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An ABC Documentary Lands in U.F.O. Territory

New York Times - 2/23/2005

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Mr. Jennings applies the same solemn, impassive tone he used to examine Christianity in his special report "Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness" last April. He does not try to prove or debunk the existence of U.F.O.'s. Instead, he handles Ufology, as he refers to it, like a religion whose followers are numerous and steadfast enough to merit respectful treatment. .


By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
Published: February 24, 2005

During a sweeps month, U.F.O. is not solely an abbreviation for unidentified flying object. When a veteran network anchor devotes two hours to the subject in a special prime-time report, U.F.O. can also be code for uncontrollable fear of obscurity.

Tom Brokaw's retirement as the NBC anchor did not drive viewers to ABC en masse; actually, the ratings of his replacement, Brian Williams, are higher than Peter Jennings's. Even Dan Rather's fall from grace and imminent retirement have not significantly benefited ABC's "World News Tonight" And that may help explain the mystery of why Mr. Jennings, ABC's lofty and fastidious anchorman, chose to lend his gravitas to a lengthy examination of extraterrestrial life forms.

Space aliens are not particularly timely. Newspapers are not brimming with fresh reports of mass sightings of bright lights hovering over the Mojave Desert. Steven Spielberg does not have a sci-fi sequel, "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind" in the works. And no one would argue that this is a slow news period.

But the race for ratings is particularly intense in February. Mr. Jennings points out in his introduction that as many as 80 million Americans believe in U.F.O.'s and that 40 million say they have seen one or know someone who has. If even a fraction of those people turn to ABC tonight, "U.F.O.'s: Seeing Is Believing" could do for Mr. Jennings what more somber special reports like last June's "Guant√°namo Bay" could not.

Not that this special report is a day at the beach. Mr. Jennings applies the same solemn, impassive tone he used to examine Christianity in his special report "Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness" last April. He does not try to prove or debunk the existence of U.F.O.'s. Instead, he handles Ufology, as he refers to it, like a religion whose followers are numerous and steadfast enough to merit respectful treatment.

And that is not inappropriate. Ufology has many of the rites and rhythms of more traditional faiths, and the skeptic-turned-convert is a crucial element in any belief system. The millions of followers of Padre Pio, a 20th-century friar who was said to have had stigmata and supernatural powers and was canonized in 2002, bolster their case by pointing out that Father Maccari, a Vatican investigator sent to prove the friar a fraud, later recanted and prayed to Padre Pio on his deathbed (at least according to a Capuchin publication, "The Voice of Padre Pio").

The documentary showcases a U.F.O. version of Father Maccari: J. Allen Hynek, an astrophysicist and a consultant for an Air Force project created in 1952 to assess U.F.O. reports. Early on, he dismissed witnesses as crackpots. He later repented and went on to found the Center for U.F.O. Studies in Illinois. He was one of the first scientists to give the study an aura of respectability. (Dr. Hynek came up with the phrase "close encounters of the third kind" which Mr. Spielberg used for his film title.)

The history of U.F.O. sightings is interspersed with contemporary accounts by witnesses: housewives, pilots and truck drivers who do not look or sound like crackpots and who matter-of-factly describe what they saw that turned them into believers. ("It arched over the top of our car. ") The most recent well-known incident was reported over Phoenix in 1997, when hundreds of people said they saw strange lights overhead that did not resemble an airplane or a helicopter. One man videotaped some of what he saw: a row of lights in the sky that he said were atop some kind of spaceship. The tape is not very distinct, however. Mostly, ABC uses animation to recreate what the witnesses say they saw.

The U.F.O. is a topic usually relegated to the tabloids, but Mr. Jennings gives the phenomenon his full consideration. "Seeing Is Believing" is not likely to create a new army of converts, but it may draw viewers who are already convinced and hungry for network affirmation: believing is seeing.

'Peter Jennings Reporting'

'U.F.O.'s: Seeing Is Believing'

ABC, tonight at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.

Mark Obenhaus and Tom Yellin, executive producers. Produced by PJ Productions and Springs Media for ABC News.


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