PASADENA, Calif. — The special package of primetime shows about gun violence that PBS unveiled to television critics Monday offers an example of how Beth Hoppe intends to operate as the network’s new chief programmer.
Hoppe had been promoted to chief program executive and g.m. only three days before the Dec. 14 shooting in Connecticut claimed the lives of 26 students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
As news of the tragedy unfolded, Hoppe was on the phone with producers, “trying to figure out what the appropriate PBS response was," she told Current. "We looked at the landscape and said, 'How can we meet the needs of our viewers in a way they're not being served by the media?’"
The result is "After Newtown," five hours of special primetime programs and news coverage that will air nightly Feb. 18-22. The package, which includes a special Frontline report on shooter Adam Lanza and a Nova documentary about the motivations of rampage killers, aims to provide background, perspective, new information and analysis to help viewers understand more about gun violence and reach informed conclusions about proposed responses to the Newtown shootings.
As Hoppe sees it, enlisting producers of existing PBS series to provide comprehensive coverage of major news stories is a big part of her job. This includes pursuing programs that commemorate historic events, such as the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which will be commemorated Aug. 28. It was during that event that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Hoppe is looking into special programming marking that anniversary.
Hoppe is also reaching out to a broad range of producers and encouraging them to bring new ideas to PBS. She’s working to create themed programs and to strengthen the schedule at 10 p.m. across the week.
"I think we need to be more outward-focused than perhaps PBS has been in the past," she said. So she and deputy programmers Bill Gardner and Donald Thoms have been spreading the word at industry conferences. "Maybe in the past there was so much coming over the transom, it was just a matter of sorting through it. Now we want to be more proactive."
In the meantime, Hoppe hopes to strengthen PBS’s scheduling strategies by staying in closer contact with PBS series producers. "They tell us what they're working on,” Hoppe said, “and we think about how we can schedule that most effectively and what we can pair that with.”
"It's a little bit of a change," Hoppe said. "We can only build around their programs if we know what they're doing."
As a producer for New York’s WNET more than a decade ago, Hoppe developed the history-focused reality TV series Frontier House and Colonial House, in which participants were filmed as they lived the day-to-day lives of Americans in earlier historical periods. Experiential history, as it was called, was a genre of reality TV that was unique to public TV at the time, and the program strand was very popular with viewers.
The new chief programmer said she is considering ways to breathe new life into that genre and to fund production of an American period drama.
"For the record, I was considering it before Hatfields & McCoys [a History channel series for which Kevin Costner won a best actor Golden Globe award], and I'm crazy about it as a project," Hoppe said. "What will set ours apart is that it will be based on history with factual information. I don't think those are the priorities of some of the other networks' projects."
But the series will be produced only if Hoppe can find the money, which is no small task. "American drama is so expensive," she said. At this point, she rates the chances of securing funding for the project at only 50-50.
Improving PBS’s program line-up for 10 p.m., an assignment that Hoppe took on in her previous job as programming v.p., remains a priority. By giving as much attention to the shows in that time slot as those airing earlier in primetime, PBS will retain more viewers, she said. The increased time-spent-viewing, she said, will improve the fundraising prospects of local public television stations.
Lack of funding for public TV is the biggest challenge of her new job, the head programmer said. Only on rare occasions can PBS afford to pick up the entire tab for a series.
"We need to be creative about programs from a fundraising perspective," she said. "It comes down to being as creative in fundraising as in idea generation."
In a May 2012 Q&A with Current, PBS programmers John Wilson, Beth Hoppe and Donald Thoms discuss strategies for presenting arts programs; how granular Nielsen ratings numbers help them make decisions about commissioning, scheduling and promoting primetime programs; and why PBS stepped back from its proposal to insert promotional breaks into programming.