The world may be in a slow-down, shut-down mode, but you can’t prove it by PBS.
The network – now in a three-day stretch of press conferences with the Television Critics Association – somehow seems busier than ever.
There is Ken Burns (shown here), juggling films. “I am, like an idiot, working on eight projects,” he said.
And Henry Louis Gates, doing a four-hour, February film about Black churches … and glad that the church portions were filmed early. “This is not exactly the safest place to be at the time of a pandemic.”
And the news people, sharing an ongoing contrast for most journalists: The work has become more difficult … but the audience has become larger.
That’s everywhere, with more news swirling around and more people at home to watch. CNN, for instance, has just said that its current all-day audience is the largest in its 40-year history.
In the same way, “PBS Newshour” ratings have jumped. “Our nightly audience is up 23 percent over last year,” said producer Sara Just. “We are getting nearly three million people watching the broadcast per night, and online it is even bigger,” up 83 percent on the website and 175 percent on YouTube.
So work continues, even if it’s more complicated. A documentary on Latino voters starts with the swirl of packed primary rallies in Las Vegas; it ends with Florida workers being interviewed at a distance.
Some solutions are quite simple. For “Finding Your Roots,” Gates still wanted to sit at a table, revealing ancestry results to a guest. “One of our producers called and said, ‘I figured it out. We are just going to have a table that’s six feet in diameter.’”
And some are more complicated. For “The Choice,” a simultaneous biography of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, Michael Kirk has been interviewing people all over the country, requiring him to “send a high-quality camera to their homes.”
The technical results are excellent, Kirk said. So is the quality of at-home interviews, said “Newshour” anchor Judy Woodruff. “People are relaxed …. I am hearing people open up in ways that they didn’t before.”
So Kirk’s “The Choice” will reach the air Sept. 22, part of a crowded fall that includes concerts (Lea Salonga, Royal Ballet, Jazz at Lincoln Center, “Grammy Legends”), imported drama (starring Hugh Laurie, Francesca Annis, Stephen Rea, Dawn French and more) and lots of non-fiction, with a particular emphasis on minorities and women.
Paula Kerger, the network president, announced new projects, including:
– An “American Masters,” produced by Alicia Keys, that “will provide an unprecedented look at trailblazing Black female performers, including Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, Nina Simone, Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier.”
– A third hub on Amazon Prime. Current ones have “Masterpiece” dramas and how-to shows; this one, arriving Aug. 4, has “PBS documentaries, featuring programs from ‘American Experience,’ ‘Nature,’ ‘Nova’ and more. And we’re delighted that it will include the entire Ken Burns collection.”
– And an anniversary special on Oct. 4 – exactly 50 years after PBS began with Julia Child’s “The French Chef.” It might be festive, but socially distanced. “This isn’t the way we thought we’d be celebrating our 50th anniversary.”