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PBS: Playing to both ends of the spectrum

WASHINGTON — While ABC is spending $40 million to remind us that watching network television is a waste of brain cells, PBS will reach 80 million homes this year with a mixture of children’s educational shows, documentaries, public affairs programming and sophisticated adult drama.

In an era when broadcasters are desperately trying to hold onto their declining market share, PBS’ ratings continue to remain stable. While attracting much smaller audiences than the commercial broadcast webs, PBS still gathers a larger crowd than the most successful cable networks.

“The center of or our strategy is to maintain our tradition of providing a broad and deep programming service,” says Kathy Quattrone, PBS’ chief programming executive. That service, which is distributed to more than 340 member stations, provides seven hours of educational programming each day. In contrast, commercial stations will struggle this fall to meet a new FCC guideline requiring them to air at least three hours of educational kidvid a week.

Not content to rest on its kidvid laurels, PBS will be introducing four new kidvid series this year. This fall’s offering will be “Wimzie’s House,” a puppet program aimed at the preschool crowd. Other highlights for kids will include a 30-minute special airing Oct. 26 titled “Elmo Says Boo!” and a one-hour Wishbone special on Oct. 15 — “Halloween Hound: The Legend of Creepy Collars.”

Also returning this fall are 17 regular kidvid series including “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Sesame Street,” “Barney & Friends” and “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

Docu leader

While PBS is unique among broadcasters in its dedication to children’s programming, it also continues to stake out a leading role in documentary production. This fall’s slate includes several new docs, ranging from a two-hour special on vaudeville (Nov. 26.) to a six-episode series on cosmology titled “Steven Hawking’s Universe.”

And no fall season on PBS would be complete without a contribution from Ken Burns and his Florentine Films. This year, Burns will present a four-hour documentary “Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.” The show airs Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, and tells the story of the 2-1/2-year trek across the charted interior of the North American continent at the dawn of the 19th century.

With Discovery Networks continuing its negotiations with the BBC for U.S. distribution rights, PBS may find itself with an increasing reliance on independent producers like Burns. “We hope to keep him busy, because he has been one of the best contributors to our programming pipeline,” said Quattrone.

Re-creations add drama

While Burns relies on readings from Lewis and Clark’s journals and recently shot footage of the still thinly settled areas were the expedition visited, “Liberty! The American Revolution”, produced by KCTA Minneapolis/St. Paul in association with Middlemarch films, will include dramatic recreations of events during the 26-year period from 1763-1789. The six-hour series will air Nov. 23 through Nov. 25. Other documentaries scheduled to appear this fall include “Manu, Peru’s Hidden Rain Forest,” which will air Nov. 12. The one-hour program will be narrated by Edward James Olmos, and is part of PBS’ “The Living Eden’s” series, which focuses on the natural history of remote areas of the globe. Future shows will feature Antarctica’s South Georgia Island and the Himalayas of Bhutan.

New adventures

Also on tap for this fall is a series called “The Adventurers,” which will profile seven major explorers including Edmund Hilary, Richard Byrd and Thor Hyerdahl. The first episode airs on Oct. 20 and will run through Nov. 17.

Talking about ‘Truman’

On Oct. 5 and 6., PBS’ continuing “The American Experience” series will air “Truman,” a two-part documentary on President Harry Truman.

PBS will also continue this fall with its strong news and public affairs programming, anchored daily by “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and the latenight talker “Charlie Rose.” On Fridays, PBS stations will be airing “Follow the Money,” a 24-part half-hour series which focuses on money’s role in American politics.

Parsing patterns

In October, PBS will begin airing a three-part series called “National Desk,” billed as a tough look at “patterns of American life that are subtly eroding common culture.” The first episode, scheduled to air on Oct. 3, will focus on the effects of divorce on kids. The second episode, scheduled for Oct. 10, will look at the “increasing hostility vast numbers of African Americans feel towards whites.” The final episode, set to air on Oct. 17, will argue that money for medical research is being allocated to those who complain the loudest, not to those who need it the most.

Of course, PBS is not just kidvid, public affairs and documentaries. Helen Mirren may have sworn off another run on “Prime Suspect,” but the show’s producers have created a spicy spin-off which will air on PBS stations on Nov. 6. In “Deep Secret,” “Prime Suspect’s” Colin Salmon becomes undercover detective Sergeant Charlie Nolan in an effort to nail a Turkish mob boss played by former Romanian vice president Ion Caramitru. Nolan’s love interest is Amanda Donohoe, formerly of “L.A. Law.” The show is remarkable for its nudity and strong sexual content. It certainly appears to be headed toward upper ranges of the new content code, possibly a TV-MA (V, S, L) .

‘MIll’ on the box

PBS also will showcase its more traditional fare: “Mobil Masterpiece Theatre.” This fall’s offerings will include “The Mill on the Floss,” an adaptation of George Eliot’s novel airing on Oct. 12. Other Masterpiece Theatre productions include “the Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (Oct. 19-26) and “The Moonstone” (Nov. 2), based on the detective story by Wilke Collins.

So as ABC reminds us with a self-defeating advertising campaign that commercial television is seeking out the lowest common denominator in programming and ourselves, PBS assures us that television is not all bad.

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