Why PBS's `Nature' is so popular in an age of city-dwellers

One of the most popular natural-history series in PBS history, ``Nature'' (Sundays, 8-9 p.m.), has managed to reach its high-ranking position in only three seasons. The man most responsible for zooming the series right up there to rank at the top with the ``National Geographic Specials'' is George Page, host and narrator. Mr. Page also serves as host and narrator for ``The Brain,'' now rerunning on PBS on Mondays at 9 p.m., and he will serve as host/narrator for a new science series, ``The Search for the Mind,'' a successor to ``The Brain'' from WNET, New York, scheduled for production next year.

In his position as WNET'S director of arts and sciences programming, Page is also involved in many other projects. At the moment he is serving as executive producer of ``Hepburn on Tracy,'' a documentary retrospective about Spencer Tracy, with Katharine Hepburn as host.

``We did a profile of Hepburn three years ago,'' Page explains, ``and we got the idea of doing Spencer Tracy, too. She was so pleased with her own profile that she agreed to host a documentary about him. But don't expect to learn much about her personal relationship with Tracy. All her reminiscences are of working with him. The personal will remain personal. That's the way Hepburn is. That's why we all love her so.''

A distinguished-looking, graying-at-the-temples Georgian, Page looks like a casting director's choice for a part as a stockbroker, and he speaks with a soft Southern drawl. He attributes the rapid acceptance of ``Nature'' to the growing urbanization of our population.

``People are leaving rural areas, and most of us now live in concrete jungles surrounded by asphalt. We don't see much of nature anymore, and I think there is a longing for it. I also believe that there has developed in the American people a very deep interest in the ecology of the planet. People are finally realizing we live on a tiny planet on which all life forms are interdependent. And they have developed a concern about the quality of life on our planet and want to stop fouling our nest. Those kinds

of things lead them to an interest in the specifics of how the natural world operates, and that is what we show on our series.''

The majority of the 20 ``Nature'' programs in the current series are co-productions, some with the BBC and other top-level British organizations. A few were made by independent filmmakers. On Dec. 1, ``Nature'' will repeat one of its most popular shows of recent seasons about dogs, ``Man's Best Friend,'' and Page reveals that he is planning to give cats equal time soon.

Page concedes he was stunned by the enormously positive reaction to ``The Brain'' when it premi`ered last year. ``There were times when we were making it when I wondered if anybody was really going to watch it. Now, we hope to get the same kind of response for `The Search for the Mind.' ''

Just how will it differ from ``The Brain''?

He smiles. ``First let me tell you in one sentence what `The Brain' was. It was an exploration of the physiology of the brain. Literally, how it works in a physical sense, right down to the level of the synapse. We rigorously excluded fascinating questions that really had more to do with psychology and psychiatry, philosophy, and even religion to some extent. This new series, while it will be a science series, will be more interdisciplinary. It will look at the brain and brain science, alongside of ques tions raised by psychiatry, psychology, and philosophy. But you won't be seeing that on the television screen until 1988.''

Although Mr. Page has a 25-year background in television, he does not pretend to be the world's greatest authority on wildlife. Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy of the World Wildlife Fund is the principal technical adviser for ``Nature.'' But Page does claim ``a passionate interest in natural history and biology, which translates into a lot of boning up.'' He has found personal revelation in the course of hosting the series.

``I've become totally aware of the interdependence of life,'' he says. ``I have come to realize the degree to which we, as human beings, are dependent upon the ability of the planet to feed us and clothe us, to give us the air to breathe.

``I am struck with what is happening now to our rain forests around the world. The equator, as you know, is circled on land with rain forests. Now they are being destroyed, cut down, burned down, to make room for crops and people and cattle at an absolutely horrifying rate. . . . Many scientists say that the major part of the earth's oxygen supply comes from those rain forests, traditionally the caldron of evolution. Most life forms developed in those warm areas along the equator. Nobody knows what wil l happen to us if we wipe out the rain forests. That's why, as I learn more about our planet from working on `Nature,' I am more and more struck with the interdependence of life. That's what `Nature' is all about, isn't it?''

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