PBS at 2013 TCA Summer Press Tour: A roundup of announcements, initiatives and new programming coming to PBS in late summer and fall 2013.
Paula Kerger, PBS president and CEO spoke of the network’s 5-percent rise in prime-time ratings, and audience growth both on air on online. While that’s nice, she says the network’s real measure of success is the public service of education, information and entertainment it provides to a diverse audience. She’s proud of the impact that the network’s programming has had with engaging discussion and debate on gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. She also maintains the mission to make up for “market failure” by programming overlooked by commercial broadcast networks or the myriad of cable TV networks.
Kerger is dedicated to keeping public television as a destination for drama on Sunday night. Last Tango in Halifax premieres on Sept. 8. In addition to the January 2014 return of Downton Abbey, The Bletchley Circle will debut Season 2 in spring, as well as Season 2 of Mr. Selfridge and Season 3 of Call the Midwife. PBS held a dinner and press conference with several of the ladies from Downtown Abbey: Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) and Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason). The new season of Downton is set in the 1920s, a few years following the events of the season finale. Lady Mary will apparently have several new suitors in the mix who might try their hand at cheating death.
Roseanne Cash (above) performed for critics on Monday night, with a powerful set of classic Americana, some of her older material as well as new tracks from an album she is releasing in January. The highlight for me was a breathtaking rendition of “Ode to Billie Joe.” (What did she and Billie Joe toss off the Tallahatchie bridge, anyway?) PBS Fall Arts Festival: Nashville 2.0 premieres Nov. 22.
American Masters has an athlete for a subject for the first time ever when it profiles tennis legend Billie Jean King (Sept. 10). King discussed her famous Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs, gender inequality in pro tennis, the state of women’s sports in general, and her very tough road in finding her “authentic self.”
Staying with sports, Frontline: League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis (Oct. 8) is a two-part investigation from Frontline and ESPN about brain injuries and the long-term effects of concussions on the mental and physical health of players. There is no cooperation from the NFL in the program, and producers from ESPN seemed in denial themselves when I raised the question about possible repercussions from the network’s involvement in this investigation. ESPN is a major NFL TV rights holder, programs a great amount of NFL-related content and has profited greatly from the fast and violent game that is football. I was given the standard ESPN “our journalism is separate from the other stuff” answer, as well as “We don’t see ourselves as going against the NFL.” I should probably do a follow-up and get a statement from the NFL on that. [UPDATE: ESPN withdraws from PBS League of Denial documentary.]
Independent Lens: Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey (Sept. 30) is about the revival of the band Journey with new lead singer Arnel Pineda, who is from the Philippines. He doesn’t look like your typical American classic rock band frontman, but has an amazing, powerful voice. Pineda and guitarist Neal Schon performed an acoustic track for the gathered press.
Keanu Reeves hosts and produces Side by Side (Aug. 30), which interviews several filmmakers and explores the subject of digital vs. photochemical film in cinema. A lot of it was very technical, but Reeves did say that there’s another draft being written for Bill & Ted 3.
PBS Indies Showcase POV: 56 Up (Oct. 14) is the latest installment of Michael Apted’s documentary series that began with Seven Up in 1964 and has continued every seven years for the last 49 years. The documentary began as a study of British kids growing up in different social circumstances, but has evolved into something much more personal over the decades.
PBS Kids introduces a new animated show from The Fred Rogers Company targeted at kids ages 3-6 to improve early-learning math skills. PEG+CAT (Oct. 7) uses catchy songs, adorable characters and imaginative storytelling to teach basic math, geometry, measurements and problem-solving skills. I asked the creators if the characters’ names had any significance other than being short, sweet and memorable (like an anagram or some kind of calculus notation or something). Nope, Peg is just a girl and Cat is a cat, but I do like how the they make the title look like an equation.
November will have specials dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination with American Experience: JFK (Nov. 11-12) and NOVA: Cold Case: JFK (Nov. 13). Guests for the NOVA panel had critics quite intrigued with their scientific and forensic approach to debunking conspiracy theories, as well as an interesting crash course on ballistics.
It was announced that Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff will be the new co-anchors and managing editors of PBS Newshour. Expect them both to be at the desk some time in mid September. Charlie Rose discussed his interview approach as well as his sleep schedule. He takes two naps a day!
Actor Tom Hiddleston captivated critics at the panel for The Hollow Crown (Sept. 20), which turns four of Shakespeare’s history plays into a single narrative over four weeks. Hiddleston’s knowledge and appreciation of The Bard as one who tapped into universal truths about the human experience won over critics. And his photo with Cookie Monster is adorable:
PBS has acquired a very secretive documentary about The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger, and some exclusive clips were shown. The film is theatrically released in September, and won’t be screened for the movie press. PBS also showed preview clips of American Experience: War of the Worlds (Oct. 29), a look back at the famous 1938 radio show that caused hysteria from a perceived Martian invasion.
Multiculturalism and diversity are major focal points for PBS this fall. The March (Aug. 27) celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, using rare archival footage to tell the story of one of the pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement and the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross With Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Oct. 22) is a series that looks to tell the definitive 500-year history of African Americans, touching on the big historical events and figures as well as several that are largely unknown. Attending the panel was Ruby Bridges, the subject of the Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With” at left. Similar to The African Americans, the three-part series Latino Americans (Sept. 17) examines the rich history of Hispanics in America. Independent Lens: The Graduates/Los Graduados (Oct. 28) is a two-part series that examines the challenges in education that young Latinos face, and how there are now organizations that support Latino families in educating their children.
Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle (Oct. 8) is a two-part documentary about the cultural significance of comic-book superheroes. For some critics, the kryptonite is the lack of diversity and underrepresented groups among the comic-book superheroes.
On the technology front, NOVA: Making Stuff Colder, Faster, Safer and Wilder (Oct. 16) looks at innovations and inventions, and puts host and New York Times tech columnist David Pogue through some pretty interesting tests and situations. Plus, we learned that bomb-sniffing plants are a thing now. They turn from green to white in the presence of explosives.