PBS updates series’ footprints

Lineups change to respond to new viewing patterns

“The revolution will be televised” is the tagline Los Angeles-based PBS is using to promote its new fall lineup, but a better phrase to wrap up the upcoming season could very well be “Who moved my cheese?”

After testing out a pilot schedule change at seven stations last year, public TV is revamping its lineups to respond to changing viewing patterns and dwindling TV audiences.

“The biggest change is moving ‘Exxon Mobil Masterpiece Theatre’ from its 30-some-odd-year-old spot on Sunday nights to Monday evenings,” says Jacoba Atlas, co-chief programming exec at PBS.

“Sunday nights have become an intense nights for dramas on the networks, as well as cable. We realized that a big part of our target audience was perhaps tuning in to ‘Sopranos’ on HBO. So we decided to offer great documentary counterprogramming by scheduling ‘American Masters’ and ‘American Experience’ on Sundays.”

Going after a younger, hipper target audience, the org is also offering “Life 360,” a 13-part docu magazine, hosted by Michel Martin, on Friday nights.

In addition, Tuesday primetime will be dedicated to science and technology, with “Nova,” moving to the 8 p.m. slot, followed by “Scientific American Frontiers” and “National Geographic Specials” at 9. Reality programming will be rounding out the Tuesday night lineup, which will feature “Local News,” a five-parter focusing on a local TV newsroom in different cities.

The current-affairs weekly show “Frontline” has also been sent packing, moving from its original Tuesday night spot to Thursday at 9 p.m. This move could end up annoying the fans of “Mystery!,” the imported suspense anthology series. Lovers of those crime-solving Brits will have to wait until summer, when the show comes back for a few more golden moments in the sun.

“We need to give the series a different kind of a footprint,” explains Atlas. “In the past, there has been an unevenness in the quality of the dramas on ‘Mystery!,’ some have been good, but some have been just OK. This will give us a chance to cherry-pick the best for the summer, where traditionally there are very few original dramas on the air.”

A new adaptation of Eudora Welty’s “The Ponder Heart,” starring Peter MacNicol and JoBeth Williams, and the Royal National Theatre production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” are among the more traditional dramas bowing on PBS in the next few months. In addition, Gregory Nava’s Latino-themed “American Family” is set for a January airdate.

Of course, what would a new PBS season be without a few choice documentary events? A kaleidoscopic look at the continent — “Africa: A Special Presentation of Nature” — began its eight-week run earlier this month. The final episodes of Rick Burns’ Emmy-winning “New York” will air Sept. 30, and Oct. 1 and 9. “Five Girls,” which offers a cinema verite take on the lives of five teens from Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods, will air on “P.O.V.” in October.

Also glowing on the radar is “Evolution,” a four-night mini-documentary that explores the history and impact of evolutionary science on society and culture. Obviously, the topic can be divisive, but PBS strongly defends the direction of the programs.

“We’re expecting some controversy,” notes Atlas, “but when it comes to presenting programs of this nature, (the producing entity) ‘Nova’ has impeccable credentials. Sure, we’ll be hearing from a minority of people, but the series is quite remarkable and features a top selection of scientists from around the world. They certainly don’t have to apologize to anyone for the work they that they do.”

One other note: PBS is saving the latest Ken Burns’ docu, a four-hour look at the life and times of Mark Twain, for January. It’s not confirmed, but Fox network threatens to counterprogram with four hours on the making of “Temptation Island.”

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