Hillary Atkin

PBS Unveils Slate of New Programming at TCA

Aug 1, 2019

While other networks are undergoing the aftereffects of consolidations and management changes, PBS remains under the steady hand of Paula Kerger, whose contract as president and CEO has been renewed for five years. Kerger kicked off the public broadcaster’s TCA summer press tour Monday in Beverly Hills by announcing her new deal, which runs through 2024.

“I believe so strongly in the purpose and power of public television. I believe our work has never been more important, and I’m excited about what lies ahead,” said Kerger, who has been with PBS since 2006.

Under her leadership, PBS has jumped from the 14th most-watched network in the U.S. to No. 6, thanks to programming events like Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” and shows like “Downton Abbey.”

Here’s another news flash: Burns is back—with “Country Music”—and a new period piece is on the way that may well fill the void left by “Downton’s” departure.

All of the public broadcaster’s programming will gain wider reach via a new carriage deal with YouTube TV, effective this fall, for all local stations who choose to participate.

Here are some of the programming highlights from PBS’s two days of TCA presentations:

Masterpiece’s “Sanditon,” coming in January 2020 after premiering on ITV this fall, is certain to thrill Jane Austen aficionados. It’s her last book, as the author died in 1817 before finishing it. The series is executive produced by Andrew Davies, who has adapted five other Austen novels. “She didn’t get any further than introducing the characters and the premise of the story. She was seeking a new departure in the last year of her life, a new setting – a little seaside village which was becoming fashionable,” said Davies, who based the fictional English town on Sidmouth, a place he first visited as a child.

The story revolves around the unconventional and impulsive Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) and her up and down relationship with Sidney Parker, played by Theo James, whom “Downton” fans will recognize from his role as Mr. Pamuk. (Let’s hope there’s not a repeat of what happened with him and Lady Mary.)

“The male characters are different than the typical Austen men,” Davies explained. “They are not landed gentry. They are entrepreneurs forging a new age by taking risks to make money.”

James described his character as not particularly likable. “He is a closed and dangerous man with a lot of flaws but through eight episodes you’re able to discover a deeper level– and may even grow to like him at the end,” the actor said. “He and his brother represent new self-made men. In Britain at the time there was a lot of wealth and exuberance, drinking and gambling heavily, a departure from the Dancy type of character but of course there are shades of him in Parker.”

“Sanditon” also introduces Austen’s first black character, Georgiana Lambe, a mysterious West Indian heiress who moves to the seaside town as it’s in the process of morphing from a sleepy fishing village to a fashionable resort.

“She’s not slotted in for diversity. She was in the original novel,” said Crystal Clark, who plays Miss Lambe. “It’s important to have knowledge of the history of black British people who came from Commonwealth countries—and were not generally welcomed.”

Davies said it was daunting to develop so much story that wasn’t on the page. “I’m not frightened anymore of Jane Austen purists, but work on pleasing myself,” he said. “It was an enormous fun and we are hoping to do a second series – and perhaps many more. It could be the next the next ‘Downton.’”

Two years after his epic documentary series “The Vietnam War,” Ken Burns returns to the airwaves with an equally in-depth look (17 hours) at country music, a uniquely American art form that evolved over the course of the 20th century.

To get the party started, the acclaimed documentarian hosts a concert special airing on September 8 called “Country Music: Live at the Ryman, A Concert Celebrating the Film by Ken Burns.”

It’s a mouthful, and so is the list of artists performing at Nashville’s iconic theater — who also appear in the docu-series. In alphabetical order, they include Asleep at the Wheel, Dierks Bentley, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Rhiannon Giddens, Vince Gill, Brenda Lee, Kathy Mattea, Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Holly Williams and Dwight Yoakam.

The show is on tour throughout the States and will hit about 30 cities by September.

Yoakam, Cash and Stuart appeared with Burns, producer Julie Dunfey and writer and producer Dayton Duncan for their TCA panel, which was allowed to go 40 minutes over its allotted time, an unusual occurrence during press tour.

In addition to firsthand accounts from a large number of artists who have been key to the history of the genre, there are 584 music cues in “Country Music,” 47 more than in Burns’ “Jazz,” whose 10 episodes aired in 2001.

