Reuven Frank, we have some good news and some bad news. The good news is you're going to produce another prime-time documentary. The bad news is that it's going to be on the subject of American Productivity .

Make it sexy, now.

That isn't exactly the way it happened. Frank, the former NBC News president and now the best documentary producer on the staff, says he sort of stumbled into the subject of productivity after Bill Small, Nbc News president, asked him what he'd like to tackle next. "I sent Small 13 suggested topics," says Frank, "and I told my secretary, 'He's going to pick that one because it's the dullest,' and he did."

But the result was one of last year's most influential news specials, "If Japan Can, Why Can't We?" Although it didn't attract an enormous audience when shown on the air, it precipitated more requests to NBC for transcripts and filmed copies -- from businesses large and small -- than any other news special in recent memory; more than $2 million worth of tape and film copies were sold. The program took an enlightening look at lagging American productivity, considered by many the most serious economic problem the country faces, and the way Japan has been able to sprint ahead.

Lloyd Dobyns, one of the most underrated, savvy and succinct writers and reporters in TV news, told viewers at the conclusion, "Unless we solve the problem of productivity, our children will be the first generation in the history of the United States to live worse than their parents." The program offered such suspicion-confirming statistics as the fact that, a labor expert said, "management causes 85 percent of all problems" in the work force.

Now, a year later, Frank has produced, with Dobyns again as anchor, "America Works When America Works," a 90-minute NBC White Paper -- tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4 -- about the crisis that has resulted because even as computers are creating many new jobs and making many "lousy jobs" obsolete, the system has failed to train workers who can fill the new ones.

Dobyns reports that in a country that has 8 million receiving unemployment benefits, there are 1 million skilled jobs for which there are no qualified people, and 1 million people with no functional, employable skills. It's a tribute to Frank and Dobyns that they can plunge into the seemingly dry, often inscrutable area of economics and make it thoroughly absorbing and intelligible.

They use the same technique they used on "Japan": Eschew Issues and show how the problem affects actual human beings.

And so we meet laid-off steel workers in Youngstown, Ohio, who lost more than income when they lost their jobs. "The American Dream is to work. There is no work," one says. "It's degrading." Studies show that stress-related diseases and mortality rise when unemployment goes up. "How long can I live without any sense of accomplishment?" one man asks. He isn't whining. It's a good question.

A dead furnace is visited, now an industrial graveyard many of whose workers have become like living ghosts. Graffiti crudely scratched on a wall says, "Goodbye, Youngstown Sheet and Tube. Hello Welfare." Work, whatever one may think, is not something most people want to avoid. A survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times in conjunction with this report found that 70 percent of those asked if they'd continue working even if they didn't have to said yes, they would.

And the same percentage, when asked if they considered the company they worked for to be "we" or "they," replied, "We." The program calls on such articulate experts as Dr. Herbert E. Striner, dean of the business school at The American University here. But the workers are the most eloquent spokesmen for themselves.

Vying for screen time with the people, of course, are the machines -- not just the computer, but the robot, "a deaf, dumb, blind machine," as one executive calls it, but one that can do work "too demanding, too precise for humans to do" at such places as the quality control unit of an auto manufacturing plant. The virtues of robots, the executive says, are that They don't complain, they work 24 hours a day, and they don't require coffee breaks. And they don't get tired." Fortunately, though, they do require Humans to keep them in working order.

In the near future, people will service the robots and the robots will make the cars.

Frank -- whose "Weekend" show from 1974 to 1979 blazed trails in electronic journalism that most broadcasters still haven't discovered -- was able to personalize the facts and conditions and make this a story in which every viewer has a stake. What's impressive about many of the people interviewed is their resilience and apparent lack of self-pity.

Frank, in Washington recently for last-minute filming at the Smithsonian, was asked if it depressed him that millions more people will watch whatever moronic escapism is available on other channels than will watch this report that really has something to say to every one of them. Recently, a rerun of an idiotic movie about a doomsday plot ("Telefor") drew more viewers on Thursday night than part four of the Cbs News "Defense" series, which had to do with the real doomsday.

Frank is not given to pointless funks, however.

"A lot of people will watch," he said. "That's enough. "When I worked in a newspaper, we worked our way up to a quarter million circulation and thought it was a big deal. I don't think you can worry about that. That kind of worrying belongs in management.

"As for my ego satisfaction, is it worth my effort when they're watching 'Laverne and Shirley' reruns instead of me? Shouldn't I be insulted?" he askes himself. "No. How many people in any given evening in Manhattan will attend the Metropolitan Opera and how many will go to see a very bad movie that's playing at 400 neighborhood theaters? It's not relevant. If you're a singer at the Met, it doesn't bother you that people are seeing 'Friday the 13th.'

"Not that what we're doing is opera. But I don't think anybody who watches it will be confused by it. It'll be easy to understand, because if I can understand it, anybody can. The fact that you can reach even 15 percent of the adults in the United States, that's not so bad. And more people will know something than knew it before."

What could make America work again, Dobyns says in the report, is a national manpower policy -- a federally sponsored retraining program like West Germany's, examined in the show -- if the country is going to keep pace with the computers and turn the idle and economically disenfranchised into employables qualified to fill the New Jobs.

In his conclusion, Dobyns says, "There has been a period similar to this, and that was in England 200 years ago. It totally changed the way we live, so historians referred to it as the Industrial Revolution. Compared to what is happening now, that revolution was a Sunday afternoon stroll."

"America Works" is the best and most watchable kind of urgent and significant television.