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Public affairs show on PBS aims to take a new tack

Saturday, July 12, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- Bryant's back.

Bryant Gumbel will emerge from self-declared semi-retirement next week to host PBS's "Flashpoints USA" with Gwen Ifill, host of PBS's "Washington Week" and a senior correspondent on "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."

Bryant Gumbel will emerge from self-declared semi-retirement next week to host PBS's "Flashpoints USA" with Gwen Ifill.

"Flashpoints" (9 p.m. Tuesday, WQED), a new quarterly public affairs show, will explore issues differently from other programs in the genre, according to executive producer Steve Friedman, who's worked with both anchors before (Gumbel on CBS's "The Early Show" and NBC's "Today" show, on which Ifill was once a correspondent).

"Our mission was to try to do a public affairs show differently, to get out of the studio, out of the Beltway," Friedman said.

For Tuesday's premiere, "Flashpoints" taped what would normally be studio segments on location at Detroit's Metro Airport, asking people there about the importance of national security vs. civil liberties, the topic picked for the inaugural broadcast. In one segment, a woman says she believes security needs outweigh civil liberties. Gumbel asks, "Would you agree if it meant singling out 5-foot-9 blondes?"

"She kind of laughed, but she knew the answer," Gumbel said at a press conference yesterday.

"If you talk to people who are likely to be victims [of racial profiling], they're not for it," Ifill said. "If you talk to people who aren't, they're for it."

Rather than relying on self-selecting Internet polls as cable news and local stations often do (Ifill called those polls "completely useless"), "Flashpoints" commissions a national poll to gauge peoples' feelings on each show's topic.

Given the presence of Gumbel, known for his liberal views (he called conservative watchdog Brent Bozell "bozo" during yesterday's press conference) and the debatable reputation of PBS as a bastion of liberalism, will "Flashpoints" be truly balanced? Ifill says yes.

"It's extremely even-handed," she said. "You need to guard against media profiling us to assume that because it has two black co-anchors it's going to be a liberal show. We're doing journalism."

Because "Flashpoints" will air only four times a year, it limits the show from covering news of the day or stories that might evolve too quickly, Gumbel said. "But the advantages are considerable. You do have time to actually explore things in a fashion you want without the pressure of time."

He said "Flashpoints" doesn't necessarily fill a void given the saturation of public affairs shows on TV, but "this gives us the chance to look at things of concern to the average American, not just from policy wonk side. We can take issues of the day and take time exploring them and do it in a way that's balanced and in an intelligent fashion without the hyperkinetics of screaming and name calling."

Ifill said one reason she left commercial television for PBS was for a more reasoned and civil decibel level when it comes to matters open to debate. Gumbel said he likes PBS for similar reasons.

"I've never been known as a person lacking in passion, but I find a lot of what's out there pretty unwatchable," Gumbel said. "The divisions in this country are enormously disturbing and as opposed to being helpful, I feel sometimes television exacerbates the differences. ... I'm not sure television is best serving the populace when it gets people in screaming matches."

Gumbel said he's happy in semi-retirement and was willing to do this show, along with "Real Sports" on HBO, only if they don't require him to return to the daily grind of TV news.

"I'm enjoying my life a great deal," said Gumbel, who began a daily exercise regimen and lost 55 pounds since leaving "The Early Show" last year. "I'm at the point I do things I enjoy and have an interest in and where I think I might be able to do good work."

The next edition of "Flashpoints," airing in September, will look at the relationship between Americans and the media and whether they believe what they hear, see and read on TV and in newspapers.

Ticker talk

Many viewers have expressed their distaste for the news ticker that runs across the bottom of the screen on cable news channels and locally on KDKA and WPGH. Turns out at least one cable news executive dislikes it, too.

"I hate it, but we don't develop programs for ourselves," said Jim Walton, president of the CNN News Group. "It's a distraction for me as a viewer. I guess I'm more traditional that way. ... We commissioned a lot of research and it was overwhelmingly positive to keep the ticker on and since none of us here are arrogant enough to just program for ourselves, the ticker will stay on CNN for a little while longer."

One exception to that is CNN Headline News, which is experimenting with a cleaner screen at 9 p.m.

