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‘World of Ideas’ a Plain-Wrap Surprise Success Story : Television: The guests are asked to comment on American society and culture--not about themselves.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the major networks, the format of “A World of Ideas With Bill Moyers” reads like a recipe for a ratings disaster. Lacking both budget and flash, the weekly PBS series is simply a succession of talking-head conversations between journalist Moyers and various artists and scholars.

Graphics? A caption now and then. Music? Only during the opening and closing credits. No women in bikinis, no funny home videos, no live studio audience.

While “A World of Ideas” could probably never even get pitched--let alone produced--at the commercial networks, it’s well into its second year on PBS. Despite its plain-wrap presentation, it is neither dry nor overly intellectual, mainly because Moyers, co-executive producer of the series with his wife, Judith Davidson Moyers, chooses his guests carefully.

“Essentially, I serve as an editor,” Moyers explained from his office in New York. “My office is full of books, reviews and letters people write. I find those people who I think are interesting.”

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In the past six months, his guests have ranged from scientist Jonas Salk to author Maxine Hong Kingston; from Seymour Melman, chair of the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament, to writer Toni Morrison; from Evelyn Fox Keller, a theoretical physicist at UC Berkeley, to Mike Rose, associate director of writing programs at UCLA.

Many of the guests are people whom Moyers admires personally and invites to speak, but some arrive on the show by less direct means. A conversation with theater director Peter Sellars, for example, who has been both lauded and laughed at for staging a Mozart opera in Manhattan’s Trump Tower and helping create an opera about Richard Nixon’s trip to China, came about because, Moyers said, “my business manager is an opera freak, and he kept talking about Peter Sellars. I thought he was talking about the actor.”

Moyers had a researcher look into Sellars’ background and decided he needed to be on the series. The resulting two-part show was a lively exchange between Moyers and Sellars, who is director of the upcoming Los Angeles Festival and who describes the city as a modern-day Babel: “L.A. has no political identity. It isn’t a city yet--it’s neighboring city-states with hostile border regions.”

Unlike most TV talk shows, the guests on “A World of Ideas” comment on American society and culture instead of focusing on their own specific accomplishments. In a show scheduled to air in June, for example, Indian author Bharati Mukherjee spends much of the half hour discussing her experiences as an immigrant to the United States, rather than plugging her current novel, “Jasmine.”

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“It’s not a ‘melting pot’ situation anymore,” Mukherjee observes of the immigrants’ experience here. A better description, she says, is “fusion chamber”: “We are creating American culture daily,” she tells Moyers.

Another guest, Princeton University religion professor Cornel West, discussed the condition of the black underclass in a society he characterized as revolving “more and more around market activity, market culture. . . . Profits are more important than human life.”

The show’s reflective tone is hardly a surprise coming from Moyers, who was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s press secretary, publisher of Newsday and a documentary producer and analyst at CBS News before beginning his current stint at PBS in 1987.

“I believe in the civilizing impact of liberal ideas,” he said. “Democracy has to be tempered with a humane outlook. Otherwise, we are all simply predators preying on each other.”

Of mainstream television programming, Moyers said, “The economic beast is devouring our society. It’s a comment on the nature of our times and the role of television that it has become mainly a commercial vehicle. And (television) is not enlarging the conversation of democracy when Marla Maples can get time for her views but Nobel Laureates are locked out.”

The economic beast has, in fact, taken a bite or two out of “A World of Ideas.” Begun as a nightly broadcast during the 1988 elections, the series was cut to once-a-week last January. “I’d like to have the budget to do it every night,” said Moyers, who spends approximately $50,000 per show (guests on “A World of Ideas” volunteer their time).

Despite the constraints of budget and format, however, Moyers believes “A World of Ideas” has the potential to appeal to a wide, diverse audience.

“People who find the show love it,” he said. “These conversations are fun, not just heavy, weighty, sober lectures. They’re witty, eloquent people talking about affairs that concern us all.”

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“A World of Ideas With Bill Moyers” airs Fridays at 7:35 p.m. on KCET Channel 28; Mondays at 9 p.m. on KOCE Channel 50; Sundays at 5:30 p.m. on KPBS Channel 15, and Fridays at 6:30 p.m. on KVCR Channel 24. Although each station is at a different point in the series, upcoming guests for June and July include Mukherjee, historian/author William Shirer (“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”), philosopher/theologian Jacob Needleman and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann.


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