Philanthropists in California and New York contributed separate gifts of $1 million to two public TV shows last month. With her six-figure contribution to the Masterpiece Trust, Darlene Shiley of San Diego made the largest gift to date to the fund, established in January 2011. Shiley, one of the first donors to the trust, made a gift of $250,000 last year. Her $1 million contribution was made on behalf of her and her late husband Donald and will be split with KPBS in San Diego. The Masterpiece Trust allows major donors to directly support the Masterpiece strand of British drama programs on PBS while designating part of the gift to their local station.
Suspecting that Masterpiece Theatre is showing its age after 36 seasons — an eon in TV years — the program’s producers at Boston’s WGBH will “polish” the brand and expand into new media platforms in order to bring more structure and predictability to the schedule and reach the next generation of Sunday night drama fans. The same courtly theme music by French composer Jean-Joseph Mouret will open the program, but it will lose the little tabletop journey of its video opening and half of the series name. The producers will drop “Theatre” and add headings for three distinct seasonal strands: Masterpiece Contemporary in the fall, Masterpiece Classics in winter/spring and Masterpiece Mystery! (working title) in the summer slot Mystery! now fills.
Ed Asner takes the role of Bryan, not Darrow, in LATW’s drama based on the Scopes transcript. John de Lancie, at right, plays Darrow. Susan Loewenberg chose a radio play about the Scopes trial for L.A. Theatre Works’ 2005 national tour because it’s the one that teachers request most from the company’s catalog of more than 200 recorded plays. The teachers seemed to be saying the evolution/creation fight is an enduring topic in our national life and not just a quirky little philosophical eruption that excuses a quick revival of The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial. Indeed, as Ed Asner started off the tour last week as William Jennings Bryan, defender of creation, in Arcata, Calif., a new evolution trial was under way in court in Dover, Pa.
For the past four years under PBS President Pat Mitchell, the network has had two chief program executives — at headquarters in Alexandria, Va., John Wilson, a veteran public TV programmer who came to PBS a decade ago from KAET in Phoenix; and in Los Angeles, Jacoba (Coby) Atlas, a news and documentary producer who previously worked with Mitchell at CNN. In this interview they describe for the first time a new formal practice of using minimum ratings, along with other factors, to judge the success of programs. They also discuss brainstorming with producers to create new programs and the tight budgets that limit how many new things PBS can try. Atlas and Wilson spoke with Current at PBS headquarters and later by phone. This transcript is edited. Setting ratings floors
In your programming plan in the PBS budget for next year, you talk about establishing a new set of goals for judging programs. What factors will you consider?
Just five weeks after filing his last Letter from America for the BBC, Alistair Cooke died March 30  at his home in Manhattan. He was 95 and had heart disease. Cooke had delivered the Letter for 58 years, far exceeding his 26 years as a U.S. correspondent for Britain’s Guardian newspaper or the mere 22 years he hosted Masterpiece Theatre.
… Now The Forsyte Saga is coming down the pike again, in a six-hour adaptation of the first two books in the Forsyte series. Produced for Granada Television and WGBH by Sita Williams, who was producer of the light-hearted and sexually charged PBS comedy Reckless, this Forsyte will feature a younger cast than the original’s, a snappier pace …
It was public TV’s first unqualified national success, a smash hit. Before Masterpiece Theatre, American Playhouse or Hollywood Television Theatre, there was An Age of Kings, Shakespeare’s history plays in 15 parts, a chronicle of Britain’s monarchs from Richard II (1399) to Richard III (1484).
One of PBS’s best-known programs remains a major asset for viewers and something of an embarrassment for U.S. producers because it’s made largely in Britain. Near the end of June 1970, Stanford Calderwood and his wife, Norma Jean, were comfortably settled in their regular rooms in London’s Claridge’s Hotel. Until a few weeks before, he had been executive vice president of the Polaroid Corp. She was an Islamic scholar who took advantage of their frequent visits to England to conduct research at the British Museum. But this trip was different.
Fifty-seven years ago, in her last novel, Edith Wharton told the story of The Buccaneers — a platoon of lovely American girls invading England, plundering titles and winning social success. Then, last winter, the colonies were again attacking the sceptered isle. Americans were conspiring with the BBC to spice up and Americanize the five-part mini-series based on Wharton’s novel. The BBC/WGBH coproduction, which has its first U.S. airing Oct. 8-10, opened in February in Britain, and some British critics charged that the “ratings-grubbing American partners had insisted on a sexy ending,” recalled Masterpiece Theatre Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton at the Los Angeles press tour this summer.