PBS faces up to the competition

Pat Mitchell, the new president of PBS, plans to offer more American dramas and tinker with name-brand series to lure younger viewers and chase away competitors. But will core viewers run away or stay put?

It's an outrage, cried the critics. The long-running "Mystery!" series from Britain was to be axed by the new force at PBS, Pat Mitchell. How dare she?

It turns out that "ax" is too strong a term. Maybe Ms. Mitchell, who took the helm at PBS a year ago, meant "reinvent."

She's faced with an aging PBS viewer demographic (median age 56), but says she's not trying to replace these viewers, just recognizing there's a lot of competition out there: A&E, The Learning Channel, Bravo, Discovery, and other cable networks have been moving in on PBS's territory.

"We have to be more concerned about differentiating ourselves," she said in a recent telephone interview. Both A&E and BBC America, she notes, have "Mystery!"-like programs.

Mitchell, the fifth president and CEO of PBS, came from Time Warner, where she was president of CNN Productions and Time Inc. Television. Earlier she taught English and drama at the University of Georgia in Athens and at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. She has also produced various news specials and founded her own production company, VU Productions.

"I spent the first year listening to our [PBS] member stations, and what I found was a picture of a singular enterprise at a critical intersection," she says. "We have several things converging at once. The competitive landscape around us is getting more competitive. So we have to look at our content and be more concerned that in the 500-channel universe we [offer] a unique choice...."

Though the PBS logo has long been associated with excellence - "Masterpiece Theatre," "Nova," "Frontline," "American Masters," "Nature," "The Lehrer News Hour," and "Mystery!" - it's a different world in televisionland today.

"Public television has been searching for itself over the last decade," says Gary Edgerton, a professor of film and television at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and author of the coming "Ken Burns's America." "Its distinctive role as developed in the '70s and '80s has been profoundly affected by cable and a lot of programming that only PBS used to do....

"A strong signal was sent when Pat Mitchell was hired because of her background behind and in front of the camera: 'Public television is going to do more original programming than ever before.' "

"There hasn't been a new series [on PBS] in 15 years," Mitchell notes. People don't sample a product if they think they already know what it is, she says. And PBS doesn't have a lot of money to promote its programming. The network has poured millions into the British-made "Mystery!" and she feels it's time that a reciprocal arrangement begin with PBS supplying some of its programming to British viewers.

Dr. Edgerton says that Mitchell's predecessor began lucrative home-video sales and increased PBS's presence on the Internet. And it is clear that Mitchell will continue to focus on both of these areas.

He also points out that whenever PBS airs a Ken Burns documentary (most recently "Jazz") or a Bill Moyers special, its ratings rise dramatically.

"The best documentaries [on television] are still produced by PBS in terms of talent, budget, time spent making them, and in terms of alternative voices ... the most interesting and different voices of any comparable network," Edgerton says. Many of these documentaries are sold later to help generate revenues.

Today's core PBS viewers are well-educated, affluent, and have access to cable TV. What PBS can add to its mix, Mitchell says, is more great American dramas.

She champions programs like "Hollywood Presents," a new series from member station KCET in Los Angeles that adapts American dramas for television. "Hollywood Presents" broke out of the gate with a sterling production of John Henry Redwood's "The Old Settler."

One of Mitchell's pet projects is "An American Family," a series about a Latino family, to be written and directed by Gregory Nava (whose films include "Selena," "Mi Familia," and "El Norte") with some of the most impressive Latino actors available. She's only a million dollars short of launch - a drop in any Hollywood bucket. And Mr. Nava is known for making a buck go further than most directors.

Another of her babies is "Public Square," which will look at issues on America's mind. The format of the 90-minute weekly magazine will be something like "All Things Considered" on National Public Radio.

"Life in Bold" will spotlight heroes in their own communities, says Henry Becton, manager of WGBH, the PBS affiliate in Boston.

When Fox TV dumped R.J. Cutler's splendid documentary "American High" last summer, Mitchell took on the series, which looks at the lives of middle-class suburban kids and their expectations about life. (Mr. Cutler is planning to follow up with a series on inner-city kids.)

The ratings have not been as high as hoped, but "parents are thanking us for the series," says Jacoba Atlas, chief program director at KCET in Los Angeles. "People are so grateful and are changing the dialogue with their own teens."

The idea that a television executive would actually care more about the impact of a TV program rather than its ratings is rare in the business.

"Public television is uniquely designed to serve local interests, as well as national," says Paula Kreger, vice president and station manager of WNET in New York. WNET, like its sister station WGBH in Boston, supplies 30 percent of the national programming. The delightful "Egg: The Arts Show" came out of a WNET local program called "City Arts."

Ms. Kreger points out that a real impulse behind PBS programming is the goal of opening the viewer's mind - another unique function of PBS.

WNET is set to work on a six-part documentary about Africa, according to program director Tamara Robinson. Look for "Changing Stages," a six-part series about the history of the theater, and "Frontier House," a reality series about living in the Montana wilderness without the benefit of contemporary amenities.

Meanwhile, the first woman ever to head PBS has her hands full trying to convince corporate America to reinvest in its communities and to underwrite worthy programs that may not fetch big ratings.

"About 15 years ago, there was a shift when you were approaching a corporation," says John Wilson, chief executive program director of WNET.

"Rather than talking to someone about the benefit to society their underwriting would enable, you were talking to brand managers who wanted to know, 'OK, what's this going to do for me and the product I'm in charge of?'

But I think there is an increasing opportunity and new awareness among corporations to go back to this notion of building social capital and being a part of this society," he adds.

Besides rooting itself in communities and affording local outreach for national shows, what else can PBS do that no one else can? For one thing, PBS doesn't interrupt its shows with commercials - A&E, BBC America, and Bravo do.

"It's a hugely important issue," Edgerton says. "No one talks about the [damage] commercial interruption does anymore because it's so pervasive. Ads make concentration difficult...."

But corporate intrusion into PBS is also continuing apace. Will company logos get bigger and last longer? "Masterpiece Theatre" is now called "ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre."

Most likely, local ad spots will lengthen a bit, but the PBS holds to 15-second sponsor spots, Mitchell says. Still, that's not the same as interrupting "Masterpiece Theatre" to sell jeans or cars.

If "Mystery!" is to be "reinvented," it's because there are great American writers like Tony Hillerman, whose Navajo detective captures something special in the American landscape, as Mitchell sees it.

It could be a great idea - like the American Collection, the American stories that are now part of "Masterpiece Theatre."

Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of "Masterpiece Theatre" and "Mystery!" says, "What we've tried to do over the years is eschew blood and gore ... but we have pursued mysteries that are smart, are character driven, and have a strong sense of place.... That is typical of all of them, from 'Sherlock Holmes' to 'Second Sight.'

"The best possible scenario is building 'Mystery!' and adding to it [American stories], she says. "We have something worth its weight in gold ... a brand. And you can't buy a brand like 'Mystery!' anymore. It took 20 years to get it to this state."

The challenge for Mitchell and PBS will be to find the right mix of congressional, corporate, and viewer funding that can make her new ideas into realities.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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