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PBS HAS ITS OWN STARS TO SHINE

Times Staff Writer

Where else but at a PBS “press tour"--as the networks’ annual gatherings of TV critics are called--would there be a session listed as “ ‘The Creation of the Universe’ followed by lunch”?

Or a lecture by a man acknowledged to be “the dismal science’s only sex symbol”?

Yes, PBS, can trot out live stars, wacky wildlife and multi-screen video clips with the best and worst of them (NBC, ABC and CBS, in no particular order). And as the guard changes here today at the Arizona Biltmore--CBS begins its press tour, to be followed next week in Los Angeles by NBC and ABC--critics from across the country are left with scribbled pages and computer-recorded notes that reflect mostly more of the same from public television.

The science special “Creation of the Universe,” the video art series “Alive From Off Center” and “War, a Commentary by Gwynne Dyer,” are among the new shows previewed since Sunday.

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“Creation” was written and hosted by Timothy Ferris, a science writer and USC associate professor of journalism whose primary attraction, according to executive producer Larry Botto, is that he “fills the need for knowledgeable, articulate presenters without British accents.”

Ferris, in fact, is hardly the highbrow one might expect at the helm of such a vast subject. The 90-minute special, scheduled to air in November, begins with a walk through Times Square. Successive steps take the viewer back 100 years, 1,000 years, 10,000 years, etc. Soon, tour guide Ferris is pointing out “one of the mastodon’s favorite grazing grounds. We call it Central Park.”

Ferris said that he “is not a great believer in conveying huge amounts of information on TV.” But he does believe that television is excellent for stimulating curiosity, which this special-effects-laden special, with music by Brian Eno and underwriting by Texas Instruments, is intended to do.

Contrasted with Ferris’ mild-mannered, erudite manner was the style of Dyer, who has served in three different navies (British, American and Canadian) and comes across like a barroom poet. Dyer’s philosophy: “There’s nothing in the world that’s worth blowing the whole world up for.” In support of that thesis, “War’s” original seven episodes, produced two years ago by the National Film Board of Canada, show the inner workings of war on a global scale.

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An eighth episode has been tacked onto the original Dyer series. In production at KCTS-TV in Seattle, it will examine possibilities for nuclear deterrence. The series premieres Oct. 1.

It is the general public, more than soldiers or politicians or even human nature, that is responsible for war, Dyer concludes.

He also noted that the series probably will appeal to military buffs “because it’s got a lot of things going ‘bang!’ in it.”

A somewhat different eight-parter is “Alive From Off Center,” presenting what are supposedly the cutting edge in performance videos. The half-hour shows, produced by KCTA-TV and the Walker Art Center, both in Minneapolis, will begin airing July 1. The host is Susan Stamberg, from National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

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The most flamboyant and captivating presentation came not from a new show but from a PBS old faithful, strait-laced Wall Streeter Louis Rukeyser. Dressed in a one-size-too-large green suit, his thinning silver hair combed across his forehead, Rukeyser charmed the TV critics.

His reference to TV programming executives as “some of the slower-witted people in this country” got particularly big laughs--and allowed Rukeyser to slip in the fact that TV critics, too, had failed to predict his show’s mass appeal.

“Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser,” he said, has “many more viewers than the Wall Street Journal has readers.” (An estimated 10 million viewers a week watch the show, soon to begin its 16th year.)

Rukeyser, however, is a realist. Acknowledging that he has been called “the dismal science’s only sex symbol,” he added that it really doesn’t mean much to him personally but it does allow him to command a high lecture fee.

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With similar candor, Rukeyser said he doesn’t believe today’s baby-boom generation consumers (“I won’t use the ‘Y’ word,” said the reporter questioning Rukeyser) are any more greedy than they ever were. “In 1968, when they were in college, they thought that Daddy was a terrible materialist and besides, where’s the check for the new stereo?”

Other new and returning shows:

“Nova"--Now entering its “bar mitzvah year” (13th) according to producer Paula Apsell, “Nova,” from Boston’s WGBH-TV, will return with a look at robotics, Hollywood special effects, gene therapy, tornadoes and animal architects. Apsell said that Nova’s success proves that “you don’t have to do the Bermuda Triangle every week” to draw viewers to a science show. But it helps: The “Nova” episode on that subject still draws more viewers than almost any other. New shows begin Oct. 8.

“Nature"--Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the Ganges . . . “Nature” will dig up another 20 new productions on flora and fauna. Among them are episodes on the Gharial, a fish-eating Indian crocodile that looks like an ice pick.

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Film maker Wolfgang Bayer told the press how he smuggled camera equipment in with dirty laundry to shoot rhinoceroses in Yemen. Presented by WNET-TV, New York, “Nature” will return Oct. 20.

“Owl TV"--New to PBS, these 10 half-hour children’s educational shows, produced by the National Audubon Society and the Young Naturalist Foundation, publisher of the Canadian children’s magazine Owl, premiere in November.

“River Journeys"--This BBC co-production will follow six different writers down six different rivers, weekly beginning Nov. 6.

“Wonderworks"--Designed as prime-time family viewing. The new season’s episodes range from a comedy about an artificially created boy (“Terms of Endearment’s” Huckleberry Fox) to a Nazi drama starring Loretta Swit as a nun.

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“Great Performances"--Also entering its 13th season, this series, funded by Exxon, returns in October with the late James Mason and Alan Bates in Graham Greene’s “Dr. Fischer of Geneva” and continues with presentations of dance, music and drama.

“Masterpiece Theatre"/"Mystery"--These British-produced, Mobil-funded perennials will return with “The Last Place on Earth,” the tale of the race across Antarctica, a six-part series beginning Oct. 20; “Death of an Expert Witness,” an adaptation of P. D. James’ whodunit in six parts begins Oct. 24.


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