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TELEVISION REVIEW

ABC's '20/20,' Walters adopt a bad idea

On ABC's "20/20" tonight, a pregnant 16-year-old interviews five Ohio couples on camera about the possibility of adopting her baby. Tensions run high as the wannabe parents struggle to make the right impression. Then, as the cameras roll and the tears drop, the mother makes her final decision. Who will be the next American Parent?

The "20/20" program is supposed to be a news magazine, not a reality show. But the host, Barbara Walters, in her zeal to educate the world about adoption, loses sight of good taste in "Be My Baby." Surely it's no coincidence that the May "sweeps" period started yesterday.

Regardless of ABC's intentions, the hourlong program -- which airs locally on WCVB-TV (Channel 5) at 10 p.m. -- is entirely too lighthearted in tone. It's sickening when one candidate, Tab Brown, confides to the camera before his interview: "This is kind of like `The Bachelor' or `The Bachelorette'! You're in or you're out tonight." We're talking about a baby's future, folks.

As improbable as it seems, Jessica Bohne will decide the fate of her child based on 30-minute interviews, while the American public watches. How meaningful are these interviews? Bohne, a high school student, wants to know if they like the name Liam.

Viewers will also see the anguish Bohne goes through at home as she ponders keeping the baby. Interspersed are comments from Walters (an adoptive parent herself) such as, "Who will Jessica choose?"

Walters said this week that the network had been "overly zealous" in promoting the program as if it were a reality show. One ad stated: "Five couples desperate to adopt. All competing for her baby. Four will lose. One will get the baby of their dreams." After adoption specialists and others protested, ABC changed the wording to read: "An emotional television event. One teenage mother making the most important decision of her young life. Choosing adoptive parents for her baby from these five couples. It's an adoption unlike any you have ever seen."

In an e-mail message this week to viewers who had registered on ABC's website, Walters said: "Some of our initial on-air promos went a little over the top. For the record, we should say that `20/20' simply reports what happened: We did not choose the participants, nor exert any influence on what they did. This is not one of those scripted `reality shows' -- it is reality."

The program isn't all bad. The process of open adoption -- in which a birth mother maintains limited access to her baby throughout childhood -- is fascinating, especially as the practice grows in popularity. As Walters points out, such openness can help eliminate a child's feeling of being abandoned.

It was also compelling to watch one family walk away from Bohne out of concern that she would be too hands-on and thus disruptive.

The "20/20" show has devoted several episodes to adoption, and Walters did her own special on the topic in 2001, in which her daughter was interviewed. Education about the importance of adoption and its challenges is a fine thing.

But "20/20" flirts with sensationalism when it turns its zoom lens on a distraught mother, still recovering from delivery in the hospital, as she signs away her parental rights. That's not news and it's not entertainment. It's just invasive.

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com.

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