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Dear Impresario: Free-up funds to go with talented producers

In 1995, Current asked three of public TV's highly regarded program-makers to write "Dear Impresario" letters to the next chief programmer at PBS--a position then vacant. Catherine Allan is senior executive producer for national programming at KTCA-TV, Twin Cities. She served as co-e.p. of the documentary "Hoop Dreams,'' and e.p. of Liberty!, a six-part documentary on the American Revolution. Originally published in Current, May 29, 1995

Catherine Allan

"A few years ago PBS invested heavily in revitalizing the children's schedule. The gamble paid off. Now it's time to take the same aggressive attitude and commitment of dollars towards re-inventing primetime."

By Catherine Allan

Dear Impresario: You are coming to PBS at a challenging time, but then all times have been challenging, as long as I've been associated with the system. But never before has it seemed more important to fight for and aggressively go after the programming that will make our network survive. With the usual caveats that it is much easier to be a critic than a czar, particularly at a time of shrinking resources, let me offer the following suggestions:

Cultivate and nurture creative talent: PBS can and should play a leading role in nurturing relationships with talented producers, both at the station and independent level. As co-executive producer of "Hoop Dreams,'' I have seen what can happen when a station, together with PBS and CPB, takes a risk and invests in the talent, passion and absolute determination of independent filmmakers. Let's make sure that PBS is the system that these filmmakers come back to for their next projects, rather than HBO or the networks. (Why, for instance, was Michael Moore's TV Nation on NBC rather than PBS? )

One way to do that is to ensure that producers perceive PBS as a user-friendly place to work. Many independents see PBS and CPB as complex and difficult organizations to navigate. On the "plus'' side, most also recognize the system as a place where they are given the time, creative freedom and flexibility to fulfill their vision--something they are unlikely to find at either the networks or cable. When resources are tight, building solid, creative relationships is more important than ever.

Create some turnover in the schedule: We need new primetime strands. PBS is overloaded with series that have been on the air for 10 years or more, several for more than 20 years. Surely there is a point when brand equity wears out. Furthermore, it has been years since a major new strand was introduced. I would look seriously at retiring at least one major primetime strand to make room for new programming and new voices. A few years ago PBS invested heavily in revitalizing the children's schedule. The gamble paid off. Now it's time to take the same aggressive attitude and commitment of dollars towards re-inventing primetime.

And, while you're making changes, I would also think about how to re-conceive or re-package the existing long-term series that you do keep on board. Even some of our most vital and popular long-running series could use a facelift, a new name, and some different packaging to create a perception with the public of something new and worth tuning in for.

Experiment and take chances: Now that you've freed-up new funds by cutting loose some of the older series, use some of that money to experiment and take risks. Even though some of the risks PBS has taken in the past few years have not worked out--Think Twice and The Steven Banks Show, for example--I applaud the system for trying. In contrast, Eyewitness, with its distinctive concept and visual look, is an example of a new series that has worked. Too often, there is a sameness about nature and science programming on PBS. Eyewitness is a refreshing change. Let's see more of that. With upstart networks like Fox breaking with tradition, PBS needs to overcome its image of predictability and find ways to make its traditional genres more compelling and entertaining to watch.

Think of using the stations, independent producers and production companies as places to try out new concepts and on-air talent. Go out on the road and talk to stations and producers to get new ideas and find new personalities, then provide the best of them with development money. Bill Nye, Julia Child, Thalassa Cruso and other national talent all started out at the local level. Every city in America has its own personalities. Don't underestimate the value of a small seed grant to launch a new national face or series.

Continue to invest in children: Children's programming is one area where PBS has scored some real successes in the past few years, investing significant sums to create new, high-quality series that can compete with cable and provide an image of value. I would continue the expansion of the children's programming schedule that began under Jennifer Lawson. But rather than putting most of your resources into pre-school programming, I think you need to look at increasing the number of school-age series like Ghostwriter, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and Bill Nye, the Science Guy. In addition to meeting the needs of an underserved age group, these older-oriented series bring a much needed perception of hipness and entertainment value to PBS children's schedule and help us to compete with the more kid-friendly Nickleodeon. While you are at it, I would also look at bringing on another animated series like The Magic School Bus. My son could not believe that he could watch cartoons without commercials.

Continue to support challenging documentaries: PBS is one of the few places where documentaries are shown regularly, although HBO is certainly coming on aggressively in this area. I would continue to support and expand documentary series like P.O.V. and Frontline, but I would also seek out the unusual, personal documentary projects that may not fit into either of those strands. Lately, high-profile documentaries like "Roger & Me,'' "Crumb'' and "Hoop Dreams'' have been drawing large audiences and bringing renewed interest in the feature-length documentary. PBS should continue to be the network where these projects are nurtured and then brought to a wide national audience.

Bring American drama back to public television: Entertaining and thoughtful dramatic series are important for any primetime schedule and currently, there are precious few hours each week on PBS in which to lose oneself to a good story, well-written and well-acted. Most of what we do see is British. Yes, they seem to do drama better than we do, but why not pool resources with foreign co-producers as in Tales of the City and co-produce high-quality drama specials that are contemporary and not exclusively British. Rather than returning to another weekly series like American Playhouse, I would like to see a new strand made up of drama events that, like Hallmark Hall of Fame, could air four times per year bringing audiences a variety of domestic dramas, imports and co-productions.

My idea of a perfect season would be: August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, And the Band Played On (both of which should have been on PBS but were not), Middlemarch and Tales of the City.

Two program areas I would like to see on PBS:

  • a weekly program about television--part review show like the old Sneak Previews and part a report on emerging trends in the rapidly changing medium.
  • a series of documentaries on performers and other artists. I think In the Spotlight has the potential to become a great new series that could broaden our audience. I would think about expanding both the number of programs in this series and the range of performers to include folk, country, R&B and hip-hop. Focus the program less on performance segments and more on documentary/interview.

Use this same performance/documentary format to profile other living artists, writers, film directors, dancers, etc., and their work.

Two areas I would not worry about covering:

  • quick and timely reacts to current events. With the proliferation of newsmagazines, this feels like a wasted use of limited resources.
  • game shows, sitcoms, re-runs of network series or anything else that smacks of copying commercial television.

So, welcome to the world of PBS, with all of its challenges and opportunities. And whatever new programs you bring into the system, keep up the commitment to mission. In the end, as we are increasingly asked to defend our existence, what will distinguish PBS from the competition is our commitment to quality, not shareholders, as the bottom line.



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Why public broadcasting?: Commentaries on its purpose and reality.

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