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Can TV turn youngsters to books? One series is trying

The man who was Kunta Kinte in ''Roots'' has found his philosophical roots in words. ''I am a lover of words,'' he declares passionately. ''The written word is something we can't afford to let go of. We've already butchered the English language to the point of unrecognizability in spoken slang. So losing books in which proper English is used would be a disaster.''

So says actor LeVar Burton, host of a new series that motivates youngsters to read over the summer months: Reading Rainbow (PBS, on consecutive weekdays, beginning Monday; airs in most areas in morning and evening, check local public stations). He has traveled here to promote the show.

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Books and words come to him naturally; his mother was an English teacher. ''I grew up watching a lot of TV, but I also read a lot of books because my mother always read to us and got us into the reading habit. One thing was very important - my mother read books herself, and I often saw her with a book in her hand. Today a lot of American parents don't read themselves, and there's a need to set the example for youngsters.''

Were there any meaningful books in Mr. Burton's adolescence?

''I remember reading Kipling's 'Captains Courageous' in the fourth grade and feeling I had been taken to another place, another time.

''Now, I am a science fiction fan; Azimov, Bradbury, and Donaldson are among my favorites.''

I have previewed the premiere episode of ''Reading Rainbow'' and find it a slick, fast-moving, utterly engrossing half-hour of literary-based TV. Different books are plugged on each show, but there is also a variety of short, amusing segments that move across the screen vividly a la ''Sesame Street'' and other advertising-format-inspired entertainment shows.

I have no doubt that youngsters - and many parents as well - will find ''Rainbow'' fine, literate fun. But I wondered aloud to Burton if it made sense to use television, which is stealing kids away from books, to sell them on the idea of reading books.

''It's cross-pollinating the media, true. But I don't think we are working at cross-purposes. After all, we must face the fact that kids watch a lot of TV. So why not go to where they are to tell them there is something else they are missing?''

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Burton, who won an Emmy nomination for his part in ''Roots,'' has been appearing mostly in such PBS childrens' programs as ''Rebop'' and ''3 . . . 2 . . . 1 Contact.''

''I love kids,'' he explains, ''and I like having the chance to really make a difference in their lives.''

Does he believe he is being used because he is black and there is a calculated plan to present him as a good role model for black children?

He shakes his head. ''They use me because kids sense that I like them. All kids, not just black ones, although blacks probably respond a little differently than white kids. I respect youngsters and they respond to that. They are very discerning TV viewers. They know a lot about what they like and don't like on TV. They are a lot more aware than some adults give them credit for.''

Although Burton is acknowledged to be a fine, well-trained actor, the fact is he has not appeared in many TV shows since ''Roots.'' Is it still difficult for a black actor to find a place in American TV?

''There's plenty of room for minorities in American television - and I mean women, Hispanics, and Orientals as well as blacks. But the problem is convincing the producers and executives that the commercial success of their projects will not be harmed by casting minority actors in them.

''I realized a few years ago that it was going to be difficult to make a living acting - certainly if I waited for black lead parts. So I became a producer myself. I set up my own production company to create work for myself. I have a play in Los Angeles now and a deal with a cable TV channel. And I am also planning to do a six-hour mini-series based on the life of Hannibal. He was black, you know.''

Mr. Burton explains that he has already arranged for Italian and British funding for the mini-series. None of the networks has yet indicated interest, but he says there is always PBS, although he would not make money there. ''Nobody makes anything at PBS,'' he explains, ''except good programs.''

What would make ''Reading Rainbow'' a success in Burton's eyes?

''It was created to counteract the summer-loss phenomenon in reading ability that educators are always talking about, especially among kids just beginning to read in the third grade. If, when they go back to school in the fall to the fourth grade, they will not have lost any of their reading skill, that would be a plus. If, in addition, maybe some will even have improved their reading skill a bit, that would amount to a tremendous success. And if older children and parents can also share in the enthusiasm for reading which we hope to generate, that would be an even greater triumph.''

And what is in all of this for Burton, actor?

He smiles, just a trifle embarrassed. ''For me, Levar Burton, the actor? Well , a Burton fan at six will be a Burton fan at 60,'' he laughs, making it clear that he is joshing me. ''Get them young and treat them right and turn millions of American children into fans. It won't do them any harm, and it certainly would be good for my career. Why not?''

Why not, indeed! 'Re-creating' stark events

Network news with a disco beat has, in the past, been mainly the province of ABC News. Now, unfortunately, CBS seems to be going that same go-go route.

Not content with its runaway successes with ''CBS Evening News With Dan Rather,'' and ''60 Minutes,'' CBS News seems to be trying to jazz up the ratings of its sometimes faltering (in both audiences and credibility) ''CBS Reports.''

Before an audience of the nation's TV critics here, CBS recently unveiled CBS Reports: The Plane That Fell From the Sky (Thursday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings). It is a re-creation of a near-disaster that occurred on April 4, 1979 , when a Boeing-727 with 89 people aboard plummeted 33,000 feet in 44 seconds before the pilot regained control.

Not content merely to dramatize the event, CBS News has brought together for the first time since 1979 the passengers and crew of that flight. The three-man cockpit crew and 39 of the passengers re-enact, CBS says, ''in a Los Angeles studio, at an urban airport, and in a cockpit simulator in California in their own words and actions'' what occurred that day.

It is a horrendous tale, a disturbing film, full of probably authentic but fundamentally cheap thrills. Narrated by Bill Kurtis, this ''docu-re-creation'' was produced by Holly and Paul Fine, who received much attention when ABC News aired their ''The Saving of the President'' last year.

The line between news and entertainment is a thin one at best, often blurred by such news-magazine shows as ''60 Minutes,'' such ''reality'' entertainment shows as ''Real People,'' and innumerable entertainment ''docu-dra-mas'' that tend to shade the truth in the name of dramatic license. Network news should not encourage any news form that, by its very nature, may confuse reality and the re-creation of reality in the minds of TV audiences.

CBS News, under the enterprising leadership of Van Gordon Sauter, is to be congratulated for its search for unusual news forms. But re-creation of a near-catastrophe in the air with the actual near-victims performing as themselves represents a near-news form that needs to be aborted in the takeoff.

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