The Public Broadcasting Service is still with us despite ongoing controversy about its funding. And a good thing, too. Available to 97 percent of American households for free, and without commercial interruptions, PBS offers something viewers can't find on commercial TV.
"We treat our audience with respect," says John Wilson, senior vice president of programming services at PBS. "We recognize them as an audience, not a pool of consumers."
That respect includes a devotion to the issue of diversity, something lacking on commercial networks. While activist groups have threatened to boycott the major networks who have shortchanged minorities, PBS offers "Celebrating Diversity," an eclectic series that began with An American Love Story last Sunday. The 10-hour documentary about an interracial couple and their two daughters has inspired a Web site (www.pbs.org/lovestories), extending the life of the broadcast and providing an unusual opportunity for couples with cultural, religious, or racial differences to share their stories with others.
It's this kind of community involvement that distinguishes PBS from everybody else. It also led to Seeking Solutions (Sept. 22.), a two-hour special that seeks grass-roots solutions to youth violence and hate crimes. (Check local listings for all PBS times and dates, which can vary with each PBS affiliate.)
The Border (Sept. 23, 24) follows six stories of culture clashes where Mexico and the United States meet, as a new cross-border culture continues to emerge. A few days later (Sept. 29), PBS airs The Americanos Concert at the Kennedy Center, for which Latino actor Edward James Olmos brought together stars like Gloria Estefan, Marc Anthony, Joan Baez, Vikki Carr, and Jose Feliciano.
Visas and Virtue (Oct. 23), the Academy Award-winning documentary about Japanese Consul General Chiune Sugihara, who saved thousands of Jewish lives in Lithuania during World War II, is followed immediately by I Am Viet Hung, the story of a great Vietnamese opera singer, whose art form is passing away.
Wonders of the African World (Oct. 25-27) is hosted by the brilliant scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., a dynamic speaker whose unshakable realism uncovers the shocking and the good in his African experience and heritage. Ralph Ellison's King of the Bingo Game (Nov. 21) is the tale of an African-American man trying to save his family during the Great Depression. It is the second episode in "American Storytellers," a series of short fiction.
The much anticipated New York: A Documentary Film (Nov. 14-18) is a six-part series made by Ric Burns (brother of documentary maker Ken Burns) that explores that culturally rich, diverse, and vibrant city.
Diversity has another meaning, too: PBS airs a wide range of programs that might not always bring in high Nielsen ratings.
A remarkable documentary by Ken Burns, Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (Nov. 7, 8) is a passionate, lavish, and brilliant historical biography that reminds us how far we've come as a people. Stanton and Anthony "mothered" the women's movement, and their efforts ultimately led to women's right to vote.
You'll also want to check out the insightful Hitchcock, Selznick, and the End of Hollywood (Nov. 1). Other documentaries this season include Red Files, a four-part series (Mondays, Sept. 27-Oct. 18) that explores the Soviet view of recent history with interviews, declassified dossiers, and archival footage. Nova's Fall of the Leaning Tower (Oct. 5) documents the measures to save that monument in Pisa, Italy. Among science and nature highlights are Nature's Antarctica: The End of the Earth (Oct. 24, 31); Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth, a four-part odyssey into microbes; and the mind-boggling, amusing, and informative Life Beyond Earth (Nov. 10), a two-part documentary about our search for extraterrestrial life.
The long-running series "Mystery!" opens with the chilling, complex two-part tale of murder and justice Second Sight (Sept. 30, Oct. 7), in which an English detective begins to lose his sight but keeps his colleagues fooled until he can solve the case. Two other terrific prime-time "Mystery!" episodes: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Series Two: Living on Risk (Oct. 14, 21) and Playing God (Oct. 28, Nov.4) feature author P.D. James's heroine Cordelia Gray. And "Mystery" host Dianna Rigg will star in The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries: Speedy Death (Nov. 11).
Masterpiece Theatre opens its 29th season with Albert Finney in A Rather English Marriage (Oct. 3), a poignant tale about two crusty old men who live together after their wives die. Sad as it is at first, the tale leads ultimately to an unusual and kindly ending.
And then, you don't want to miss the Millennium Day Broadcast beginning Dec. 31, when the whole world will be on television in an unprecedented media event.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society