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Tuned In: PBS gears programming to broader audience base

Tuesday, January 16, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- PBS wants to be popular. Often thought of as the musty channel nobody under 50 watches, PBS is striving for greater relevance to Americans of all ages.

" 'Popular' is not a dirty word," PBS president Pat Mitchell said during the network's two-day portion of the Television Critics Association press tour. " 'Popular' means valued, and our member stations depend on being valued in their communities. There's no question we need to promote our programming better. We've got to be very imaginative here...."

Mitchell said ratings are only one measurement of popularity. She's more interested in "points of impact."

"Value must be measured by the number of people whose lives are changed," she said. "We want to figure out how to do that better. This is not just measuring television programming, it's integrated content that serves our communities across all platforms," including online.

Toward that end, PBS announced a collaboration with National Public Radio. PBS and NPR, which tend to serve similar audiences, will cross-promote each other's programs both on-air and online.

Mitchell also announced a new PBS series, tentatively titled "Public Square," a two-hour weekly show covering the arts, performance, politics, economics, music, history, science and popular culture.

"Public Square," which is expected to premiere in 2002, sounds like a national version of WQED's "On Q" and will feature interviews, analysis, documentary segments, investigative reports and music and comedy performances. (Mitchell said she's aware of WQED's latest plan for selling WQEX, but she hasn't read the station's petition to the FCC and had no comment on it.)

Mitchell is confident government support of PBS will continue even with the rise of a Republican administration.

"Our appropriations have increased in the last four or five years coming out of a bipartisan coalition," she said. "We are optimistic and hopeful this level of support will not only continue, but increase. We have to make clear that what we're doing is valuable for our communities."

For PBS viewers in Pittsburgh, the big change in the past year was WQED's switch to a pilot schedule last fall. WQED is one of seven stations across the country testing the new PBS schedule. The test was supposed to end in April, but Mitchell said it will be extended so more data can be collected.

John Wilson, PBS senior vice president of programming, said he expects there will be significant change to next season's national PBS schedule, which will be announced in June, but there's not enough data to specify what those changes might be.

For instance, "Masterpiece Theatre" moved from Sunday to Monday in the test schedule. Wilson said the move hasn't improved ratings for "Masterpiece Theatre" in its new time slot, but the addition of "Antiques Roadshow" and "The American Experience" to Sunday has helped bolster PBS ratings on that night.

"We're still sorting out the best move for 'Masterpiece,' " Wilson said. "We want the schedule as a whole to improve... we'll do right by 'Masterpiece Theatre' wherever it lands."

"Masterpiece Theatre" executive producer Rebecca Eaton said she'd be happy with a Monday nighttime slot if there was proof more people were watching then. Otherwise, she'd prefer to keep the show on Sundays at 9 p.m. because it's been a consistent time slot.

" '60 Minutes' is on at 7 p.m. on Sunday night, everybody knows that 'Masterpiece Theatre' is on at 9, and there's been New Yorker cartoons with people rushing home to see 'Masterpiece Theatre,' " Eaton said. "That's something you cannot give up lightly."

PBS GOES FOR YOUTH: In addition to bringing back "American High" in April (Fox canceled the docu-drama after only a few episodes aired last August), PBS has announced plans to air "Senior Year" this fall. The 13-part documentary chronicles the last year of high school for 15 diverse teens at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles.

"The students are Asian, Latino, African-American, European, gay and a special ed student," PBS's Mitchell said. "Their experiences are a window into helping us understand the real-life dramas for teens who are finishing their last year in high school."

Mitchell acknowledged PBS has never programmed shows of interest to teens before, but the time has come. "We can't rely on people to find us when they reach a certain age," she said. "We want them to find us early."

She said member stations are worried about the aging PBS audience. The average age of a PBS viewer is 56.

"Our mission doesn't say serve only this age group, it says serve all Americans," Mitchell said. "I find ['American High' to be] really compelling programming and I think parents will. We're not just aiming this at teen-agers just because it's a program about them."

In addition, PBS's "P.O.V." series will air the critically acclaimed documentary "High School," but it's not aimed at today's teen-ager. The 74-minute film by Frederick Wiseman was made in 1968 and has never before aired on television. Filmed at what was then an above-average high school in Philadelphia, "High School" will air this summer.

That will likely capture another segment of the audience PBS doesn't want to lose: baby boomers.

"The group of people turning 50 in the next couple of years belong to the largest population bubble we've ever had in the history of this country," Mitchell said. "And they're very different 50-year-olds from the ones 10 years ago. They use Palm Pilots and use the Internet and television at the same time. ... We have to recognize they're a different kind of consumer."

MORE PBS SHOWS: If you were waiting for the conclusion of the PBS documentary "New York" by Ric Burns, your wait will end later this year. "New York" premiered in November 1999, but the final four hours have been on hold. This fall, "New York" picks up the story of the city in 1929 and then continues until the present day.

"Young Doctor Freud," a two-hour documentary about the early life of Sigmund Freud, is in production, as are documentary profiles of three United States presidents: Grant, Wilson and Carter.

PBS will broadcast the feature film "Schindler's List" April 19 (repeating April 21) in recognition of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"Egg -- The Arts Show," produced by PBS's WNET in New York, will go national in April. The weekly half-hour series examines people making art across America and includes a one-minute segment at the end of each episode that allows local stations to insert local arts information.

Bill Moyers' latest project, airing in March, investigates the chemical industry.

PBS will produce "The Congregation," a two-hour examination of the role religion plays in the lives of Americans. Producers Alan and Susan Raymond ("An American Family") will look at religious practices by documenting life in one mainstream Protestant congregation that has yet to be chosen.

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour.

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