Porgy and Bess (PBS, 8-11:30 p.m.): Combining forces to launch their new seasons, two notable series - ``American Playhouse'' and ``Great Performances'' - are offering the great folk opera of African-American life, set on Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C., about a disabled beggar and the young woman who becomes his lover.

It's being billed (correctly, as far as I can recall) as the first television production of the Gershwin work, and it's an elaborate one. Shot at London's Shepperton studios by Trevor Nunn and based on Nunn's own 1986 Glynbourne Festival revival, it stars Jamaican-born Willard White, already noted elsewhere for his Porgy, and Cynthia Haymon as Bess.

For those who may have forgotten the chronology of this key American artwork, it was first staged at Broadway's Alvin Theatre in 1935 with Todd Duncan and Anne Brown memorably creating the title roles. Some later productions included one on Broadway in 1942, a historic one by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976, one at Radio City Music Hall in 1983, another by the Metropolitan Opera in 1985, and - in 1992 - a Royal Opera remounting of the Glyndebourne Festival revival.

The opera's film history is a study in rising social consciousness. One plan - mercifully unrealized - called for Al Jolson in blackface, Rita Hayward as Bess, and Fred Astaire as Sportin' Life. The 1959 Otto Preminger version offered a glitzy image of the run-down setting.

Perhaps with such cinematic travesties in mind, the Gershwin heirs resisted overtures to mount the opera for TV - even ones that would have been based on the Met or Houston Opera productions - but finally agreed, partly on the strength of the Glyndebourne version. The TV incarnation retains most of the Glyndebourne cast, accompanied by the London Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. * THURSDAY

House of Representatives (C-Span, beginning at 10 a.m., E.T.): The channel's regular live coverage.

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