The breadth and depth of PBS’s upcoming programming was vividly demonstrated during its two-day portion of the Television Critics Association summer press tour last week at the Beverly Hilton hotel.
Public television viewers can expect to see everything from explorations of some of the most divisive and controversial issues of our times on “Frontline,” “POV” and “Nova” including the misappropriation of data generated by social media, opioid addiction and racism– to kids shows, news and current events on “Washington Week” and “PBS Newshour,” new episodes of “Antiques Roadshow” and a program on Betty White, called “First Lady of Television.”
And then there was a panel discussion featuring a feline, Tag, an African serval cat who lives in a sanctuary in the Los Angeles area and was accompanied by his trainer. Tag upstaged just about everything said by the producers of “Super Cats, A Nature Miniseries” and appeared to love the carpeting on the stage of the hotel’s International Ballroom. The audience of reporters collectively held its breath as the cat, although leashed, explored the surroundings.
Christiane Amanpour brings her in-depth take on the important issues of the day to a new series, “Amanpour and Company,” beginning September 10. The program will cover issues and trends from the worlds of politics, technology, business, the arts, science and sports with the respected journalists leading wide-ranging conversations with global leaders and cultural tastemakers from her base in London. American journalists including Walter Isaacson and Alisha Menendez will contribute from studios at Lincoln Center in New York.
Amanpour, who fills the PBS timeslot previously held by the disgraced Charlie Rose and continues her role as CNN’s chief international correspondent, said it’s not her job to wake people up.
“My job is to present the unvarnished truth. We’re performing our duty as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution,” she said. “I take that really seriously. If we’re really going to call ourselves The Fourth Estate…without a healthy press there is not a healthy democracy.”
Who says Americans don’t love to read books anymore? Not true. “The Great American Read” looks at the power, passion and joy of reading as seen through the lens of America’s 100 best loved novels, with titles including everything from “Dune” to “Don Quixote”– the oldest book on the list – to “50 Shades of Gray,” “1984,” “The Color Purple,” “The Godfather,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Moby Dick” and “War and Peace.” Hosted by Meredith Vieira, the multipart series will culminate in the first nationwide vote to name “America’s best-loved novel.”
Appearing with Vieira on the panel were prominent best-selling authors Diana Gabaldon (“Outlander”) and Nicholas Sparks (“The Notebook”), actor, blogger and writer Wil Wheaton and Eliyannah Yisrael, creator of “Hermione Granger and the Quarter-Life Crisis,” inspired by the female star of the “Harry Potter” films.
“The list came from everyday people and we took into account gender and diversity and getting a balanced opinion poll so that it is reflective of America,” Vieira said. “I would pick ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ because that book opened a lot of windows for me and helped shape the person I am, and my moral code. But I still like Agatha Christie and dead bodies.”
Vieira was also asked about the current controversy over sexual harassment being baked into the culture at CBS. Where she worked as a correspondent on “60 Minutes.” “There was sexism but I wasn’t harassed. It was a difficult environment to navigate. I never experienced anything bordering on harassment,” she said, and concluded, “Maybe they’re scared of me.”
“American Masters” goes deep inside the world of preeminent violinist Itzhak Perlman, who appeared via Skype to take questions about the documentary on his storied life, which airs October 14. Director Alison Chernick followed him and his wife around the world for a year and captured some incredibly emotional moments as she interviewed the 16-time Grammy winner, his friends and other musicians.
Perlman is a polio survivor whose parents emigrated from Poland to Israel. As a 13-year-old boy living there, he was invited to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and it changed his life.
“I had to fight people’s opinions of what people with disabilities were like,” Perlman said. “Going on Ed Sullivan solved those problems. I believed in myself. I had no doubts and just did my practicing.”
He talked about his relationship with the violin and with music. “I’m transported by actual music and what it says to me and how I can express it. Sometimes harmonies have a way of transforming someone’s emotions. When I teach I say to students, if it helps to make a picture in your head, whether it’s a landscape or something else, by all means do it. I always think of Mozart in an operatic way. I imagine it sung by singer. If the violin sounds great that’s all I need. With a great violin, you can express colors and sounds easier.”
Jesse Burton’s best-selling novel is the basis for “The Miniaturist” on “Masterpiece.” The lushly-filmed adaptation is set in 1680s Amsterdam, when the Dutch East Indies Company was at the height of its wealth and power. The story centers on a young woman (Petronella, played by Anya Taylor-Joy) married off to a wealthy businessman. Petronella becomes obsessed with a miniature dollhouse modeled on the merchant’s home and starts receiving strange packages filled with tiny furniture made by a seemingly clairvoyant miniaturist that seem to predict the doings in her mysterious new home.
“The miniature house and what it represents is a way for ‘Nella to express herself in a way she can’t in real life. She has an abusive husband,” Burton said. “It’s a comment on mystery and perception and how we tell ourselves stories in order to survive. But does she hold the key, or does the miniaturist?”
