"In Search of Excellence" could be any kind of show at all and my guess was that President Reagan would appear with some nerd of a scholar (busy translating Virgil for the Wallamundi Indians of Brazil) to hammer home the importance of the Humanities.

Instead, as you know, this program on public television surveyed several outstanding corporations who have not only distinguished products (Disneyland, Selectric typewriters, etc.) but superior management as well.

Adjusting to the jolt, I partook of the excitement of a Disney training class for new workers, designed to imbue them with the virtues of the corporation such as courtesy, helpfulness to guests and so on.

Breath came short, mind you, as cameras showed giant plastic hippopotamuses rising from the water at Disney World. We all love the delicious fear induced by jungle beasts, surely, and it flashed through my mind it must be an exciting life to work for a corporation that can produce hippos that stay put. I think the secret is to just love people, and help them down life's chutes.

I was so excited by this thought that I tuned out briefly to meditate on what I had seen in the show's opening moments, but tuned back in, of course, in time to see an executive of International Business Machines explaining why a batch of workers were lolling about in Hawaii. These are they (he explained) who had done great work for the company, which desired to say thank you. Hence the tropical junket complete with wives or husbands, since the corporation believes spouses are important, too.

There you are. Again, we see that helpfulness is the key to triumph in the world of corporations.

As we always knew. But to see it spelled out on color television so stirred my soul that again I tuned out to digest the message.

You might ask why, if I thought this was all such thrilling fare, I kept tuning out and actually saw no more than a few minutes of the show. But that is the miracle of the creative life -- you get such powerful charges from shows like this that you have to take a breather. But your mind has been deeply fertilized.

And let me say it's high time our great corporations were saluted a bit more on public television. I know, of course, that "This program is made possible by a grant from Mobil" is old hat and that in response to our natural curiosity about these generous corporations they are increasingly prevailed upon to say a few additional words, delivered in such genteel voices you are not always sure exactly what has been said:

"This program is made possible by a grant from Utter Cheese, the last word in farmual processing. Which invites you to join with them in saluting the cow and her farmer, available at your dairy counter (picture of greenish cow in field of daisies). Remembering always the strength of America rests on the man who farms and milks and starts cheese the Utter way and now the incredible story of the Bronze Doors of Bologna by Della Quercia. Utter Cheese is proud to take part in cultural events as well as dairy counters at your grocery, and these great doors, greater perhaps than those of Florence, even, signify the bond that has always existed between Utter Cheese and the soul of man." (Trumpets.)

Already, in other words, noncommercial broadcasting has nodded a little toward the great companies that make possible the fine shows. But "In Search of Excellence" was a true search for excellence and naturally came to rest with Disney Enterprises, IBM and other exemplars of hard-won glory in today's troublous times.

But I didn't like the way these giants were all thrown in the soup together in one scant 90-minute show. And so many fine companies were necessarily slighted because of time.

"In Search of Excellence" is a grand title for a series that could run for years because it takes time for a company to explain how it got to be so wonderful. You would not want anything crass or commercial on public broadcasting waves, but each week there could be an institutional salute. For example:

* "Saga of Dough Base." (This is something like edible putty to which individual bakeries add flour and other ingredients to produce delicious pastries of many kinds. How did dough base get started? From what palm-fringed shores do its exotic components come? Who is the reigning lord of dough base today?)

* "Romance of the Automobile Muffler." (Gripping story of Emil Thistle, whose dream of urban automotive silence became a reality only after his tragic death from research into exhaust pipes.)

* "Plastic Forks." (Minute examination into the development of tableware that revolutionized American food habits and made possible the efficient and sanitary lunchrooms of today.)

* "Whither Chain Link?" (Analysis of developmental horizons in American fence industries, with nostalgic glimpse of wattles, rails and planks.)

* "Inboard Outboard." (Motors that have opened up American waterways to the common man and increased the flight take-off time of the snowy egret fourfold and the flowering of democracy in Wisconsin.)

* "Horns of Night." (Tender moving account of the origin of the French horn and its ultimate adaptation in burglar alarm systems.)

And so on and on forever. Surely public television should examine far more than it does the romance of American business. There is a thirst in the audience of the '80s for reality, and for greater knowledge of fact instead of theory and fantasy.

My old friend Parson once showed up to deliver his talk on cotton futures to a national audience on fire to hear him (in London, some years ago) but when he got to the studio some fellow was going on and on about London sewers.

"It sounds as if that fellow is going to need a series to say all he knows about the sewers," Parson said. He was a little put out that the man was running well into Parson's air time, not that it made much difference then, any more than now when a game runs overtime.

"It already is a series," his guide said. "I'm heppy to say we are now in our seventh yar."

"Inboard Outboard" alone could run for 10.