Current Online


PBS hatching weekly series, Public Square

Originally published in Current, Dec. 18, 2000
By Karen Everhart Bedford

PBS is moving ahead with full-scale development of Public Square, the concept for a new, wide-ranging weekly series that includes, but is not limited to, public affairs topics.

The initiative responds to repeated calls for public television to reinvigorate the "citizenship portion of its mission," a genre that both CPB and PBS agree needs strengthening. PBS President Pat Mitchell has embraced the concept in her efforts to "keep the best and reinvent the rest" in PBS's program line-up, and last week she informed stations of plans to bring it to air in early 2002 as a weekly series.

PBS is negotiating with Michael Sullivan, executive producer of Frontline, to take "Public Square" through development and production, ultimately establishing it as a "significant new series" in PBS's weekly schedule, Mitchell wrote in a memo to stations last week. She plans to turn over development of the series to Sullivan in mid-January. According to the memo, Sullivan would establish a new nonprofit, independent company to produce the series.

The network would not confirm details of the memo. "We have no signed agreement with anybody and nothing to announce," said Tom Espstein, spokesman.

In October, PBS program executives convened a brainstorming session on "Public Square" with leading public affairs producers. They told participants that the new magazine show would have a flexible format and an eclectic mix of elements: commentary, analysis, compelling storytelling, interviews, live performances and "organic" Internet components. The show, then pictured as two hours in length, would originate from "at least" three parts of the country and promote "a current review of all that is newsworthy, from art to politics, from music to science, from drama to discourse — everything that makes us laugh, cry, contemplate anew, feel informed and connected." One participant described it as All Things Considered for television, without a rigid mix of segments that characterize many magazine shows.

During the session, Mitchell said production of the series should be awarded to a new entity, separate and independent from public television's existing public affairs units, according to participants. A consortium of stations could be formed to establish and support the company, and flagship stations in several major markets have expressed interest in participating. Although PBS proposes to launch "Public Square" as a two-hour weekly series, many stations and producers are said to favor an hour-long format, due to concerns about its scheduling and cost.

The "Public Square" name originated at CPB, which is working on a similar initiative to strengthen public affairs programming across the schedule. The initiative is broader than the television series being developed by PBS, according to Andy Russell, v.p. of media. Next year, CPB plans to announce a special request for proposals for "ideas that address the goals that we lay out for public affairs." Those goals are still being developed, but Russell said that CPB will be looking for television programs and web components that "help promote dialogue and civic discussions."

Michael Sullivan describes Public Square at PBS meeting in June 2001.

Later article
Public Square
producers cite ATC as inspiration

Originally published in Current, July 2, 2001
By Karen Everhart Bedford

A sonogram of a fetus went up on the big screens in Philadelphia's Convention Center when Mike Sullivan began presenting his concept for Public Square, PBS's biggest new program initiative in development.

"We hope to convince you that this new public television baby really does have fingers and toes," said Sullivan, former executive producer of Frontline, who in February began researching and developing the proposed 90-minute weekly show. Sullivan is working up a full treatment and budget for Public Square by the end of this month. PBS aims to launch the show early next year, if it can secure funding.

"We have the resources to create a breakthrough, breakout series, one that can redefine how content can have value on many different formats, platforms of distribution and for greater and greater numbers of people," said Mitchell, during her June 14 speech kicking off the network's annual meeting. Mitchell announced NPR has agreed to collaborate on development of Public Square. Although details of the collaboration have yet to be worked out, it's likely to include contributions by Scott Simon, Alex Chadwick and other top NPR talent, and some cross-platform content sharing.

Sullivan and PBS President Pat Mitchell have ambitious objectives for Public Square to redefine the public affairs genre by venturing far beyond traditional topics of politics and public policy. Public Square will include the "widest possible" range of views, Sullivan said during a presentation at the PBS Annual Meeting, and will be "defined by the breadth of inquiry found in great newspapers, magazines and some public radio programs." He plans to run investigative pieces on under-reported stories, "slices of Americana" captured by Chadwick in "Interviews 50 Cents" segments, and even musical performances.

From talks last fall about possibilities for Public Square, the series has been described as All Things Considered for television. "A lot of my thinking of this show has evolved more from listening to the radio rather than watching television," Sullivan said in a recent interview. "The wide-ranging curiosity found in some programs," particularly ATC, "and its wide-ranging examination of the contemporary scene," is what he aims to translate for television via Public Square.

The collaboration with NPR was established through a meeting of minds among top production talent. Jay Kernis, new senior v.p. of national programming, considered several television proposals that were pending at NPR when he arrived in May. "When I sat down to talk with Mike Sullivan, I could see this show," he said. "It's congruent with our values." Kernis, a former producer for CBS's 60 Minutes, also met with Mitchell and her staff. "We're very comfortable with each other. We speak the same language, and when we sit down with Michael it feels the same way."

"We're going to make this up as we go along," acknowledged Kernis, referring to the specifics of NPR's contributions to the show.

But in Philadelphia, one long-wished for possibility was immediately apparent during the Public Square presentation, when NPR's Scott Simon sat down with New York Times critic Margo Jefferson to give a sample of the kind of discussion the program would present. (They chewed over Americans' evolving views on the death penalty after the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.)

Public TV leaders have long wished to feature more public radio talent on their air, and to recruit NPR's audience of Baby Boomers as members. Simon's contribution to the session--and potential commitment to the series-was strong evidence that PBS has moved to make that happen.

In the cafe setting of Public Square, Sullivan envisions a host presiding with "wit and elan to introduce us to the conversation at each table." He is talking with actors to take the host role on a rotating basis.

As a sample of the musical interludes on Public Square, cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci, accompanied by a pianist, sang "As Time Goes By," a classic from the American songbook. She told how the song was almost cut from Casablanca, the film that embedded the tune in the American consciousness. But Bergman cut her hair after filming, so the famous scene couldn't be re-shot, and the song stayed in.

Marcovicci told the moral of the story: "If you want to be memorable, don't be afraid to change your look," words with double meaning for those who are wary of big programming changes ahead for PBS.

"This will be the cornerstone of a great reinvention," promised Mitchell.


. To Current's home page
. Meanwhile: The New York Times shows interest in late-night newscast proposed for PBS.
. Meanwhile: PBS develops another magazine series, Life 360, to debut earlier.

Web page posted Dec. 17, 2000, supplemented Oct. 8, 2001
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2000