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Public TV's Lessons In Near-History

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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?

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