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PBS still searching for 'Masterpiece Theatre' sponsor

Monday, January 12, 2004

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV , Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- Reruns don't happen only on TV. Sometimes they happen at the TV critics' press tour. Saturday's Q&A session with PBS president Pat Mitchell was pretty much the same as the one that took place here in July at the previous press tour.

The biggest news wasn't even news, just more of the same: PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre" still hasn't found a sponsor after ExxonMobil announced it would bail on the classic series more than a year ago.

"I find this one completely confusing and perplexing," Mitchell said. "This is one of the biggest brands in television. ... All you have to do is look at this program and say, who wouldn't want to be associated with this?"

Mitchell said the only obvious reason for the lack of a new sponsor is the show's high price tag, which "Masterpiece Theatre" executive producer Rebecca Eaton said is between $6 million and $8 million.

"Just to assure all of us who are fans, it is continuing for the next two years no matter what, because PBS has stepped up to meet the commitment," Mitchell said. "It takes a long time to produce drama, so she's got to be in there very early with our commitment. I just can't imagine that in those two years we won't find somebody who'll recognize this opportunity."

Eaton said she suspects that the days of a single underwriter for the series are in the past and that multiple sponsors are being sought to support the show. In the meantime, "we are continuing to do business as usual," Eaton said. "We are absolutely, positively funded through."

Other PBS announcements:

"Slavery and the Making of America," a four-part documentary, will air this fall.

PBS has ordered a second season of "History Detectives," which explores the stories behind historic sites, artifacts and tall tales. New episodes will air this summer.

"Colonial House," the latest living history series from the producers of "Manor House" and "Frontier House," will air over four nights in May.

T.J. Lubinsky, former doo-wop producer for WQED, unveils his first independent production for PBS in March with the national premiere of "My Music: '70s Soul Superstars," hosted by Patti LaBelle and taped in Atlantic City last month (the Commodores, the Chi-Lites and the Stylistics perform). His next PBS project is expected to be "My Music: That Disco Show."

Showtime's shows

Showtime has long chased after HBO's higher, more polished profile. Now Showtime even references an HBO show in its promos for "The L Word," about lesbians in Los Angeles. "Same sex, different city," read print ads for "The L Word," which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.

"The audience that's served by 'Sex and the City' will no longer have that show," said new Showtime Entertainment president Robert Greenblatt, referring to the cancellation of "Sex and the City." "Rather than sort of chasing after HBO, we're sort of chasing that audience, which I think this show could scoop up. It's a little bit of a nod to them, but at the same time, we'll take that audience."

Greenblatt said the network's "No Limits" slogan will eventually be replaced and that he's seeking to reduce the volume of original movies to focus on "a half-dozen movies that said something to the public."

"We've got to find a couple of series that are really defining series," Greenblatt said. "In the past, Showtime did mean something to the viewer and there was that sense of serving smaller audiences -- the black audience, the Latino audience, the gay audience. I think we want to broaden out from that. The programming always defines what the network is. I don't think anybody thought HBO was anything until the critical point of 'Sopranos,' 'Sex and the City' and then shortly thereafter, 'Six Feet Under.' "

Upcoming Showtime projects include:

A Britney Spears concert shown live from Miami at 9 p.m. on March 28.

"Huff," a new series starring Hank Azaria, about a psychiatrist whose 15-year-old patient commits suicide in his office after coming out to his parents. Paget Brewster plays the wife of Azaria's Craig Huffstodt and actress Blythe Danner plays his mom. The show will premiere in late summer.

"American Candidate," a reality series that attempts to find a candidate to run for President of the United States. The series was originally shopped to Fox for FX, but has since bounced over to Showtime, a premium cable network with a much smaller audience that would seem to make the show much less influential.

Another NBC change

After CBS scheduled an original episode of "CSI" against what was to be Wednesday's time slot premiere of NBC's "The Apprentice," peacock executives changed their schedule, putting a rerun of "The Apprentice" at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Episode No. 2 of "Apprentice" will now air at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. That's the same time period the show premiered in last week to high ratings. No word if CBS will yank Wednesday's original "CSI."

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com .

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