Public TV's Lessons In Near-History

IT'S something about their taxi-driver-style caps that does it for me. It gives an evocative period-piece look to the anonymous human figures, as you dimly perceive them in the grainy texture of the old film clips. And that's only one of the effective things about ``The Great Depression,'' a seven-part documentary series airing over four nights starting Monday.

Standing anonymously in line or milling anxiously at some industrial site, the figures bring to life a period of economic bleakness - running from 1929 through much of the 1930s - that is often no more than a sketch in the minds of many younger viewers today, even though some historians call it the greatest internal crisis to confront Americans this century.

The four weekly broadcasts are airing, of course, on PBS (starting Monday, 9-11 p.m., check local listings). Such reflective programs are ideal for public TV, which remains the one free, widely accessible source of thoughtful documentaries produced not because they are timely, but because they link us with the recent past. In his autobiography, ``In Search of History,'' Theodore White says his professors of Chinese culture felt that history stopped 150 years in the past. Anything later, they said, was journalism. The programs I'm talking about cover the times in between, a special category that is removed enough for objectivity but close enough for relevance, distant but not detached from your experience.

I'm a little prejudiced, because I've always reacted with a haunted fascination to images like those in ``The Great Depression.'' But if history is a means of extending your experience beyond your own life - the way a telescope extends your sight beyond what you can see unaided - then one of public TV's greatest services is to put recent history in front of a broad public, one that doesn't have to pay cable fees to get it. The Arts & Entertainment channel has plans to launch the History Channel in late 1994. Its intention is ``making America's passion for history come alive on a full-time basis.'' A commendable aim, but how about the roughly 38 percent of American homes that don't have cable but do have TV sets?

On the commercial broadcast networks, that kind of programming is a largely missing. I'm not even sure such shows will have much chance on the fiber-optic ``superhighways'' that corporations are at this moment frantically maneuvering to control. The capital to finance these future information empires and the technology to build them is one thing. Making people want to see this kind of documentary on them is another. That desire doesn't come naturally. It takes more than making the shows available - even if they come to you interactively and on HDTV. To overcome viewers' natural resistance requires exposing people regularly to compelling documentaries.

Sometimes producers have to kind of ambush viewers, as happened with ``The Civil War'' on PBS. I know more than one non-PBS viewer who turned past the public station and then turned back. In the split second of passing, something had caught their attention - maybe a 19th-century face or a phrase from a battlefield letter written home. It was a surprise attack of quality, and for weeks afterward I overheard people who usually talked about commercial-network sitcoms reporting excitedly on what they'd seen in ``The Civil War.''

The same process can happen with a series like ``The Great Depression,'' although not at the same level of art and insight. But it does have that lure of distant reality. So does ``Eyes on the Prize'' - recently re-aired on PBS - a recap of the decades-long struggle for civil rights by African-Americans. Currently PBS is re-airing ``The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power'' - a prime example of the recent-history genre.

In researching ``The Great Depression,'' the filmmakers found courage, resiliency, and independence. But the show also tends to make you look at economic booms with this caveat: Be careful; it can all come crashing down. Never mind the self-serving optimism of politicians, promoters, and stockbrokers. There are such things as business cycles.

Others may not agree, but you can't decide questions like that without either living through the period or else absorbing its lessons - whatever they are - in other ways. Seeing shows like ``The Great Depression'' is one of those ways, and for millions of people, it is possible only on public television.

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