“I have always been interested in emotional archaeology,” Burns said. “I was completely unprepared for the higher emotions we found in mastering this very complicated story about the music. I’m a child of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. When I worked at a record store, Johnny Cash had crossed over. I’m interested in stories. The projects pick us. This came out of a conversation with Vince Gill in 2010. It’s an opportunity to understand who we are,’ he said about the series, which traces the history of country music through 1996, a time when Garth Brooks ruled the airwaves.

There was a discussion about the unique nature of country music audiences, their connection to the performers and the loyalty of the community.

“When you participate, you join a family, and sometimes you’re asked in, as we were,” Burns said. “You may not have had a hit for 30 years but you’re not forgotten or tossed out. There is a generosity that makes everyone welcome. You can’t say that about Mick Jagger. There’s not access. It means something, and I didn’t expect it. It’s an amazing world, and we feel so privileged to be asked in.”

The panel concluded when a birthday cake in the shape of a guitar was wheeled out and everyone sang happy birthday to Burns.

Music plays a key role in several other upcoming programs. This August marks the 50th anniversary of probably the most historic music event of all time. American Experience will present “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” to mark the iconic 1969 music festival.

Half a million people descended on Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York to hear acts like The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, The Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie and Canned Heat.

The documentary premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and was released theatrically for awards consideration in May, and it will run on PBS stations beginning August 6.

Great Performances: Now Hear This” (September 20) journeys across Europe with acclaimed conductor and violinist Scott Yoo in a four-part series merging music, storytelling, travel and culture. He tracks down the little-known and often secret histories of those who wrote some of the greatest music ever — Bach, Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Handel– as he makes his way through Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Morocco.

Executive produced by Harry Lynch and David Horn, each episode focuses on the work of a great composer and their music’s lasting impact and inspiration on contemporary culture.

Another buzz-worthy production under the “Great Performances” umbrella is “Much Ado About Nothing,” a bold interpretation of Shakespeare’s comedic masterpiece with an all-black cast, set in current-day Georgia with an election campaign underway.

Directed by Tony Award-winning Kenny Leon, the production was recorded live at a free Public Theater production in Central Park and airs November 22. Cast members Margaret Odette and Grantham Coleman appeared on the Beverly Hilton International Ballroom stage with series EP Horn and the Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis.

“Sometimes it felt like we were in a sitcom. Sometimes it felt like we were in a single cam, and the audiences were very generous,” said Odette, when asked about some of the stylistic elements of the production, which one reporter thought harkened back to all-black sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s.

“The tickets are free to Shakespeare in the Park. Many people cannot afford Broadway,” Coleman added. “It has to be true and honest. If it comes across broadly, it’s not just funny to black people.”

American Masters teams with Latino Public Broadcasting’s VOCES to present “Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage” on September 13.

It’s the first documentary about the Puerto Rican-born actor whose work on stage and screen took the world by storm. His life story was one of passion and determination that led to a groundbreaking career–which was cut short with his untimely death in 1994.

The revealing portrait of Juliá features Rubén Blades, Andy Garcia, Rita Moreno, Anjelica Houston, Jimmy Smits, John Leguizamo, James Earl Jones and Esai Morales.

Longtime Ken Burns collaborator Lynn Novick directs her first documentary, “College Behind Bars” (November 25 and 26), which traces the journeys of a dozen incarcerated men and women earning college degrees in the New York State prison system. Shot over a period of four years, the non-narrated piece chronicles how obtaining a degree also earns them a chance at a better life once they are released from prison.

Two alums of the Bard Prison Initiative, Jule Hall and Sebastian Yoon, riveted the audience of journalists with stories of their experiences.

Yoon was released four months ago; Hall in 2015.

“Having an education allowed me to understand the world and myself,” said Hall, who is a program associate for gender, racial and ethnic justice at the Ford Foundation in New York City. “I grew up in Brownsville, in Brooklyn. You were picked on if you were smart, and there were woefully inadequate schools. I was interested in school but I went astray when I stopped my emphasis on education.”

American Experience brings an ugly chapter in U.S. history to life January 7 in “McCarthy,” tracing the rise and fall of the Wisconsin senator who spearheaded a crusade against people he accused of being communists and enemies of the state including members of the Truman administration, the State Department and the U.S. Army.

His chilling campaign during the 1950s was marked by cruel victimization, groundless accusations, bullying and intimidation — and grandiose showmanship — before he was finally brought down by his own excesses.

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