, and that makes the show look a little foolish, too.A whiz at chasing sources around with cameras and microphones blazing, Sam seems shackled on "PrimeTime Live," like a great cop who's been yanked off the streets and stuck with a desk job. Of course, he's also an insatiable ham.

Sam's shortcomings were particularly apparent during the show's recent visit to the White House. The live tour with George and Barbara Bush as escorts earned "PrimeTime Live" its biggest ratings so far. But Sam was more of an obstacle than Millie the White House dog.

Mrs. Bush dealt with Sam's outbursts almost as well as Ronald Reagan used to. When she told Sam that she couldn't think of the name of a Dutch queen who once stayed at the White House, Sam said, "That's all right, I probably don't look much like her," and Mrs. Bush shot back, "For which she's very grateful."

In a formal hallway, Sam became absurdly obsessed with the idea that when Bush grandchildren come to visit, they might possibly "pitch tents" right there in the hall.

Sam: "And they pitch tents here?"

Mrs. Bush: "They do not pitch tents here."

Sam: "Look me in the eye. They pitch tents here."

Mrs. Bush: "They do not pitch tents here."

It was like George and Gracie with the roles reversed.

Diane, meanwhile, gushed around the Lincoln Bedroom with the President. "I'm not sure I'd be able to sleep at night knowing that across the room was a signed copy written by Lincoln of the Gettysburg Address," she said. Even Sam had ga-ga spells, opening the show raving about the "majesty" and "sovereignty" of the White House.

In a survey released last summer, ABC News was found to be the easiest of the three networks on the Bush administration, having aired the fewest critical stories. In light of that, and the fact that the White House is trying to spruce up Bush's image, ABC's lovey-dovey White House tour seemed a trifle too chummy.

Perhaps fearing just such an impression, Sam used the last quarter of the show to lapse from innocuous chit-chat into his own brand of rude questioning, grilling the President on issues of the day and interrupting him as many times as possible. Bad form.

Diane Sawyer may not be giving 100 percent on "PrimeTime Live," but at least she has an instinct for what is appropriate. She's sleek and smart and savvy, and since that's what the show is trying to be, dumping Sam would be one step toward improvement.

Can a woman anchor a prime-time news show by herself? Need you ask? "Saturday Night with Connie Chung" premiered on CBS last week and found Connie in top form. And the show looked as good as she does.

The program uses dramatic re-enactments with actors playing news figures - a tricky gambit fraught with pitfalls. But telling the story of pioneering civil-rights leader Vernon Johns, using filmed vignettes starring James Earl Jones, worked well. Jones recreated sermons and scenes from Johns' life with power and authority.

Then, in the second half hour, Chung talked with Toni Johns Anderson (daughter of Vernon Johns), Jesse Jackson and others about the contributions Johns had made and the way things have changed in Montgomery, Ala., where he lived and preached. Chung's questions were good and she listened to the answers.

Ratings for the premiere were not good. It got about half the number of viewers that watched "PrimeTime Live" the preceding Thursday. But then Chung was opposite a high-rated Bob Hope special saluting Lucille Ball. In future weeks, the competition will be less severe.

As for "PrimeTime Live," undoubtedly there are show doctors on hand trying to fix what isn't working. We suggest that what isn't working is as plain as the mouth on Sam's face. How does the title "Thursday Night with Diane Sawyer" strike you? Just wondering.