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Public TV -- America's soapbox for individual opinion

By Arthur Unger / January 28, 1983

Almost every day there is evidence that Public Broadcasting is moving even further into the lead in providing a public outlet for privately held opinion. Two extraordinary documentaries by two extraordinary women make their television debuts this week with highly individualized presentations of their versions of reality.

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These programs would find it difficult to secure a place on commercial TV. In fact it is hard to find documentaries like this anywhere in the vast semi-wasteland that is over-the-air TV today - but some creative listings-reading on the part of the viewer can often prove to be especially rewarding. (Anybody searching for such worthwhile TV these days will find it appropriate to turn first to PBS; then, if non-pay cable is accessible, to ARTS, with a look-in here and there at TeleFrance USA and Ovation. On pay services, the Entertainment Channel seems to be offering the most acceptably literate if not ''egghead'' programming.)

Both Women and the Economy on Talking It Out (first of six parts; airs on PBS , Tuesday, 10:30-11 p.m., check local listingsm) and Ellis Island (PBS, Wednesday , 9:30-10 p.m., check local listingsm) are part of the ongoing Public Broadcasting determination to provide a safe haven for independent documentary-makers. ''Frontline'' (Mondays on PBS), which is showing evidence of becoming PBS's highest-rated public affairs series ever, is the only regularly scheduled documentary series on national television, and it utilizes mainly independent documentarians whose work can seldom find a place on commercial TV.

''Women and the Economy'' is a straightforward, no-kidding-around status report on women in our society, written and directed by Mary Mangan, who was also executive producer. A few months ago, a group of 140 female opinionmakers was convened in Washington from all over the United States. Ms. Mangan was there to videotape the prime movers, then proceeded to wander about America, searching for the proper images to convert what could have been a simple talking-head documentary into a full-blown, important statement. Jean Stapleton adds a great sense of commitment and sincerity in her narration (and as a participant).

''We're not going to go away . . . and we're not going to go home again,'' is the stirring end to this comprehensive report on the women who now make up more than 50 percent of the American work force. According to writer-director Mangan this documentary is only the beginning.

In an interview, she told me that the other segments will concern women reentering the labor market, women in politics, university women, middle-class women, and those who are corporate executives.

''Using a conference at the core is fine, but stand-up talking heads alone would not work,'' she said. ''I hope this documentary will prove to be a cutting-edge approach to a different way to do a conference documentary.''

Has being a woman proved to be a special handicap to Ms. Mangan as a documentarian?

''No!'' she said emphatically. ''Women in documentary-making simply take their place as female entrepreneurs. We have the same problems, no more, no less. What we have to cope with first is the tendency of people to think we may be fine at the creative level but incapable at the business level. Now there are enough of us succeeding so that the old stereotypes are breaking down.''