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PBS Arts Festival aims for Fridays

Event will showcase performances across the country

PBS will bring a new Ken Burns project to air in October while also launching its inaugural Arts Fall Festival, showcasing nine full-length performances and the cities that present them.

“Prohibition,” the latest from Burns and exec producer partner Lynn Novick, will effectively kick off the 2011-12 season for PBS on Oct. 2, with the three two-hour segments running on consecutive nights. Peter Coyote narrates the docu about the early 20th-century ban on liquor, with Wynton Marsalis providing music and Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons, Paul Giamatti, John Lithgow, Samuel L. Jackson and Patricia Clarkson contributing voices.

The Arts Fall Festival, premiering Oct. 14 and airing Fridays through December, will use one particular perf as a gateway to the performing and visual arts worlds of Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Miami, San Francisco and other locales. Each night will be supplemented with a short doc produced with PBS member stations — PBS SoCal in the case of L.A.

“We have been talking over the last couple of years about what we could do differently in the arts,” PBS prexy-CEO Paula A. Kerger told Variety. “We thought that one thing (would be) to focus on a broadcast event … and then not only talk about the piece but also talk about the community around it.”

Steve Martin will narrate the Blue Ridge Mountains night, “Give Me the Banjo,” exploring the roots of American music including ragtime and early jazz, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and country. A combination of music historians and such performers as Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Taj Mahal and Bela Fleck will be among those providing commentary.

The Los Angeles edition will alight upon “Great Performances: Il Postino from L.A. Opera,” featuring Placido Domingo, while Chicago will feature “American Masters: Bill T. Jones — A Good Man.”

Though some segments in the Fall Arts Festival were built around programs PBS already planned to air, in other cases, such as Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-centered “Women Who Rock,” the festival provided an opening for a subject PBS has been eyeing.

And while New York is usually first on people’s minds for arts presentations, the Big Apple will take a back seat to such cities as Galveston, which will feature “Tommy Tune — Steps in Time.”

“New York’s not on this list, and that was a little bit by design,” Kerger said. “That’s not to say New York won’t be in some (future) episode, but we do a fair amount from New York, and part of the story we’re trying to tell with the whole series is that there’s great art happening all over the country.”

PBS also plans to relaunch “Need to Know” at 8:30 p.m. Fridays beginning Sept. 16, with a focus on the 2012 elections.

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