Broadcast TV's True Alternative

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IT'S times like these that make you appreciate PBS.

The commercial TV networks haven't finished premiering their new fall series and already some people are getting tired of them: too many station-break promos, too much hype, too many talk-show appearances by stars plugging their new vehicles.

In this column we've looked at the fall lineup on ABC, CBS, and NBC - networks treading water while the changing TV world comes into a little more focus. We've looked at Fox, seeking to broaden its target audience after what has been discreetly called a limited success last year with some of its youth-oriented series.

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One has to conclude that nothing was really different about these new shows, despite at least one high-tech format, some strange casting, and a controversial new program or two.

But you don't have to scorn these networks to run to PBS. For anything like a true alternative, it's still the only game in town. Let's overlook for a minute all the criticism leveled against public broadcasting and recall instead that of households with TV in the United Sates, some 38 percent do not have cable - often because they cannot afford it - and hence do not have that as an alternative.

What they do have is PBS. The following is a description of its season's new series, with the premiere date given in parentheses after the title (be sure to check local listings for subsequent air dates). You may not like some of these shows for one reason or another - maybe cultural or science documentaries or arts coverage isn't your bag. And this probably isn't the best new season PBS has ever had. But the offerings are a distinct departure from the commercial medium and, in the main, they are of apparent high quality.

I wish, though, that PBS wouldn't bunch so many of these miniseries together on consecutive nights, often lumping two shows into one evening program. PBS tells me that's better ``packaging'' and tends to reach more viewers.

* ``The Secret of Life'' (Sept. 26): This series deals with DNA molecule, its role as the ``genetic blueprint of life,'' and mankind's efforts to manipulate it for medical therapy and other human goals. The programs attempt to humanize this process by focusing on specific patients and their function in the search for medical answers. The opening show, ``The Immortal Thread,'' takes a close look at the complex chemistry of the DNA molecule.

* ``Bill Moyers' Journal'' (Oct. 1). This familiar program qualifies as a new series because it is returning after an eight-month absence. The distinguished journalist ranges far and wide - geographically and topically - beginning with an interview with United States Attorney General Janet Reno. Later he examines The Economist on the occasion of the British magazine's 150th birthday, and still later plunges into the arts and other fields.

* ``Julia Child - Cooking With Master Chefs'' (Oct. 2): Didn't she retire recently - and didn't we just watch her celebrate her 80th birthday on public TV? Yes, but she's back - this time as host of a series featuring master American chefs in their home kitchens. Shot on location all over the country, the shows are aimed at serious cooks but not necessarily professional ones, with plenty of tips and techniques provided.

* ``Death: The Trip of a Lifetime'' (Oct. 4). An examination of how various cultures approach death, which remains a grim subject even in the face of an effortfully jaunty title. The people covered range from an artist in Ghana who designs coffins to look like Mercedes-Benz cars to - inevitably - a visit with those who practice cryogenics.

* ``I'll Fly Away'' (Oct. 11). Was it too good for prime time on commercial TV? Is that why this thoughtful drama series - focusing on civil rights in the American South - was not renewed? In any case, a brand new 90-minute film - with series stars Sam Waterston and Regina Taylor - will precede the re-airing of the episodes from the program's two-year NBC run.

* ``The Stuff of Dreams'' (Oct. 19). Advances in materials science and technology may not be as boring as they sound. This series considers their role in helping to save lives and other essential functions.

* ``The Great Depression'' (Oct. 25). A people-oriented look at this watershed event, which had a deeper and more lasting impact than all but a few domestic events in American history.

* ``The Nature of Sex'' (Nov. 22). Mating and how it is accomplished in the animal kingdom - from sea horses to elephants. The series goes beyond the obvious to cover courtship and other aspects of the subject, but a recurring theme is procreation and its myriad expressions in nature.

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