TCA: PBS plans week of specials on Newtown shootings

Pubcaster is in the market for more scripted fare

Riding the momentum of “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock,” PBS is actively in the market for more scripted programming, pubcaster topper Paula Kerger told reporters Monday.

Kerger, speaking during PBS’ portion of the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, also unveiled a slew of fresh unscripted programs, from a docu series on Latino Americans to a biographical portrait of Stephen Hawking to a week of specials examining the aftermath of the shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Kerger said “Downton’s” impressive ratings have piqued the interest of producers “who now see PBS as a place for interesting dramas,” she said. “We’re in this great era of really wonderful scripted work across cable and broadcast (TV). It’s wonderful for us to be part of that and bring something that is a little different.”

Kerger acknowledged that because of the high cost of scripted skeins, PBS is dependent on finding co-production partners to help fund its series — as it has done with ITV, BBC, HBO and others in the past.

“We look very carefully at the investments we make in content,” she said. “Some of the productions we’re about to bring forth we’re able to do because they are co-pros.”

Among the fresh scripted fare coming to PBS this year is “The Bletchley Circle,” a three-part murder mystery from the U.K.’s ITV, and season two of another Brit important “Call the Midwife,” both set to bow in April. Kerger noted that season one of the WWII period drama “Midwife” was been a hit for PBS — not a “Downton”-level hit but a show that far exceeds the pubcaster’s typical primetime average. Kerger was pressed about the decision to run “Downtown” several months after its episodes air in the U.K., given how fast plot details and spoilers travel across the Internet She acknowledged that the question of synching up with the U.K. has been much discussed by PBS brass.

There are logistical hurdles — for one, PBS has to do some editing on the episodes that air in the U.K. with commercials — but mostly Kerger indicated she believes the show is better served with a January bow rather than in the “teeth” of fall premiere season. “I want to make sure we put ‘Downton’ in a place where it has the opportunity to be seen and appreciated by as many people as possible,” she said. And the 7.9 million viewers who turned out for “Downton’s” third-season preem earlier this month are the

best evidence that auds are tuning in even if some plot points have seeped out.

As is often the case, PBS is facing uncertainty about its funding levels at a time when there is much political discord over federal budgetary priorities. She was overwhelmed by the response from the public last fall after some in Congress called for slashing funding to PBS and Corporation for Public Broadasting productions. “It was a really important moment for the American public to say ‘This is important to us.’ That message was heard on the Hill as well,” she said. Among the new programs PBS unveiled Monday:

• “After Newtown,” a week of specials starting Feb. 18 bexamining the massacre of 26 children and adults at an elementary school in Connecticut, including a “Frontline” doc on the shooter, “Raising Adam Lanza.”

• “Latino Americans,” a six-part look slated for fall at the history and growing influence of the nation’s Hispanic population, narrated by Benjamin Bratt.

• “A Brief History of Mine,” a docu on famed physicist Hawking.

• “How Sherlock Changed the World,” a look a the impact of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation on criminal investigative and forensic techniques.

Also for the fall, PBS aims to add an indie documentary film showcase slot to its Monday primetime lineup.

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