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Pittsburgh will try out PBS schedule

Saturday, July 15, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Pittsburgh's WQED/WQEX will be among a handful of stations nationwide testing a new schedule this fall, and newly installed PBS president Pat Mitchell anticipates some viewers will be irked.

"We do need to work to make sure they don't feel that way, that they embrace what we're trying to do here, which is to create a stronger public television system," Mitchell said. "And if they're really loyal viewers and members, then I think they're going to want us to do that."

Under the revised schedule, many programs move to new nights, including "Masterpiece Theatre," which jumps from Sunday to Monday. Many of the moves make sense, such as clustering science shows on one night to make for a more logical audience flow from one program to another.

John Wilson, senior vice president of PBS programming services, said the goal of the test schedule is to increase the amount of time viewers spend watching PBS stations. They'll measure that using Nielsen data coupled with focus groups. Wilson said PBS will make an extra effort to make viewers aware of the new schedule.

But if they've come up with a smart, logical schedule, why bother testing it? Why not roll it out nationwide so there's less chance for confusion?

"We gave some thought to that, but a lot of the work we've done in putting together this better schedule is based on the best research and information we have in hand, but it's also built on a lot of good hunches and instincts too," Wilson said. If the test proves successful, plans are to implement the new schedule (or a revised version) nationwide as early as April 2001.

For satellite TV subscribers, nothing will change. PBS local stations aren't available via satellite yet, so there's one PBS national feed that's 24 hours delayed so that it doesn't compete directly with local PBS over-the-air stations.

TEST BENEFITS: WQED has committed to adhering to the test schedule, one of the benefits of Pittsburgh as a test market. All-too-often WQED does not follow the PBS schedule (why move a great family show like "The 1900 House" from the 9 p.m. time slot in the PBS national feed to 10 p.m. in Pittsburgh?), but at least now the station will follow a PBS schedule.

Mitchell is a big proponent of standardizing broadcast times among PBS member stations.

"In this environment where we don't have the promotion and marketing dollars of the networks, we've got to maximize every penny we have," she said. "So if we know we're going to be promoting [a program] at 9 p.m., it only makes sense for as many [stations] as possible to run it then. There are cases when people say, 'In our community that won't work,' and I can't argue with that. They know their community better than I do, but I think more and more stations are seeing the wisdom."

Mitchell's also a proponent of following the cable strategy of repeating some programs within the week in which they premiere, with the hope of doubling viewership of these programs. That too is a built-in component in the PBS test schedule WQED will follow beginning this fall.

PBS KIDS: PBS stations already follow "common carriage" guidelines that insist they air 350 hours of PBS programs every year on the same night (but not necessarily at the same time), Wilson said. But that's only in prime time.

So it should come as no surprise that PBS's new Saturday morning block of kids' shows will air on Sunday on WQED. PBS's "Bookworm Bunch," a three-hour block of shows for preschoolers, will air at 8 a.m. starting Oct. 1.

Series include "Corduroy" (based on the Don Freeman books), "Elliot Moose," "Timothy Goes to School," "Seven Little Monsters" (based on Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are"), "George Shrinks" and "Marvin the Tap Dancing Horse." Two 15-minute "Corduroy" installments will begin and end the programming block, meaning new episodes of every show after the first "Corduroy" will begin on the quarter hour.

"The reason why we did that is to encourage kids to stay for the entire block of programs," said Toper Taylor, president of Nelvana Communications, which produces all of these new kids' shows.

MITCHELL'S GOAL: Mitchell also wants to test new strategies that better involve local stations.

"We're looking to find some new programming models that look at one of the major assets I referred to earlier, and that is the asset of our 347 television stations rooted in their communities, producing programming connected to their communities and then having this national distribution system," Mitchell said. "We're looking very seriously at ways that we can apply the local strength of our public television stations and the productions they do into some national formats that make it available to all."

Sounds like Mitchell is on the same page as WQED president George Miles, who frequently speaks of his desire to "export Pittsburgh" to the rest of the country.

"LAW & ORDER" CHANGE: As speculated earlier this summer, Steven Hill won't return to "Law & Order" this fall. Hill, who has been with the series since its first season in 1990, will be replaced by actress Diane Wiest, who will play the new district attorney.

CRITICS POLL: Electronic Media's twice-a-year critics poll revealed I'm not alone in my love of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "Freaks and Geeks." Both series landed in the Top 10 in voting by 57 television critics from across the country.

"The Sopranos" was No. 1, followed by "The West Wing," "Malcolm in the Middle," "Buffy," "Freaks," "The Simpsons," "Once and Again," "Sports Night," "Law & Order" and "Frasier."

The Top 10 worst shows on broadcast television, according to critics, included "Shasta," "WWF Smackdown!," "Veronica's Closet," "The Mike O'Malley Show," "Wasteland," "Ladies Man," "Talk to Me," "Then Came You," "Time of Your Life" and "Ally McBeal."

TV critics will have their say again tomorrow night when the annual Television Critics Association awards are announced at a ceremony here.

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the TCA summer press tour through July 25.

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