After a year of combing through PBS’s archives, Ron Hull has uncovered a treasure-trove of programs worth reviving one way or another.
Though he still spends part of each week in Nebraska, where he teaches a university class in international broadcasting, Hull has made considerable progress on his special assignment at PBS headquarters in Virginia: he has read through some 12,000 old file folders, come up with 850 programs that might be useful, and begun the gargantuan task of screening the first 10 minutes of these myriad possibilities. He’s been assisted in this by Nancy Dillon, assistant director of program data and analysis.
The revival prospects that he’s found could come back through the National Program Service, be syndicated through PBS Select or PBS Plus or be offered as fundraising programs. When Bob Ottenhoff, PBS executive v.p., recruited Hull for this assignment last spring, he also asked the veteran programmer to look for shows that could be released on home video, sold overseas, or packaged for a dedicated cable service. The idea was to cull the archives for programs that could find new broadcast audiences or generate new revenue streams for PBS.
The possibilities are mind-boggling in both quantity and quality, Hull is the first to admit. He already has circulated lengthy videocassettes of excerpts to top PBS executives, who will evaluate what he’s found so far. The tapes contain snippets of what Hull believes to be the best of PBS’s drama and performance programs.
When he first began mining the archives, Hull, a onetime director of CPB’s Television Program Fund, was unsure if he was up to the task. “After I got into it, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was with old friends.” He began to “look forward to opening drawer to see who would pop out at me.”
Before they became big stars
Hull selected 26 drama titles for further consideration by looking at two criteria–who wrote the material and who performed it. Work by top-notch American playwrights, “the best work of our best writers,” was brought out of the archives. He found productions of Eugene O’Neill’s “Wilderness” and “Strange Interlude,” and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Programs coproduced with the Brits were not really an option, because acquiring rights would be too complicated.
In the hunt for name performers, Hull discovered lots of still-relevant work featuring actors who have since become stars, such as “The Poet Game,” featuring a 34-year-old Anthony Hopkins, and “Uncommon Women and Others,” starring Meryl Streep. There’s also a modern-dress “Antigone” with Stacey Keach. Another “top possibility” is the “Andersonville Trial,” directed and introduced by George C. Scott.
In an informal poll of longtime programmers, Hull discovered that many of their most-memorable selections were dramas. “Lathe of Heaven,” a futuristic story that aired in 1980, was “on everybody’s list.” Another old favorite under consideration is “Steambath” from 1973, which Hull described as “one of the most talked-about programs we’ve ever produced.” It is a “satirical, bizarre comedy” starring Bill (Incredible Hulk) Bixby and Valerie Perrine, back in the days when Hull says she was considered “the most perfect female in North America.”
The show, a production of Hollywood Television Theatre, is one of Hull’s personal favorites, but he’s concerned that its portrayal of God as a Puerto Rican towel boy could prove controversial. Nowadays, public TV stations are much more conservative in their programming choices than in 1973, he says.
Another series that’s stuck in the minds of public TV veterans is the classic Great American Dream Machine. Individual episodes of the first-ever television magazine are too dated, but Hull sees possibilities for a retrospective of many “very delightful” segments pulled from the series.
After compiling a reel of 34 music and performance programs, Hull sings praise for Jac Venza, executive producer of Great Performances. “After coming out of all of that research, among the myriad persons who have contributed over the years in terms of quality and quantity of programs, Jac Venza led the pack of absolutely impeccably high standards and bringing the best that our culture has to offer. He is just phenomenal.”
Hull would like to package a Great Performances retrospective that would supplement the continuing series. He says there are “umpteen ways you can go” in configuring historical performance programs.
His next task is to consult with PBS execs in narrowing down the list of programs under consideration, then request complete tapes for further evaluation. PBS also has to figure out “how to pay the heavy costs of rights” to revive these programs. He estimates that the music and dance programs will be “very expensive,” up to $125,000 per program.
He also has whole other categories of programs to consider, such as biography, documentary and history, and must come up with packages of “things that relate to each other.”
At next month’s PBS Annual Meeting, Hull will lead a concurrent session that reviews the riches he found in the archives. He’ll seek feedback on what would be good to revive and how it could be framed.
“The best ideas all come from producers,” says Hull. “I hope this material serves as a stimulus to get people thinking about the possibilities that I can’t think of myself.”