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Old soldiers don't die; they go to cable

You wouldn't consider the Discovery Channel or the Arts & Entertainment Network havens for shows about Things That Go Boom. Two of the nation's biggest cable networks, they're places for the performing arts, documentaries, science, nature and all that good stuff, yes?

Yes. But guess what? They're also a military buff's paradise, offering shows that draw a large, mostly male audience, series that one Discovery official says have been "locomotives" for his network's schedule.

The video winds of war come in three categories:

Grand old TV series about World War II, like Crusade in Europe, or NBC's classic Victory at Sea. The latter, with its memorable score by Richard Rodgers, was shown on A&E in 1988 and will return next year.

A Rodgers score also is on Winston Churchill _ The Valiant Years, a 26-part ABC series of the early '60s in which Richard Burton was the voice of Britain's wartime leader. It started its second A&E run this month.

Vietnam, specifically Vietnam _ The Ten Thousand Day War, now on its second Discovery run, and A&E's The Vietnam War With Walter Cronkite, which starts repeats Nov. 14 as part of the network's Our Century Series.

The Cronkite series, featuring CBS' Vietnam reports and footage, was made in 1985 for the CBS-Fox Video programs sold in stores and by mail.

Military things in general, typified by three series now on Discovery: Wings, largely about military aircraft; Firepower, about weaponry new and old; and Carriers, about the history of aircraft carriers.

The last two are spinoffs of Wings, begun last year. Next fall, Choppers, a 13-part history of helicopters, will join the ranks, says Chuck Gingold, Discovery's senior vice president for programs.

Why so much history, particularly military history, on cable?

Cost, says former NBC News president Reuven Frank _ whose own historical work will appear on cable Nov. 2 when A&E shows The Tunnel, his Emmy-winning 1962 NBC documentary about an escape route dug beneath the then-new Berlin Wall.

Despite their supply of military history shows, neither Discovery nor A&E would qualify as The Armageddon Network.

The warfare is only a portion of their daily offerings, which range from Pasquale's Kitchen Express on Discovery to A&E's cablecast next month of a video version of Silas Marner.

But they "do very well for us," says Brooke Johnson, A&E's programs vice president. "For a while, they were inevitably among our highest-rated programs. . . . They're still unquestionably very successful programs for us."

"They've been locomotives for the schedule," says Gingold, whose service is seen in 52.1-million homes. "They've helped a lot. The ratings are excellent."

And there's an odd thing he notes about the audience for Wings, a Discovery-repackaged series of documentaries from various sources.

The viewers aren't just a bunch of old and middle-aged fuds who still can remember when fighter planes and even airliners had propellers.

"We're getting the young male demographics," Gingold says. "It's one of our youngest-skewing shows."