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May 17, 1987|Mark Schwed | From United Press-International

NEW YORK — If you haven't watched ABC's "Our World," you missed something special.

A recent program, for example, relived the summer of '63. We went surfing and heard Lesley Gore sing "It's My Party." We spent happy times with President Kennedy at the Berlin Wall and saw rare film footage of him in action during Alabama Gov. George Wallace's last stand on segregation.

When the hour was over, that stuff which makes 1963 different from 1962 and 1964 was in our bones.

There was nothing special about the fact that "Our World" put on a good show that night. It has done so consistently since ABC premiered it last fall to counter NBC's one-two punch of "The Cosby Show" and "Family Ties" on Thursday nights, 8-9 p.m.

The idea was that NBC's Cosby was invincible, so why should ABC waste $1 million on an entertainment program nobody would watch? Instead, ABC decided to give the time to the news division, which could fill the hour for less money, and see what happened.

By this accident "Our World" was born. Hosts Linda Ellerbee and Ray Gandolf took the ball and ran with it. There were shows on Vietnam, World War II, demonstrations in Chicago, Martin Luther King, hippies, baby boomers and "Gone With the Wind." "Our World" tells us about the present, and even the future, by looking at the past.

If you lived the time in question, the program serves as a reminder of your life at that moment, like catching a whiff of an after-shave cologne your grandfather used to wear.

But if you did not live the time, "Our World" reveals it to you.

"Our World" tells us as much about the way we are as the nightly newscasts. It gives us context and perspective. It is in tune with the times.

Depending on who's doing the judging, "Our World" has either been one of modern television's worst failures or one of its shining successes.

Strictly by the numbers, "Our World" has bombed. "The Cosby Show," the No. 1 show on television, attracts an average of 63 million viewers. In the same time period, "Our World," the lowest-rated show, musters up 9 million.

But its success comes from the fact that it is educational and informative--buzz words that usually mean the kiss of death for prime-time programs.

If "Our World" remains buried treasure for most, the bounty has been discovered by America's teachers, who assign it as homework and discuss it in class.

There is even a study guide. ABC mails out 39,000 guides a month, 34,000 of them to teachers and the rest to die-hard fans. The educational appeal runs from elementary school to university. As for demographics, it is split fairly evenly between men and women and slightly skewed to an older audience. That's because the kids are into Cosby, except those who are doing their homework to "Our World."

Don't get the wrong idea. "Our World" may be a history lesson, but it is not school.

If we are to believe the network bosses who testified in Washington last week, then "Our World" is not in danger of being canceled. They said changing television economy justifies layoffs and cutbacks in network news, but public service still comes first. Good. But it doesn't hurt to remind them, especially as the time for cancellations approaches this month. Listen up, ABC. Save "Our World."

It's about time, it's about you. And it's the best thing in prime time to come along in a long time.

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