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WQED reduces funds for Indian War project

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

WQED Multimedia has scaled back the production budget for "The War That Made America" to $7 million, at most, and is assembling a behind-the-scenes team that will shoot the four-hour project for airing in 2005.

Deborah Acklin, the WQED executive overseeing the chronicle of the French and Indian War, says several of the key players will be based in Boston but that roughly 80 percent of the filming could be done in Western Pennsylvania next year. A production budget of $12 million and a running time of three hours once were floated for the production.

After a WQED board meeting yesterday, Acklin described the project as a blend of documentary filmmaking and dramatic re-enactments. Some test footage was shot last week in Ligonier, complete with costumed characters and blazing guns, using high-definition video cameras.

So far, Acklin has hired onetime "Carmen Sandiego" staffer Geoff Miller as project director; two filmmakers who came out of the PBS system through Boston and whose experience includes "Frontline," "Nova" and "American Experience"; Pittsburgher Lynne Squilla as series producer; and Jo Romine as business manager. Acklin said the filmmakers had signed deal memos but that she couldn't announce their names yesterday.

Asked why Pittsburghers hadn't been chosen for the two filmmaking jobs, she said, "There are very strong documentary producers here. This is not strictly a documentary. There are very strong independent film directors here. This is not completely a drama." The filmmakers she picked have good storytelling skills but can work with actors and re-enactors in restaging historic events.

Although PBS would have the final say on how the four hours would be formatted, Acklin's ideal configuration would be a pair of two-hour specials. The $7 million budget does not include money for Web site development, a key part of the project.

In other news:

WQED President George Miles said he has three written offers for the commercial license of WQEX, but that the board has directed him to take his time in this sour economy. "We're not going to take an offer just to take an offer. ... We're not doing a fire sale, that's the bottom line." The station could be sold outright or leased.

WQED will turn 50 on April 1 and will kick off a series of anniversary events with the "Elsie Awards" that day. It also is considering an open house for viewers, compiling a history of the first community-owned public TV station, soliciting mementos from the public and talking with cultural groups also marking milestone birthdays in 2004.

At its Sept. 25 meeting, WQED-FM will unveil a glass-walled satellite studio -- and the name of the person sponsoring it -- at Theater Square in the Cultural District.

On the programming front, Highmark Inc. has agreed to underwrite another season of "AgeWise"; WQED will broadcast a new "Live From Studio A" installment with Beatles songs during its November pledge period; and producer Rick Sebak's next local show, "Things We've Made" will get a November or December airing.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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