PBS’ fall sked returns to comfort of past

Blightly dramas, science series among p'gramming

Like many of the commercial channels, PBS is offering its version of comfort food to keep its longtime viewers from grabbing the remote control.

Back on the schedule are well-crafted docus, lushly shot British dramas, and the usual mix of current affairs, performance and science weekly series.

And this year, they’re staying in their old timeslots.

Fans of classic drama showcase “ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre” should be grateful that the series will be moving back to its original Sunday evening schedule; programmers shunted it to Monday nights last season.

“We made the move to Monday nights last year because we didn’t want to compete with the HBO drama powerhouse on Sunday nights,” says Jacobe Atlas, co-chief programming exec at PBS.

“What happened was that ‘Masterpiece’ was doing fine on Mondays, but our Sunday night docu series ‘American Experience’ lost some of its audience.”

As a result, “Masterpiece Theatre” will be back in its cozy armchair spot Sundays and will kick off its new season with an extravagant seven-part series based on John Galsworthy’s popular novel “The Forsyte Saga.”

The new BBC program stars the likes of Damian Lewis, Rupert Graves, Gina McKee and Ioan Gruffudd, and is likely to generate the same kind of buzz the first BBC adaptation of the book did in 1968.

“It’s completely rethought and redramatized, and it’s as compelling as anything I’ve seen on the showcase,” notes Atlas. “We’re hoping that it will reawaken people to how good the series can be.”

Also on “a look back in wonder” mode is PBS staple documentarian Ken Burns, who has digitally remastered some of his most popular works for the fall.

Airing under the “Ken Burns’ American Stories” banner, the new Monday night weekly series will be a digital greatest hits of the filmmaker and will include titles such as “The Statue of Liberty,” “Mark Twain,” “Huey Long” and (the biggest one of them all) “The Civil War.”

Among the other new season highlights will be: “The Two Towns of Jasper,” Whitney Dow’s docu about the brutal murder of African-American James Byrd Jr. by white supremacists (Dec. 12); “Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet,” a timely look at Islam and its impact in America (Dec. 18); an adaptation of Dava Sobel’s bestseller “Galileo’s Daughter,” starring Simon Callow as the brilliant scientist on “Nova” (Oct. 29); as well as a look back at the making of John Huston’s memorable film “The Misfits” (Oct. 2).

Also on tap are a TV adaptation of the play “Copenhagen,” starring Francesca Annis and Stephen Rea; concert versions of the musical “Contact” and the “Richard Rodgers Gala” on “Live From Lincoln Center”; and a wide range of profiles on Willie Nelson, Jimmy Carter, Benjamin Franklin and the young Sigmund Freud.

Since there’s no escaping reality programming these days, PBS will be doing its share by offering “1940s House,” a show in which three generations of a British family are forced to put up with conditions similar to those experienced by their countrymen during WWII.

Not quite as sordid as “Big Brother”; this is public TV, after all.

Unfortunately, reality is hitting PBS in other ways as well. Like most other nonprofits, pubcasters are seeing the ripple effect of the unstable Wall Street climate.

“This means foundations and corporations have less money to use as underwriting in the future,” says Atlas. “We don’t know how long this will last, but this could mean that we’d have to husband our money for fewer programs. The kind of looser spending that was going on in the ’90s is definitely a thing of the past.”