TV's documentary season -- when ratings don't count

TV summers, like TV dinners, offer a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Unlike most frozen dinners, however, TV summer schedules often offer the equivalent of a good, thick steak -- solid documentaries which are used to fill in open air time in the season when viewing is down anyway and when the advertisers don't pay so much attention to Nielsen ratings.

CBS Reports and ABC News Closeup will be airing a number of fine documentaries in August (to be previewed here closer to their air times). PBS, as always, has some fine new and repeat documentaries scheduled. In addition, independent filmmakers are getting a well-earned break on the Public Broadcasting Service.

Besides PBS, only ABC News Closeup and some local stations have been airing documentaries made by filmmakers other than staff members. Now PBS is offering still another independent series. "Exchange" (Friday, 9-10 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is a series of five one- hour documentaries produced by independent filmmakers from the United States, Canada, West Germany, and Sweden. Coverage ranges from a portrait of Texas to studies of the plight of children, a profile of West Point, a look at the world's rain forests to an exploration of European progress toward social and economic equality.

The premiere program is "The Third Coast" (PBS, Friday, 9-10 p.m., check local listings). It was produced, filmed, and edited by Alan and Susan Raymond (noted for their "Police Tapes" documentary), who have recently been working at ABC Closeup on such documentaries as "To Die for Ireland."

This brilliantly organized mosaic of Houston is composed of incisive personalized segments, combined to present what to many may seem a devastating living portrait of a city on the make. But to me the Raymonds' version of Houston creates the impression of a city combining many of the worst characteristics of Los Angeles and New York -- unplanned sprawl, never-ending money-grubbing, whole generations of people isolated from one another by singles-only complexes, a police force which allegedly uses clubs and guns to make contact with underprivileged people. It is a harsh but fascinating portrait, although I suspect many Texans will find it objectionable.

The documentary gets a quick kickoff with a statement from the editor of Texas Monthly who says, "Texas has been handed the ball as to what America is going to become in the next decade." From there, the Raymonds take the viewer on an amazingly perceptive tour of people, places, and attitudes in and around Houston, which must cope with around 10,000 new settlers every month and where the local socialites do everything possible (such as inviting a French designer to premiere his high-style clothes in Houston) so that "people will know we are not just a little cow town."

Perhaps the most revealing attitude is stated by one interviewee, looking challengingly into the camera: "Money grows on trees in Houston. If you can't make it in Houston, you can't make it anywhere." Perhaps that accounts for a certain air of desperation which is this program appears to hover over Houston residents. In a way, it is a last- chance town.

So despite strongly opposing views from others, the Raymonds portray Houston as a place that continues to expand, filled with "overplaza-ed" neighborhood shopping centers, inadequate public transportation, no fixed power structure, jobs for all, booming housing complexes, frightening freeways filled with private autos, born-again religionists -- and despite what some say, inhabited by a society rife with social climbers, "red necks," and wheeler-dealers.

One hopes this is a harbinger of excellence to come -- keep your eye on "Exchange" in future weeks. I'll remind you.

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