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Why Bill Moyers returned to public television

Bill Moyers is back where his TV career started - on PBS. And he has returned with $10 million in grants in his pocket and at least 25 hours of programming on the PBS schedule. After five years at CBS News, he is eager to get started on the kind of programming which, he told the Monitor in a telephone interview, ``will keep pushing the medium in new directions.'' He wants to bring the most exciting minds of the generation before the camera in what he calls ``the conversation of democracy.

``The Constitution is my beat this year,'' he says, referring to several projects that will begin airing this spring to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

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Other projects involve ``God and Politics,'' ``The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell'' and ``Men and Ideas.''

Some news buffs have speculated that, since he is now back in the PBS fold, Moyers will eventually turn up as a commentator on ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.'' A possibility? we asked him.

He responds, perhaps a little sadly: ``No.There's no need for me or time for me there.''

Could any of the programs he now has planned for PBS have been done on commercial television?

``No. Two years ago,'' he explains, ``I went to the management of CBS and said the Constitution anniversary was coming up, and I proposed a series of one-hour shows in the summer of 1987 to help people understand, celebrate, and explore the meaning of the Constitution. There was no taker.''

Moyers, who started at PBS in 1971, has been commuting between PBS and CBS for many years.

``Over the past 15 years I spent time in both places because there was no one place where I could do everything I wanted to do. I guess the reason I have been able to do so many things in TV is because I have led a nimble life. Luckily I seem to have a constituency out there that follows me.''

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Does this mean we have seen the last of Bill Moyers on commercial television?

``That's a moot question. You certainly have for the time being.

``But I try to work away at the task at hand, and who knows what the future will bring? I will probably one day, as an independent producer, do some documentaries for commercial TV. But I certainly don't have time at the moment.''

All of Moyers's projects seem to be aimed at public education. Does he consider himself an educator?

``They're all about vision from afar. I like to create TV that brings to people what they might not be able to see on their own. I'm doing 25 hours of TV this year, and all of the hours in one way or another will employ the creative imagination to chip away at the absurdity of the world.

``Yes, what I do on TV is public education in the broad sense of the word. But you don't have to be pedantic or boring. TV can help introduce viewers to the best minds, the most interesting people, the most exciting ideas in the world.

``Certainly TV should be entertaining and fun. But I also think there is some TV that should be authentic, that brings to your home people like Maya Angelou, Archibald MacLeish, James Dickey, Barbara Tuchman, George Steiner, John Hope Franklin - people whose minds are afire.''

Moyers once served as press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson. His name comes up now and then in discussions of candidates for New York state office. Is politics still a possibility?

``If I were going into politics, I would have had to go many years ago. I think politics can have a moral aim, but so does TV. I can accomplish what I want to accomplish on TV.

``If you're a teacher, you want a classroom, not an office. And what better classroom than TV?

``Professor Raoul Berger of Harvard told me, when we did an hour on impeachment during the Nixon controversy: `Mr. Moyers, you have the best classroom in America; don't ever give it up.' I talked to him again on this new series, and he said: `I see you took my advice.'''

``But take away my classroom, and I might go for politics.''

Is Bill Moyers bitter about his CBS experience?

``To the contrary. I had five fascinating years there. I did some fine documentaries like `The Vanishing Family,' the `Our Times' summer series, many commentaries on the evening news, and two dozen portraits on `Sunday Morning.' I feel not an ounce of bitterness. I feel sad that I couldn't do more. It was such a frustration. If I had stayed there, who knows if I would ever have gotten on the air with a series again. But I had a good run.''

With top-level changes at CBS, might not there have been a chance for Moyers to do more of the projects he wanted to do?

``Yes, but it was already too late. I had already made commitments in honor and conscience. I had begun to assemble a staff. I could not walk away from people who had put themselves out on a limb for me.''

Will Moyers miss the huge audience he got at CBS?

``The audiences at PBS are not to be sneezed at either. But I will miss the commentaries on the evening news. All through this Iranian revelation, I've wished for a chance to try to make sense of it on air.

``But it's all a tradeoff. I'm doing 25 interesting hours this year on PBS. You can't have everything at once.''

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