Jul 31, 2011

PBS starting up PBS UK channel in Great Britain

PBS is launching a digital channel in Great Britain, the New York Times is reporting. The channel, which will run on satellite and cable, will feature "older and current PBS programs for which it is able to secure the rights," the newspaper said.

A PBS spokesperson had confirmed the deal to the British media news website Broadcast in April. Also that month the UK search firm Robert Lindsay Associates reported placing Richard Kingsbury, the former head of two channels owned by Britain’s UKTV, as g.m. of the new channel, PBS UK.

PBSd, a joint venture of PBS and WGBH that sells PBS programs to home video, foreign and commercial markets, is heading up the work. PBS officials declined to discuss specifics, saying that plans have not been finalized.

Financial backing for PBS UK is coming from W. David Lyons, chairman and chief executive of the Orca Exploration Group, which operates a Tanzanian natural gas field, according to the newspaper.

Masterpiece welcomes new national sponsor as its Trust hits $850,000

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — After seven years, Masterpiece has a new national corporate sponsor. The 40-year-old anthology drama series on Sunday (July 31) announced the support of Viking River Cruises, a luxury cruise company with international itineraries. “It’s a marriage made in heaven,” Rebecca Eaton, e.p. of the WGBH series, told reporters at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. The arrangement begins later this year; Eaton declined to provide the specific dollar amount. The investment firm Franklin Templeton, longtime supporter of Nightly Business Report, also is underwriting Masterpiece from May through September.

Eaton also told TV critics that the Masterpiece Trust, established in January with a goal of $1 million, is at “$850,000 and counting.” Even a higher power is chipping in, she noted, calling the 43 percent ratings increase over last year “a gift from God.”

Eaton said the three Masterpiece dramas with the highest ratings this year — Downton Abbey, Sherlock and Upstairs, Downstairs — will get more episodes. And Masterpiece soon will co-produce, with Britain's Mammoth Screen, a prequel to the popular Inspector Morse series titled Endeavor, which will follow the inspector as a young man. The series star will be announced Wednesday in the United Kingdom.

In other news Sunday, it was no surprise that notoriously press-shy director Woody Allen didn't show up for the American Masters session on its two-part series showcasing his career. The real surprise was that he actually agreed to participate in the project.

Filmmaker Robert Weide (right) estimated it took him three tries and 25 years for Allen to give his consent. Even then, Weide said, it was no slam dunk. “I pitched it as a possible American Masters program and that appealed to him,” he said. "He said, 'If we can do it for American Masters, OK, but don't be shopping it around.'"

Allen trusted him, Weide said, because he had interviewed the comedian/actor/writer/director for other documentaries, and the two shared a mutual love of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and Mort Sahl.

The program, Seriously Funny: The Comic Art of Woody Allen, scheduled for Nov. 20 and 21, was put together from about a half dozen sit-down interviews, a week on a set of one of Allen’s movies, a trip to the Cannes Film Festival, a visit to Allen’s home and an impromptu tour of the neighborhood in Brooklyn where Allen grew up.

And in the final PBS session of the summer press tour, Prohibition filmmaker Ken Burns was asked if there were lessons to be learned today from that chapter of history. Specifically, would America be better off if drugs in general, and marijuana in particular, was decriminalized and regulated?

"It's not quite a direct correlation," Burns replied. The use of alcohol is far more universal than the use of marijuana, he said. "Alcohol has been around in almost all cultures. Drugs seem to be tribal events."

In the case of Prohibition, the solution to a problem that involved perhaps 10 percent of the population was imposed on the entire population. With decriminalization, the entire population would be given new freedom to use a mood-altering substance that is problematic for some. "There may be a whole passel of unintended consequences," Burns cautioned.