Also on Masterpiece, the third season of “Victoria,” starring Jenna Coleman as the young Queen of England, but you’ll have to wait until January 2019 to see the royal drama further unfold.
“In the 1850s, the monarchy had power but was not loved,” said creator, writer and executive producer Daisy Goodwin. “At the end of the reign of Victoria and Albert the power was diminished but they were loved. The idea of a royal family being a populist soap opera to entertain the nation is something she wittingly created. She was the first monarch to be photographed and carefully crafted her image. It was a time of revolution against monarchies across Europe so one could surmise that the reason that we still have a British monarchy is because of her. Albert is also revered because he was so perceptive on what the royal family needed.”
The crash of Facebook stock was fresh news—along with the latest in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election as “Frontline” presented its panel for “The Facebook Dilemma.” It’s an exploration of the recent scandals afflicting the global social network that have exposed its darker side with revelations about fake users manipulating followers on various sides of the political spectrum and selling users’ personal information without their express permission.
“I went to them in 2016 with concerns about them being manipulated by bad actors,” said Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who invested in Facebook. “I thought the people running the company were victims. But I discovered the culture of the company was its goal to connect the world and they convinced themselves everything was okay and everything that got in the way could be ignored or eliminated. They were willfully blind in 2016, but knew they had massive issues. They knew they were dealing with Russians. This wasn’t a hack. It was Facebook’s business model as it was supposed to be used. It’s dead easy to use these techniques. Their side won– and no one wants the truth to come out.”
“Part of the problem was that all the press about Facebook was predominantly positive before 2016,” said producer James Jacoby. “The company was given free reign. But there was a potential for authoritarian regimes to use it as a tool to quash dissent – not that this is a surprise. Researchers early on said they needed a paranoia department to think through the downsides of a pretty remarkable technology.”
“All of our media organizations signed up but couldn’t predict where it lead to as a main distributor of news,” said Washington Post correspondent Dana Priest, who has covered intelligence agencies for the past decade.
She came to this frightening conclusion: “Facebook is an organization more powerful than any intelligence agency in the world but has none of the regulations and limits that these agencies have.”
“Nova” previewed two investigative reports, “Addiction,” which explores how the science of addiction can lead to solutions of the dire opiod crisis, and “Last B-24,” a stunning, emotional look at the search for a missing World War II plane that disappeared off the coast of Croatia in 1944– and the efforts to recover its lost crewmembers. The hunt also uncovers a missing B-17 and its crew members.
It’s a missing part of music history that “Independent Lens” hopes to help rectify with the feature-length documentary “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” which was released theatrically last year.
The film explores the contributions to music made by indigenous and Native peoples, many of whom kept their heritage very quiet.
The panel included producer Christina Fon, Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas and noted guitarist Stevie Salas, who has performed with everyone from Justin Timberlake to Mike Jagger on more than 70 albums. Salas co-curated a 2010 Smithsonian exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian and the project was born from that. Its title refers to the 1958 instrumental by Link Wray, a rock sound driven by power chords and distortion that was banned by some radio stations at the time. It became a touchstone for rockers including Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Bob Dylan, among others.
“I had no idea that Link Wray was Native American,” said Salas. “It was the birth of punk and heavy metal. With the Smithsonian exhibit we realized we were unearthing history. The more I learned, I realized that the common thread that ran through these Native musicians including Robbie Robertson and Jimi Hendrix was their sense of rhythm.”
“For many years, I was [looked at as] the Asian guy from Black Eyed Peas,” said Taboo, whose given name is Jaime Luis Gomez. “I was ambiguous, but all along representing my culture and tradition. I didn’t have to wear war paint and regalia. Throughout my journey, I always like to educate myself and hold onto the culture while inviting others to celebrate with me.”
And celebrate they did after the panel, with Taboo performing alongside “The Voice” finalist Brooke Simpson, members of the Magnificent Seven, Emcee One and Supaman, who was dressed in Native costume.
As is its tradition, PBS capped off its two days of presentations with live musical shows in the Beverly Hills Ballroom. The first night showcased talent from the upcoming “Great Performances — Broadway’s Best” with Tony Award nominees Kate Baldwin, Liz Callaway and Tony Yazbeck performing classic Gershwin and Sondheim show tunes.
The second night’s special performance was by Grammy winner Raul Malo of the Mavericks. He then ceded the stage to The Sweet Lizzie Project, a seven-piece rock band from Cuba who recently emigrated from Havana to Nashville with Malo’s help. They will be among the artists featured on next season’s “Bluegrass Underground,” which encompasses many more genres of music than the title might imply.
“Underground” refers to the fact that the artists, both established and up-and-coming, perform below ground in the Volcano room inside Tennessee’s Cumberland Caverns. Yes, concerts in caves– where there is no backstage and no green room and the artists come up through the audience and perform in what some have described acoustically as a really cool (a constant 56°) recording studio.