VCR owners bored with the movie selection at the local video store can soon stop by the local library and check out "The Jewel in the Crown," "I, Claudius" and other vintage PBS programs.

Sponsored by the "genius grant" MacArthur Foundation, a nationwide Video Classics project is offering 20 of Public Broadcasting Service's most popular series to public libraries at a 90-percent discount price.With a playlist including "Great Performances," "Nova" and "Vietnam: A Television History," the MacArthur project "will make the best programs in the arts, science and the humanities available to everyone with a library card," says foundation president John Corbally.

If the project catches on - and early orders have been strong - high-quality PBS productions now in the deep freeze will play again to new and repeat audiences.

And VCR owners, who comprise 53 percent of all U.S. households, will have a new incentive to visit area libraries, where they might also browse through the bookshelves.

"Libraries have told us that these cassettes will really boost circulation," says Chloe Aaron, a former PBS executive who directs the project.

The idea for Video Classics took root during Aaron's tenure at PBS in the late 1970s. "I was constantly getting calls from friends and viewers who said, `I missed an episode of "I, Claudius" or "Nova" - how can I see it again?'

"Sometimes I told them, `Well, the series will be scheduled again in 10 months so check your local listings,"' Aaron recalled. "But in most cases, I didn't have an answer, which was frustrating.

"And because these shows were so expensive to produce, it seemed like a real waste of money - they went on the air four times and then they disappeared."

Soon after Aaron joined San Francisco's PBS affiliate, KQED-TV, she realized that the VCR revolution had created an opportunity for resurrecting PBS series.

"When the number of households with VCRs hit 40 percent," she says, "I started calling around to libraries to see if they were lending out videocassettes."

They were, and in growing numbers. But like video stores, libraries typically stocked affordable feature films instead of higher-priced, higher-quality shows.

"The distributors of educational programs were not as smart as they could have been," says Aaron. "They didn't realize that if they kept the cost of the videocassettes down, they would make up in volume what they lost in per-unit profits."

The initial success of Video Classics seems to bear her out.

By April 22, after the first week that the 20-series, 200-hour package became available to libraries for $6,000 (he original cost was $60,000), nearly 300 orders were placed, many in major markets - New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C., among others.

The MacArthur Foundation, best known for awarding no-strings-attached fellowships to top creative people, has contributed nearly $1 million to jumpstart Video Classics with direct marketing to libraries, a 30-second spot for local PBS stations and a 28-page program guide for video borrowers.

The foundation also used its clout to compile the 20-series package through a network of distributors.

Since the project was launched last year, the Carnegie Foundation announced a companion gift program to equip libraries with VCRs and TV monitors "for the 47 percent of the population that doesn't have home equipment, particularly in low-income areas," says Aaron.

Even at $6,000, not all libraries can afford the series.

For smaller libraries, Video Classics has a 10-series package for $3,000. Inspired by the largesse of a New Jersey man, the MacArthur Foundation also is trying to help libraries line up Video Classics donors.


Other series offered in the Video Classics package include: "A Walk Through the 20th Century with Bill Moyers"; "American Short Story"; "The Constitution: That Delicate Balance"; "The Ascent of Man"; "The Brain"; "Civilisation"; "Alistair Cooke's America"; "Life on Earth"; "The Heart of the Dragon"; "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews"; "The Living Planet"; "The Story of English"; "Planet Earth"; and "The Shakespeare Plays."