His highly anticipated six-hour series is scheduled for Oct. 2-4. (Images: PBS) — Barry Garron for Current

Jane Lynch turns supervillain for upcoming WordGirl movie

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Jane Lynch, the villainous cheerleader coach on Fox's Glee, will have a guest-star as an animated supervillain on a movie-length episode of WordGirl, PBS’s vocabulary-building kids series. Lesli Rotenberg, PBS s.v.p., children's media and brand management (above), announced Sunday (July 31) that Lynch will supply the voice of a character who uses mean words as secret weapons in an episode to air next year, aimed at helping kids deal with verbal bullying.

Other PBS Kids news during the annual summer Television Critics Association press tour:

Sesame Street, entering its 42nd season this fall, will include parodies of the Iron Chef cooking show and Glee. In addition, Elvis Costello will perform a duet with Elmo, “Ate My Red 2.”

The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That, introduced last fall, is tied with longtime fave Curious George as the second-most watched kids show on PBS. Both have a 4.8 Nielsen rating with children between the ages of 2 and 5.

Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who plays Elmo on Sesame Street, said the popular puppet is based on his parents. “It’s my mom’s spunkiness and militancy, and it’s my dad’s creativity and sweetness,” said Clash (right, with his pal) during a session on the documentary “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” scheduled on Independent Lens this fall.

Starting this summer, the top four PBS kids shows each will be showcased with a quarterly pop-out event. Dinosaur Train will be featured this summer, Curious George in the fall, Cat in the Hat during the winter and Super Why! next spring. (Images: PBS) — Barry Garron for Current

At TCA press tour, 'House' extols jazz; first new series from Fred Rogers Co. coming

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — TV's Dr. Gregory House will reveal a little-known specialty this fall: a talent for singing and playing jazz piano. Hugh Laurie (right), famous for playing the cranky doctor on the hit Fox show House, told journalists Saturday (July 30) at the Television Critics Association summer press tour that he doesn't consider himself the equal of the best jazz musicians in New Orleans, but he wasn't about to pass up the chance to tape an episode and cut an accompanying CD for Great Performances. The show, "Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk — A Celebration of New Orleans Blues," is scheduled for Sept. 30.

An opportunity like this "is not going to come my way again," Laurie told critics. "I will either say to my grandchildren, 'I could have made a record,' or I can say, 'here it is,' and they'll say, 'this is the worst thing I've ever heard.'" Nonetheless, as Laurie noted, "this is a diem I had to carpe."

Laurie said he sifted through "hundreds or thousands" of songs before deciding on what to perform, each chosen because it was different from the others. Speaking more as a musician than a physician, he said, "the whole project is really close to my heart." — Barry Garron for Current

Also on Saturday:

After six years in development, the new show from Fred Rogers' production company has finally been announced, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The animated Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood will be the Fred Rogers Company's first PBS offering since its iconic Mister Rogers Neighborhood. “This show is meant to target boys and girls who are 3 or 4 and be of interest to children between 2 and 5, so the focus is much more narrow than the Mister Rogers focus,” Kevin Morrison, Fred Rogers Co. c.e.o., told the paper. Meanwhile, Linda Simensky, v.p. of PBS children’s programming, said stations will continue to receive the original Mister Rogers "for the time being. It’s hard for me to say how long. It’s up to them how long they want to keep feeding the show.”

The 1950s are often considered the Golden Age of television but Phil Rosenthal (left), creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, doesn’t agree. “There was never a Golden Age,” he said during a PBS press conference for America in Primetime, a four-part series on the creative process that brings characters to the small screen, which premieres Oct. 30. “There was lots and lots of crap with a few good things.”

Rosenthal used the Q-and-A session to ridicule network interference, scold executive decisions and condemn the large number of reality programs. He recalled receiving a note after eight successful seasons of Raymond suggesting that Debra, the character played by Patricia Heaton, was too shrill. It was duly ignored.

As for reality shows, Rosenthal said, their proliferation could mean “something larger than a trend. It could signal the end of civilization.” — Garron

A Central Park concert by internationally acclaimed tenor Andrea Bocelli will be the finale of the PBS Fall Arts Festival, PBS President Paula Kerger revealed. The September performance, free to the public, will be recorded in high definition to cap the network's first arts celebration later this year (Current, July 11). (Images: PBS)