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PBS prepares to shuffle shows

Pilot Schedule Project aims to build viewership

To the casual observer it may seem as if it’s business as usual at PBS, but the org is quietly planning a spring 2001 schedule overhaul.

“We’re testing what we call the Pilot Schedule Project in seven markets this fall in our attempt to create a better, more logical viewer-driven grid,” says John Wilson, senior VP of programming services at PBS.

That’s why come October, PBS viewers in Atlanta, Cleveland, Orlando, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and San Diego will get a taste of what the rest of the country will be watching in April. For example, longtime Sunday night regular “Masterpiece Theatre” will be moving to Tuesdays, “Mystery!” will be snooping around on Wednesdays, and “Nature” will unleash its force on Friday evenings. It may prove confusing at first, but Wilson and company are hoping that in the long run, it will help build more viewership.

Meanwhile, public TV will rely on some of its familiar icons to keep the faith in 2000: Rolling out this month is “On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying,” an intimate portrait of families and their caregivers as they prepare for the final stages of life, by respected journalist Bill Moyers. The four-parter, which should strike a chord with babyboomers, premieres Sunday and continues thru Wednesday.

Among the other offerings Wilson highlights is “Napoleon,” a four-hour profile of the ambitious French leader, produced by award-winning documentarian David Grubin, scheduled to bow Nov. 8. Also, “American Experience” opens a new season with a sterling look at the Rockefeller family, and “Return with Honor,” Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sander’s film about American fighter pilots shot down over North Vietnam, scheduled to air on Veteran’s Day.

The org’s public affairs and news shows, “Frontline” and “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” will be devoting special reports to the upcoming elections. “We’ll be offering a three-hour broadcast that will offer all the information you need to have about the candidates and the issues,” says Wilson. “Given the number of undecided voters out there, we consider this a genuine service.”

Pubcasters will also be unveiling well-crafted profiles of literary lion Norman Mailer, thesp Clint Eastwood and helmer George Cukor on “American Masters.” Then, there’s a five-hour mini about the world’s most amazing structures on David Macaulay’s “Building Big,” as well as the tube premiere of the current Broadway revival of the Moss Hart/George S. Kaufman comedy “The Man Who Came to Dinner” in October. Meanwhile, everybody seems to be holding their breaths for docu-wonder boy Ken Burn’s next big thing, “Jazz,” a 10-part, 19-hour monster coming to a television near you in January.

But will all these erudite, cultural programs lure audiences spoiled by months of mindless summer reality shows? Wilson thinks not. “We were there first,” he notes. “PBS had reality programs such as ‘The American Family,’ ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ and last season’s ‘The 1900 House,’ and the great thing was that audiences responded to the shows because they were about something, and not about a group of people motivated by greed.” We’ll see if Wilson is right next time the pledge drive rolls around.

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