"We are internally referring to it as 'retro news,' there's [no graphics] on the screen. We're taking a peek and we're going to watch that for a while."

Walton wasn't the only CNN employee to admit his antipathy for the ticker.

"I hate it, thank you very much," said CNN anchor Paula Zahn.

However, Anderson Cooper, Soledad O'Brien and Bill Hemmer said they like it.

"I remember watching Bloomberg News 10 years ago," Hemmer said. "When you first see the screen, it's like, wow, cattle futures and Microsoft and everything is all over the place. I think what happens is viewers get used to it over time."

HBO series updates

*Though it's not set in stone, it looks like "The Sopranos" will return for a new season in March, following the return of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" in January.

*A new Western, "Deadwood," will likely roll out in June.

*This fall, HBO introduces "Carnivale," a dark, complex drama set at a traveling carnival in the Dust Bowl during the 1930s.

*Described as "real-time fiction" by its makers, "K Street," executive produced by George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh ("Oceans 11"), mingles fact and fiction as members of a fictitious Washington lobbying firm (John Slattery, Mary McCormack) are seen interviewing real-life politicos on issues of the day. To be timely, each episode will be produced Monday through Friday for airing on the following Sunday.

Animated 'Star Wars'

Cartoon Network will air "Star Wars: Clone Wars," which is billed as an "epic micro-series" of 20 three-minute animated, serialized shorts set between "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" and the upcoming "Episode III."

The first 10 installments will air at 8 p.m. Nov. 7-21 with the second set planned for spring. The first short was screened for critics Thursday and proved to be a step above "Droids" and "Ewoks," 1980s-era Saturday morning "Star Wars" cartoons, both in animation and writing.

But some of the animation, particularly Queen Amidala's odd hairdo, is more laughable than intended. Similarly, Chancellor Palpatine looks like Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons." The short screened included John Williams' epic score, which lent it a welcome level of dramatic heft.

'Chopper' power

Discovery Channel's "American Chopper" (10 p.m. Monday) has become a popular addition to the network's lineup, more docudrama than reality series as it follows the father-son team of Paul Teutul Sr. and Paul Teutul Jr., who run Orange County Choppers in New York, makers of custom motorcycles ($29,000 will buy you the cheapest model).

"I think a lot of people out there can relate to the father and son," said executive producer Craig Piligan, who previously served as an executive producer on the first three editions of "Survivor." "All across America, you have family issues. Fathers working for sons. Daughters working for mothers. This isn't about motorcycles. It's about a relationship and about their specific relationship and motorcycles are just part of the vehicle we use to get that across."

The senior Teutul said being on camera constantly has brought him and his son closer together. Junior agreed, but said otherwise the relationship is the same.

"He yells at me off camera or on camera," Junior said. "It doesn't really matter."

'Shoot' back

NBC's canceled sitcom "Just Shoot Me" returns with new episodes tonight at 8 and 8:30 and will continue to run on subsequent Saturday nights.

Gay channel on hold

Showtime's attempts to launch a gay-themed cable channel have been put "on the back burner," according to Matthew Blank, chairman and CEO of Showtime Networks.

"Frankly, the marketplace for introducing new channels in the industry right now is a little bit difficult," Blank said, adding cable operators embraced the idea, but there was little space on cable lineups for an additional network. "We didn't think the carriage environment in the cable industry right now was that great."

WB schedule change

The WB has pulled "Fearless," a drama about a young FBI agent without "the fear gene," and replaced it with "One Tree Hill" on the network's fall schedule.

That's probably a smart move. The "Fearless" pilot was OK, but nothing particularly amazing, and its scheduling after "Gilmore Girls" made little sense. "One Tree Hill" appears sight unseen to be more of a character-driven series, which makes it more suitable as a "Girls" lead-out.

"One Tree Hill" is about two teens, played by Chad Michael Murray and James Lafferty, who share the same father. One (Lafferty) is the star of his high school basketball team and hails from a wealthy family. The other (Murray) is the only child of a single working mother.

"Fearless" producers asked to be bumped to midseason to give them more time to improve the show creatively, which includes the hiring of several actors for key roles. It's now expected to premiere at midseason.

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

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