TCA Winter Press Tour 2012, Day 1: PBS

Day 1 of the 2012 Television Critics Association (TCA) Winter Press Tour marked the first time that I personally have covered the PBS portion of the tour, and like the network itself, the day was an eclectic mix of entertainment and information, featuring everything from a cabaret performance by Michael Feinstein to cupcakes with The Cat in the Hat to a concert by The B-52′s.

During the morning executive session, Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, announced a few upcoming specials and series. Of note (or possible concern, depending upon your outlook, given the slippery slope that such series can lead a network onto) is PBS’ first competition series, Market Wars (working title), which is in development for summer/fall 2012. It’s from the producers of Antiques Roadshow, and in each one-hour episode, professional antiques dealers embark on nationwide treasure hunts, searching flea markets and antiques shops for vintage collectibles. The expert who makes the highest total profit at auction in each episode is named the winner. Market Wars will go into a Monday night time slot along with Antiques Roadshow for a thematic programming night of sorts.

Kerger also mentioned other nights slated for certain themed programming. Tuesdays will be a history night, including the network’s acclaimed series American Experience. The series begins its new season this month, with new looks at Old West figures including Billy the Kid (Jan. 10) and Custer (Jan. 17). February will see two new outstanding American Experience films: “Clinton,” an intriguing two-part film that is part of the show’s ongoing look at presidents, airing Feb. 20-21, and “The Amish,” airing Feb. 28 (pictured above). We saw a 15-minute preview of “The Amish” today, and it looks powerful and fascinating, with the filmmakers given rare access to record the voices of Amish people (who do not wish to be photographed or filmed) to tell their stories. Naturally, with limitations on just what could be filmed, the producers must have faced great challenges to put this project together, but from what we saw today it looks like they were able to creatively put together a touching, enlightening and respectful look at this unique American culture.

Wednesdays will focus on science and natural history programming. Nature and NOVA made the move to Wednesdays in the past year, with Kerger saying that NOVA has increased its audience by 47 percent after the move. New series like Inside Nature’s Giants (premiering Jan. 18) and America Revealed (premiering April 11) will also be centerpiece destinations in the 10pm time slot on Wednesdays.

Fridays will continue PBS’ focus on the arts. The Peabody-winning biennial series Art in the Twenty-First Century returns for a sixth season of four episodes starting April 13. And on June 29, the PBS Arts Summer Festival 2012 will kick off, hosted by actress Anna Deavere Smith and featuring everything from a documentary about Cuban music to a film about Islamic art to a profile of John Leguizamo.

Speaking of artsy stuff, fans of Downton Abbey should enjoy an upcoming special that Kerger talked about today. Secrets of the Manor House (pictured below) airs Jan. 22 at 8pm ET on PBS, and looks at how life really was in the households of British aristocracy in the early 1900s.

PBS’ relationship with filmmaker Ken Burns will continue, as Kerger explained Burns has several projects in development, including documentaries about The Dust Bowl (which we will see a preview of tomorrow), the Vietnam War, and the Roosevelts.

Kerger certainly seems very passionate about her network. “It’s funny how many people have said to me, ‘Oh, PBS looks cool again.’ [in the wake of the hit Downton Abbey],” she said. “I’ve always thought PBS was cool, but, you know, that’s just my opinion.”

And when a question arose about the calls for cuts to PBS, which have grown louder in recent months (most recently when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stated his desire end to federal funding of the network, suggesting that Sesame Street run ads), Kerger had some thoughts on that, as you might expect.

“Well, I’m glad that he said that he liked public broadcasting,” she said, regarding Romney’s comment. “You know, we have always had bipartisan support, and I know that this is a period in our country’s history where, as a nation we do have to make tough decisions … We try to leverage it very carefully. The federal investment in public broadcasting amounts to about $1.35 a person a year. … And I think that what we hope to do and will continue to do over the next months is to make it clear to our elected officials that we have broad support by the American public.”

Regarding the possibility of adding commercials on Sesame Street in particular, Kerger added, “We do have restrictions through the FCC, and so we can’t just take ads. … For those that say, ‘Well, let the marketplace take care of it.’ … there are a number of channels in the cable world that started out with really great ideas that they would be the commercial version of public television, and all of them have gone down very different paths. I’m not criticizing commercial television … but I’m not in the same business as anyone else that will stand on this stage. If your bottom line is what is driving your business decisions … you are going to make different decisions, that’s all. And for me, the best, most recent example is the different turn that the History Channel has taken. Many people on Capitol Hill would occasionally say, ‘Well, you know, there are cable operations like History. Maybe you could learn from them in terms of bringing in revenue.’ But, you know, they found that the way to survive was to create a different type of programming. And programming like Pawn Stars and American Pickers is not the same as American Experience and Ken Burns.”

Very true. But it does sound like it might be the same as PBS’ aforementioned Market Wars. While PBS’ new and returning lineup continues to remain solid from what I’ve seen today, and what’s on tap to be presented tomorrow, hopefully a competition series like that doesn’t represent the beginning of the sort of “different decision” Kerger feared having to make.

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American Experience: The Amish — Credit: Tim Cragg

Secrets of the Manor House — Credit: Anna Kibblewhite

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