By Ken Tucker
Updated July 19, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

When cable television’s Arts & Entertainment network started up 12 years ago, it offered artistic fare that aimed at high culture — or at least at the upper-middle-brow level. That didn’t last long, however: In the interests of ratings survival, A&E lowered its sights and became known chiefly as cable TV’s likeliest place to catch a rerun of Columbo or Miss Marple — they could have renamed it the Private Eye Network. (To be sure, this programming does yield the occasional gem: One afternoon, I came upon an episode of Stacy Keach’s misbegotten mid-’80s show Mike Hammer whose villain was no less than a pant-suited pistol-packin’ Sharon Stone, whom Mike pushes into a vat of motor oil.)

A chief remnant of A&E’s loftier days is Biography. Since 1987, we’ve been able to tune in to the lives of everyone from George Washington to Jerry Lewis. More recently, the network has built this franchise into theme weeks: This month’s ”Fightin’ for Freedom” featured both the Rev. Martin Luther King and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, among others. King’s edition offered a brisk recitation of the civil-rights leader’s achievements and would make a fine starting point for any schoolroom study. The Schwarzkopf program was quirkier, managing to include trivia (his dad narrated the old Gangbusters radio show) and detractors, including the blunt testimony of a soldier who served under media-beloved ”Stormin’ Norman” in Vietnam: ”I considered him as much of an enemy to me as the Vietcong were.”

This sort of thing (along with more vulgar stunts like a serial-killer week that scored big ratings) has helped Biography become A&E’s biggest meal ticket. The show, which reportedly pulls in about 1.5 million viewers a night, has its own website; a spin-off, Biography for Kids, launches in the fall; come January, you’ll be able to buy a Biography magazine and audiocassettes; and by 1997, the network plans to launch a biography channel.

Perhaps by then the series will have matured beyond its workmanlike culling of clips and interviews. In some cases, this is not a problem: Biography‘s July 29 edition on Howard Stern doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the controversial radio sensation but does provide a swift 60 minutes of the man’s funniest, crudest, most astute moments. At other times, however, the show’s meager production values drain the life out of a life. Another comic performer, Richard Pryor, was given a Biography that turned a trip through the lightning-quick stand-up’s fascinating career into a tedious crawl.

What Biography lacks most often is a compelling point of view; it’s as if interpreting the person’s life might repel the viewer. In his everlastingly shrewd 1957 essay ”The Triumph of the Fact,” critic Dwight Macdonald wrote, ”Our mass culture…is dominated by an emphasis on data and a corresponding lack of interest in theory, by a frank admiration of the factual and an uneasy contempt for imagination, sensibility, and speculation.” That’s what keeps Biography from being more than just a solid little series. B