TV that requires - and rewards - a good listener. `Moyers' World of Ideas' proves stimulating fare

Bill Moyers' World of Ideas PBS, weekdays, Sept. 12-Nov. 18, 11-11:30 p.m., check local listings. Executive editor/interviewer: Bill Moyers. Executive producer: Jack Sameth. The beginning of the commercial television season has been delayed by the writers' strike, but no matter. What may prove to be the most important and engaging show of the year, perhaps even the decade, starts Monday: ``Bill Moyers' World of Ideas.''

Mr. Moyers proves once more to be uncompromising in his vision of the unlimited potential of television. I have just spent 2 hours previewing the first week of his ``World of Ideas,'' a half-hour series of 50 interviews with ``people of ideas and vision, to broaden and enhance the conversation of democracy.''

I was thoroughly entertained, often enlightened, always stimulated to think more deeply. I came away with spirits soaring, impressed by the intellect and wisdom of so many men and women. ``World of Ideas'' is not, however, an elitist series with limited appeal. It is pure populism, in that it disdains ``highfalutin''' language and discusses serious ideas in terms that everybody can appreciate. Even television critics.

Recently Moyers brought us something amazingly innovative: ``old-fashioned'' talking-heads TV, in which somebody with something to say is given ample time to say it. Following Moyers's six serious hour-long broadcasts with mythologist Joseph Campbell, the companion book soared to No. 1 position on the New York Times's nonfiction paperback bestseller list.

Then there was the acclaimed analysis of the Oliver North phenomenon in ``The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis'' (to be repeated on PBS on Wednesday, check local listings). That, too, is available in paperback.

Now, aided by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Moyers wants to delve into election-year politics in a unique way. ``I want to explore the ethics and beliefs that are shaping the American future and thus influencing ... the decisions we make about the candidates, their platforms, their speeches, and their promises.''

It is such a startlingly simple idea that somehow it emerges as bold, pure genius. The premi`ere show, an interview with controversial filmmaker David Puttnam, is filled with revolutionary ideas about the enormous impact of film.

``If movies played their role to the hilt,'' he says, ``then they may well embarrass other media like television and journalism into also addressing their inadequacies and getting their act together.''

On Tuesday, environmental scientist Jessica Tuchman Mathews predicts cataclysmic greenhouse climate changes in the next 50 to 75 years. She challenges America's auto industry to produce high-efficiency cars.

On Wednesday, ethicist Michael Josephson declares: ``If we translate the Golden Rule, `Do unto other as you would have them do unto you' into `Do unto others as you think they will do unto you,' or `Do unto others as they have done unto you,' which are variations and excuses, we have an awful society that I don't want to raise my child in. And I've got to do my part to change it.''

On Thursday, historian Henry Steele Commager almost despairs: ``We have lost ... that inventiveness, that resourcefulness which we had beyond any other people in recorded history at the beginning of our history.... Every major political institution we have was invented before the year 1800. [The country] is going through a bad period. Maybe it's going through its adolescence ... before its maturity.''

Others interviewed include Barbara Tuchman, Carlos Fuentes, Isaac Asimov, E.L. Doctorow, Tom Wolfe, James McGregor Burns, Joseph Heller.

Moyers, as always, is an astute questioner and a compassionate listener. He makes every interview into an exciting conversation overflowing with either new perspective on old concepts, a review of familiar attitudes, or a riveting spotlight on new ideas.

``Bill Moyers' World of Ideas'' is a cornucopia of contemporary thinking, overflowing with opinions, concepts, theories, doctrines, judgments, beliefs, prejudices. You cannot possibly agree with all you hear, but chances are you will be a better informed, more compassionate, more open-minded person for having viewed this series.

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