Taking TV viewers on 'voyages of discovery'
''Learning should be an exhilarating and entertaining experience,'' says Mert Koplin of the Corporation for Entertainment & Learning (CEL), this year celebrating its 20th year as a leading producer of uniquely informative entertainment programming.
''Television doesn't teach so much as it stimulates interest in things'' he adds. ''It provides the producers with unparalleled opportunities to take people's minds on marvelous voyages of discovery.''
CEL has been acting as a tour guide on a widely diversified group of entertainment-information voyages in the form of TV series. They include the award-winning ''Creativity With Bill Moyers'' (now in reruns on PBS), ''Marlo and the Magic Movie Machine'' (in syndication), and ''Sports Probe'' (on the USA cable channel). For the now-defunct cable Entertainment Channel, CEL produced the highly acclaimed Joan Embery ''Animal Express'' series and the innovative viewer-participation show ''Just for Fun.'' Both of these shows are now being marketed for other outlets.
But probably one of the most eagerly anticipated of the CEL projects is ''A Walk Through the 20th Century With Bill Moyers,'' a 20-episode series, of which only one part was aired on CBS Cable before that service folded. It will be aired on PBS by way of WNET/NY early next year.
''A Walk'' is based in great part on CEL archival footage on file in its Videotape News Library, which contains around 11 million feet of videotape and film about practically every significant person in the news from 1893 on.
With great foresight, CEL collected footage, from all available sources, which might never have been saved otherwise. The 60 one-hour cassettes that constitute the library include 2,000 features and stories. The archive has been used in creating the motion picture and videotape exhibition of the Smithsonian Institution's permanent bicentennial exhibit.
I visited the offices of CEL recently and lunched informally around the corporate board-room table with its three top executives: Mert Koplin, chairman of the board and chief executive officer; Charles Grinker, vice-chairman of the board and creative director; and Sanford H. Fisher, president and chief operating officer. Despite their impressive titles and the high-minded goals of the company, I found them to be three thoroughly down-to-earth creative producers, determined not to compromise their goal of turning out only high-quality programming.
There is so much unity of goals among the three that it would be difficult to distinguish between their statements.
''I think we are proving every day that there is an enormous amount of entertainment in the learning process. And we want to go on proving that,'' Mr. Grinker said. ''But that is not to say that we wouldn't do a situation comedy or a motion picture as long as we could maintain the same approach to quality.
''Norman Lear is my hero. He took what was dismissed as the mere sitcom and did wonderful situation-comedy programs. He proved with shows like 'All in the Family' that you can combine entertainment and learning and still get huge audiences.''
Mr. Fisher breaks in: ''But we have to be careful of using the word 'learning.' Sometimes it takes on that deadly educational-informational connotation, which is not fair. For example, a videodisk we did on tennis is a learning experience, even though it is certainly not academic. Learning can take on so many forms - it doesn't have to be the kind of learning experience most of us remember from our school days.''
Adds Mr. Koplin: '' 'Chariots of Fire' was certainly a learning experience - but a vastly entertaining movie. So was 'M*A*S*H.' One of our pet projects for the future is a series to be called 'A Thousand Americans' - putting on tape for the present and the future this world's Renaissance figures, Nobel prizewinners, great thinkers.
''We now have 75 shows in production for Nickleodeon on Warner-Amex cable,'' Fisher says proudly. ''Besides the 'Animal Express' and 'Just for Fun' shows, we are still working on the 'Walk Through the 20th Century.' And we have already finished two videodisks featuring 10 of the world's top tennis players, a film for the New York Stock Exchange, and 24 shows in the areas of fashion and architecture. We are also in discussion with the Disney Channel to produce some series for them.''
All three partners are convinced that ''Creativity'' and ''Walk'' have opened up new areas for their company in the educational market. They feel they have found the map that will help them make their way through the maze of school systems and libraries. ''But we want to continue to be diverse,'' Fisher says. ''That keeps the juices flowing. It's nice to be able to move from a documentary to an animal show to a sports show to an instructional series.''
Based upon what has already been accomplished by the Corporation for Entertainment & Learning, a company that seems to keep its promises, alert TV viewers can depend upon many electronic ''voyages of discovery'' in the seasons ahead.