On a morning when the rains drenching Southern California finally paused, PBS President Paula Kerger unveiled a multiplatform initiative on the climate crisis that will launch this spring.
Led by Nova, Climate Across America will marshal two new documentaries from the science unit at GBH in Boston with localized content created by station partners.
“We’re looking at how humans impact the environment and the planet’s ecology, but what makes our approach distinct is our focus on solutions,” Kerger said Monday during her executive session at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour. “Across our programs, we examine how people can make a difference, from conservation efforts to economic and technological innovations.”
“As we’ve seen in California over this last week, perhaps nothing is a greater threat than our changing climate,” Kerger said. “And so we’re called to act.” She described the initiative as an “unprecedented multiyear effort to focus on our changing climate.”
Though many of the shows premiere in April to coincide with Earth Day on April 22, Kerger pointed to additional series coming to PBS this summer, including a new season of America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston.
Jam-packed day for critics
PBS is one of the last networks to stage presentations at TCA’s Winter Press Tour, which began Jan. 9 with Paramount+. With her executive session, Kerger became only the second television executive to field reporters’ questions during the 10-day tour. With the exception of John Landgraf, chairman of FX content and FX productions, all of the other TV executives appearing at TCA read prepared statements, then segued into panels about shows.
During its first day at TCA, PBS packed 10 press conferences and a concert performance into its first in-person press tour since January 2020. Featured programs included The Great American Recipe, which returns for a second season June 19; historical documentaries; independent films; and performance specials.
Amna Nawaz and Geoff Bennett, co-anchors of PBS NewsHour, appeared at the tour to reflect on their careers and their new roles. And musicians Herbie Hancock and Annie Lennox described their respect for pioneering singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, who will receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song during a March 31 PBS awards special. Hancock and Lennox both pay tribute to Mitchell’s legacy and influence by performing in the special.
Within this eclectic mix of upcoming shows, PBS’ overarching theme for its first day of the tour was programming about the environment, including:
— American Experience, “The Sun Queen,” debuting April 4. The documentary by Amanda Pollak chronicles the inventions of chemical engineer Mária Telkes, a trailblazer in developing solar energy technology who designed the world’s first solar-heated home in 1948. Telkes recognized the power of this sustainable energy but faced rampant sexism.
“What was interesting in researching this film is that you go back to 1884,” when the first solar panels were made, Pollak said. Telkes became interested in harnessing the sun’s power early on “and had this vision because she knew that we needed another form of energy. And yet, it was basically pushed to the side as soon as there was a sense of abundance. … It really feels like a cautionary tale in that sense because right now, we’re, again, at a moment of conservation and of recognition of scarcity,” Pollak said.
— “Weathering the Future,” an April 12 Nova documentary that leads the Climate Across America campaign. It examines how global climate change is creating catastrophic weather systems in the U.S. and looks at how people are coping.
— Changing Planet II, airing April 19. In the second of seven planned installments from this series, conservation scientist M. Sanjayan hosts episodes from Australia, charting the country’s climate crises and exploring potential solutions.
— “Chasing Carbon Zero,” debuting April 26. The second Nova documentary for Climate Across America looks at how the U.S. is working toward the goal of having no carbon pollution within 27 years.
Kerger mentioned additional prime-time series coming to PBS in the summer and fall. In Human Footprint, a six-part documentary series premiering July 5, Princeton University biologist and professor Shane Campbell-Staton examines people’s effects on the planet. Evolution Earth, five episodes detailing how animals, people, and the planet are evolving, airs in the fall.
In addition, PBS Terra, the PBS Digital Studios home for science and nature shows, plans more of Weathered, which explains extreme weather in clear terms in roughly 10-minute episodes. “We geek out,” said host Maiya May during a session devoted to PBS Digital Studios. “We get into the numbers, the complex concepts, so … our show is aimed more for the older crowd,” May said. “But we’re very intentional about making that content very digestible.”
And NBC meteorologist Al Roker is working on Weather Hunters, an animated series “designed to support kids’ curiosity about the natural world and further young viewers’ knowledge of earth science,” Kerger said.
The day ended with a performance by Corbin Bleu, who shot to fame as a kid in High School Musical, and Nova Y. Payton, from 3 Mo’ Divas. Both sang numbers from Black Broadway: A Proud History, A Limitless Future, airing Feb. 28.
During press tour appearances, actors often comment about TCA members not applauding, which they refrain from doing because the sessions are press conferences. But during the evening performance promoting the Feb. 28 special Black Broadway: A Proud History, A Limitless Future, Payton earned an ovation after belting out “And I Am Telling You” from The Color Purple.
Correction: An earlier version of this article reported the incorrect premiere date for the second season of Great American Recipe. It debuts June 19, not June 15.