'Good Stories, Well Told.'

From jazz to Napoleon, viewers click to PBS for one thing: quality shows.

Anyone who thinks there's nothing on TV isn't watching PBS.

Where else could you see Ken Burns's 10-hour series on Jazz (coming in January), a four-part program on Napoleon (November), and a two-part series on the Rockefellers (Oct. 16, 23)?

The trouble is, it's not as easy to gain attention when you're PBS and your air times vary from market to market. It can cause confusion. Networks and cable channels, meanwhile, run serial dramas and sitcoms at consistent times.

Still, most of us know what to expect from PBS. The prime-time shows worth watching have been around for years - "Masterpiece Theatre," "Mystery!," "American Masters," "Nova," "Frontline," "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer," "Great Performances," and "The American Experience." It's a rich and varied tradition that no other network can duplicate.

Take "Nova." While the commercial networks have failed to provide a continuing science series, "Nova" has illuminated the deepest regions of science with extraordinary success for 27 seasons.

"It takes the viewer along with the scientists to look for the answers - even when they don't find them," says "Nova" executive producer Paula Apsell.

Shows like "Nova" and other signature series "are some of the pillars on which we rest," says John Wilson, PBS senior vice president for programming services. "They continue to reinvent themselves.... We seek to be a mirror to America. And that's a hard job, because America is constantly changing. But we embrace that and talk about it every day."

One sign of change is a new program called "A Time to Choose." Mr. Wilson calls it a symbol of new thinking at PBS. It is a first-time collaboration among "Frontline," "The News Hour," and National Public Radio.

"They are coming together on air and online to create the definitive voters' guide for the election ...," Wilson says.

Another sign of the times is the "pilot schedule project" PBS undertakes this fall with seven member stations. They are trying to make their programming more "viewer driven," scheduling shows with common subjects. For example, they will air "Nova" and a series like "Scientific American Frontiers" back to back.

They are making a new attempt at avoiding viewer conflicts, too. "Masterpiece Theatre" is being moved from Sunday night, where it is in competition with commercial network movies, to Monday, where it's biggest competitor is Monday Night Football.

"We are different to be sure, in how we present our shows, the points of view we bring, the fact that they are not commercially driven ...," Wilson says.

"Fundamentally, what doesn't change," he says, "is that we're still about good stories well told. With every program, we ask, 'Is this a show we want the PBS logo on?' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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