'Smithsonian World' ends a good six years


"Smithsonian World," the erratic but occasionally brilliant PBS series, ends its six-year run tonight with an hour that reflects the entire series' strengths and weaknesses.

"The Doors of Perception," on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 8 o'clock, purports to be about the senses and the elusive relationship between the physical and mental perception of the world.

But it is really much more of a magical mystery tour of various ways people have tried to alter their perceptions down through the ages with drugs, religion, art, whatever. It takes its title from a line by the British mystic poet William Blake.

The points raised are fascinating. Why do some people see a world to be conquered and dominated, while others see a precious commodity to be cherished and appreciated? Why do kids spin around to get dizzy? How much of our perceptions are dictated by our culture? And, conversely, how much do our perceptions dictate our culture?

In raising these questions, "Smithsonian World's" executive producer, Sarah Wentworth Bradley, visits everything from the Smithsonian's collection of cocaine memorabilia -- mementos of the legal craze for that drug early in this century -- to the contemplative nuns at Baltimore's Carmelite Monastery to members of the Washington Ballet. The insightful interviews range from Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion at Harvard, to Robert Irwin, a one-time fast-track artist who gave up the gallery world for a more experimental life.

But, though this might be a retrogressive, perception-limiting desire, you crave a bit more linear order to "Doors of Perception," a structure that would lead not just to amazement and admiration, but to more comprehension and understanding.

The fact is that the limitations people place on their perceptions of the world, and the failure of their imaginations to recognize alternative ways of seeing, do significant damage every day in business, politics, foreign policy and such. So keeping "The Doors of Perception" in this spiritual realm unfortunately limits its impact.

"Smithsonian World," which has had its ups and downs over its six years and three executive producers, was nonetheless a fine addition to PBS, an almost always interesting hour produced with imagination and passion. It dies the death of so many PBS shows, strangled financially by the loss of its corporate underwriting. It will be missed.

Some other tidbits from Baltimore's May ratings book:

* As if Channel 11 (WBAL) didn't get bad enough news from its third-place news ratings, it even got bad news from Channel 45 (WBFF), where Arsenio Hall's talk show fell to a 3 rating (from a steady 5) in both ratings books.

Channel 11 has bought that show, which will move from Channel 45 starting next January. Channel 45 has acquired the reruns of "Cheers," given up by Channel 2 (WMAR), which had no place to put them other than the wee hours, and a tight grip on the purse strings from new ownership Scripps-Howard. No word yet on "Cheers" scheduling.

* Channel 54 (WNUV) continues to show its best strength in the early evening as "Mama's Family" and "Amen" both get a 5 rating and 9 share from 7 to 8 p.m. That compares to the 2 rating that the much higher-priced "Alf" and "Perfect Strangers" get for Channel 54 from 5:30 to 6:30.

* The early news competition remains lopsided as "Morning Edition" on Channel 13 (WJZ) got a 10 rating in Nielsen and an 8 in Arbitron. Channel 2's morning news got a 3 in both books, while Channel 11 could muster only a 1.

* Channel 2 was cheered because not only did its 5 o'clock news hour easily beat the news on Channel 11 at that time, but it also rated higher than Channel 13's entertainment duo of "The Cosby Show" and "Night Court" in the Arbitron book and was only one rating point back of them in Nielsen.

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