VIEWPOINT;DISTURBER OF THE PEACE;RISKY TV

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He's been called everything from maverick entrepreneur to master of hype, but as Dale Lang walks away from his magazine group, Lang Communications, there's no question he has left his mark on the publishing business.

Mr. Lang fiercely struggled to keep his company afloat since the late-'80s recession that forced such other small entrepreneurs as Owen Lipstein and Bob Riordan to bow out. Along the way, he became what he most feared becoming-a marginal player in an industry dominated by titans like Time Inc., Hearst and Conde Nast. When he sold to MacDonald Publishing Group last month, Lang Communications published Working Woman, Working Mother and ad-free Ms.

Mr. Lang, 64, began his rise in 1967 with the creation of Media Networks, a pioneer in selling local ads in national magazines. But he captured the industry spotlight big time two decades later when he announced that McCall's would openly negotiate its advertising rates, a controversial move that blew the lid off what until then was a hush-hush, though widespread, industry practice.

In the nearly 10 years since that step, rate negotiation has become an accepted part of doing business in consumer publishing, and the hotly contested women's service field that includes McCall's regularly sells pages for as much as 50% off published rates. The "rate card" hasn't disappeared, but it is now recognized as little more than a starting point in the space buying negotiation.

Whether or not it's a legacy of which to be proud is open to debate. But it's part of the legacy of Dale Lang, the latest-and one of the last-independent publishers to leave the stage.

The history channel wants to tell the story of corporate America, and its new series, "Spirit of Enterprise," can be a good addition to its program lineup. Its unusual arrangement with sponsors, however, raises plenty of caution flags.

Each company to be profiled in the series will also be a co-producer. Packages that have been sold to AT&T, American Express, Anheuser-Busch, Boeing Co. and E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. give those companies veto power over their program if they don't like the editorial focus. Each co-producer will advertise in the series, but not during the program devoted to itself.

At least managers at the History Channel seem aware of the pitfalls they face. They say they reserve the right to scrap an episode if they object to how a company wants itself portrayed. There will be no "whitewashes," said a senior exec at History Channel parent Arts & Entertainment Networks.

Still, it's one thing for marketers to produce entertainment fare for TV, as they sometimes do, and quite another when the show is the story of the company itself. Corporate egos can be very tender in that situation, though series co-producer AT&T, for example, promises its episode "will not be an infomercial disguised as a documentary."

We happen to think the history of our high-profile corporations can be entertaining, educational...and controversial. The young, ambitious History Channel is trying to establish itself as a provider of useful and entertaining material about our past. But if, in the end, this series resembles vanity journalism, with a high-gloss polish on each company's past, neither the network nor its sponsor/co-producers will get their money's worth. And neither will viewers.

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