TO SOME EARS, THE PHRASE "Educational television" is an oxymoron, conjuring images of dull, didactic shows certain to be zapped come Saturday morning by the youthful audience for whom they're intended. And so, when the major broadcast networks announced during the summer that they intended to heed President Clinton's call for three hours a week of programming specifically designed to meet the educational needs of viewers under 16, you could almost hear the groans from the younger quarter. But where is it written that learning, even on television, has to be a grim and painful experience?

In fact, as two new fall shows demonstrate, TV can be a wonderful teacher, especially when it uses entertainment to help sharpen memory and enliven the abstract. Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (premieres Oct. 7, 5 p.m. ET)—PBS's inventive followup from the team that produced the Emmy Award-winning geography series Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?—uses game-show techniques, computer animation, Day-Glo colors and a rocket-ship set to teach history. In each fast-paced, half-hour episode, archvillain Carmen and her evil cronies steal an item from history, such as the Declaration of Independence. A panel of kid contestants called Time Pilots then tracks down the crooks by answering questions about both the dates and the sequence of actual events.

Funniest and most creative of the commercial networks' new kids' shows is Bailey Kipper's P.O.V. (CBS, Saturday mornings, times vary). Film-buff Bailey (Michael Galeota) is an 11-year-old Hitchcock wannabe who logs onto his computer using Spielberg and Rosebud as passwords and has wired his house with "spyball" minicameras to film his secret video diary. But the gadgetry has an educational purpose. In "Dad Unplugged," Bailey's mediawise point of view gives kids a hilarious lesson on the cost of wasting electricity, while other episodes offer clever takes on carelessness and family conflicts. Even the theme song is catchy.

But kids may not have such fun with Adventures from the Book of Virtues (upcoming on PBS in November), a preachy and dull animated series adapted from the bestselling anthology The Book of Virtues, compiled by former Education Secretary William J. Bennett. A talking buffalo named Plato and his animal buddies Aristotle and Socrates dish out moral fables about the pitfalls of impatience and the joys of faith and work to some dorky kids named Annie and Zach. "As you grow up, your responsibilities will also grow," Plato intones. Isn't there a skateboard commercial that makes the same point?

Solemn clichés don't make a stale program educational any more than calling a buffalo Plato makes him wise. Sermonizers beware: You can drag a kid to virtue but you can't make him think.

(ABC, Mondays, 8 p.m. ET)

A-

Okay, so ex-Marine-turned-English teacher Louanne Johnson (Annie Potts) thinks she's Mother Teresa, determined to save the troubled kids in her racially diverse California high school even if it means breaking all the rules.

But Potts has such gutsy intensity, and her students, especially Vicellous Reon Shannon as a melancholy boy in the hood, are so movingly authentic that you'll be cheering for her to succeed. Scripted by Oscar-winner Ronald Bass (Rain Man) and featuring rapper Coolio (who also performs the show's theme song) in an impressive debut as the school's health-services counselor, Dangerous Minds is genuinely inspiring.

(CBS, Mondays, 8:30 p.m. ET; as of Oct. 21, Wednesdays, 8.30 p.m. ET)

C+

Widowed loading-dock manager Pearl (Rhea Perlman) longs to be cultured, so she applies to Swindon University to study humanities with arrogant, elegant professor Stephen Pynchon (Malcolm McDowell). Swindon itself looks pretty cheesy: Pynchon's lecture hall, complete with a skeleton hanging next to the podium, seems to double as his office. And Pearl's poorly sketched family is equally unconvincing. Perlman and McDowell make an appealingly odd couple, but before their worlds can comically collide, they need to have worlds.

(ABC, Fridays, 8.30 p.m. ET)

B+

Sabrina is sweet 16 and having her first levitation. Time for aunts Zelda and Hilda (Beth Broderick, Caroline Rhea) to tell her she's really a witch and welcome her into the coven with a cauldron of her own. ("A black pot? Doesn't anyone shop at the Gap anymore?"). Clever writing and the delightful Melissa Joan Hart, formerly on Nickelodeon's Clarissa Explains It All, make this unlikely plot a high schooler's witch fulfillment. Who wouldn't like to turn her rival into a pineapple?

>Don Imus

NOW YOU SEE HIM

Apparently needing more room to rant, dyspeptic talk jock Don Imus began beaming his Imus in the Morning radio show, which already has nearly 10 million daily listeners, into cyber and television space Sept. 3. The simulcast, via the new MSNBC cable network, means that Imus, in his mid-50s, can be seen as well as heard by a possible 24 million TV households. Which is as it should be, since Imus, despite restored health after suffering a collapsed lung in 1993 and a happy, two-year marriage to his second wife, actress Deirdre Coleman, 31, looks just as grumpy as he sounds. True to his vow not to alter his talk or his scowl for the cameras—"Anyone who knows me knows I don't care about my appearance," he says—Imus was especially surly during the first week of MSNBC broadcasts.

There seem to be some glitches.

The commercial breaks they take on this hideous little cable channel are apparently computer-generated, so I've got [60 Minutes'] Mike Wallace in the studio and [Nightline's] Jeff Greenfield on the phone and we're talking, when all of a sudden we're into a commercial. But they can adjust these things. It'll all work out.

Will you book new guests for TV?

Nah, we'll have the same old people we always have—lying, thieving politicians or liberal weenie pundits. I'll still be talking with people like Pat O'Brien, Ed Rollins and that goofy Deborah Norville. And I have to hold up all the books I'm required to plug from all the publishers who bribe me.

Will guests still phone in?

I tend to discourage people from coming in live. I think people on the phone are more candid, more conversational. Like [U.S. Sen.] Al D'Amato, who says hideous things, then spends the next week trying to explain what he meant.

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Longley.