After years of charges that PBS has ignored American drama in favor of
British imports, the tides are turning. This fall will bring a host of dramatic
works, from televised stage productions to cinematic interpretations of
literature to short new plays filmed in high-definition video. What ties
them together is their renewed focus on literature and theater that is distinctly
red, white and blue. Send a transatlantic wire: American drama is back. Instead of entrusting the genre to a single production unit, as it did
with American Playhouse in 1982-94, PBS is now buying dramas from
several production units, each with its own approach.
In a bid to expand its children’s franchise into an increasingly competitive daypart, PBS on Sept. 30 will launch Bookworm Bunch, a block of six new animated series slated for Saturday mornings. Produced by Toronto-based Nelvana Communications, Bookworm Bunch is PBS’s first offering of original children’s fare for weekends — when stations traditionally program their own selection of how-to programs and other fare. PBS created the block as a distinctive alternative to the rock ’em-sock ’em, boy-oriented fare aired by other broadcast networks on Saturdays. “It’s a tremendous thing that PBS is doing — something that’s almost revolutionary — in presenting American children with an alternative to what I call ‘toxic television,'” said Rosemary Wells, author of Timothy Goes to School, one of six children’s books to be adapted for TV in the new PBS Kids block.
A visually impaired person watching CBS’s Survivor cannot see the ousted member’s torch extinguished, doesn’t know what Bart writes on the blackboard in The Simpsons’ opening sequence, and can’t laugh at the antics of Eddie the terrier on Frasier. But thanks to Descriptive Video Service, he or she can understand that the silence on an episode of ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre’s “Our Mutual Friend” means that Bella is gazing at the fire with tear-filled eyes after scorning a suitor, that the splashing on Nature signifies grizzly cubs out for a swim, or that Arthur doesn’t look much like a real aardvark. DVS, a service of WGBH, Boston, has been around since 1987, and in those 13 years PBS has been the lone broadcast network to regularly carry programs that are accessible to the blind. By tuning their TV sets to the secondary audio programming (SAP) channel, those who have trouble seeing can enjoy Mystery!, Nova, The Living Edens, The American Experience, Wishbone, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and a smattering of other programs in which a narrator fills the pauses in dialogue to describe the characters’ features, clothing, and gestures; setting and scenery; action sequences and other purely visual elements. DVS, which operates under the aegis of WGBH’s Media Access Group, provides video description not only for public television but also for some films shown on the Turner Classic Movie Network, in IMAX theaters, and some first-run film releases, such as Titanic and the upcoming The Patriot.
The Internet will revolutionize how radio reading services deliver — and their visually impaired clients receive — information, but providers are just beginning to explore the possibilities. Of the 100 or so radio reading services that belong to the International Association of Audio Information Services, only a handful now have web sites that provide audio streaming. Theoretically at least, “every radio reading program can be put onto an audio server and listened to by any blind person anywhere, anytime,” as long as he or she has Internet access, Bob Brummond, g.m. of the RAISE Reading Service in Asheville, N.C., told attendees at the IAAIS annual conference last month in Washington, D.C.
The Internet offers a way to leapfrog over many of the problems facing radio reading services. Services typically broadcast over a subcarrier channel of an FM radio station (frequently a public radio station or one associated with a college or library). Listeners must have a special subsidiary communications authorization (SCA) receiver to hear the closed-circuit broadcast.
Public broadcasters are ramping up efforts to secure support of their position in the Senate after the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation that could force the FCC to permit religious broadcasters to use reserved noncommercial educational channels without determining whether they carry educational programs or not. The Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act, H.R. 4201, passed the House 264-159 on June 20, with six Republicans and 153 Democrats opposed. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering (R-Miss.) but largely rewritten by House telecom subcommittee Chair Billy Tauzin (R-La.), gives nonprofit organizations the right to hold noncommercial educational (NCE) radio or television licenses if the station broadcasts material the organization itself deems to serve an “educational, instructional, cultural or religious purpose.” The bill notes that religious programming “contributes to serving the educational and cultural needs of the public,” and dictates that the FCC treat it the same way it treats educational programming. Before the legislation’s passage, the House rejected an alternative offered by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) that would have mandated the reserved channels be primarily educational.