As reporters waited for PBS’ virtual press conferences to begin, a pop song boomed out. Over and over (18 times in all) the Strumbellas declared: “I’m young and wild.”
An interesting song choice. “Young” and “wild” are things we keep assuming that PBS people are not.
By image, at least, PBS viewers are old and tame and secretly English. They watch “Antique Roadshow,” conduct antique lives and grumble about Sundays without “Downton Abbey.” Their hero (David Attenborough, 96) would even be considered elderly on CBS.
That image, however, collides with the PBS shows and goals. The network is often diverse — from Chuck D (shown here) to a Mexican-American cartoon heroine — and occasionally youthful.
Paula Kerger, the network CEO, pointed to “Great American Recipe,” a new food-competition show. “It is attracting many more younger viewers and more diverse viewers,” she said.
Alas, it airs at 9 p.m. Fridays, when few young-and-wild people are watching TV. PBS is trying to work around such problems. “We have content streaming in multiple places,” Kerger said. The network has its own streamer (Passport), plus several Amazon channels, a YouTube channel and more.
And it has “strengthened our support for diverse talent,” she said. She pointed to “Making Black America: Through the Grapevine” (Oct. 24-25), “Native Americans” (next summer) and the Muslim-themed “An Act of Worship” (Oct. 17). The heroine of her new kids’ show (“Rosie’s Rules,” Oct. 3) has a dad from Mexico City and a mom from Wisconsin.
Certainly, there are still shows that fit the soothing PBS image. Producer Colin Callender sees “All Creatures Great and Small” (returning in January) as an antidote to Brexit or Trumpist rage. “There are no villains in the show. (These are) characters trying to be kind to each other.”
But plenty of other shows deal with tough subjects. In Television Critics Association sessions, PBS talked about crises in the past (ex-slaves Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Americans’ failure to welcome Holocaust survivors) and the present (hazing at colleges, war in Ukraine).
And it viewed genres on two sides:
— Yes, it mentioned traditional mystery shows. But it also has the complex “Magpie Murders” (Oct.16) with, writer Anthony Horowitz pointed out, “two completely different mysteries in two different” realities. Also, “Masterpiece” is filming a new adaptation of the jaunty/sexy “Tom Jones.”
— Yes, it mentioned Shakespeare. But that’s for “Black Lucy,” a Sept. 12 performance — blending ballet, poetry and the Americana sound of Rhiannon Giddens — that follows the sometimes-held belief that the Bard had a lusty affair with a Black brothel owner.
— And yes, it mentioned an orchestra. But that’s the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra (September). More often, it talked about hip hop music.
“Fight to Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World” is produced by Chuck D, co-founder of Public Enemy. “Rap took America by storm (and) took hold on the rest of the world,” he said.
That’s a four-part series that starts Jan. 31. Before that, the new “Kennedy Center Presents” series will debut Oct. 7 with The Roots. “Hip hop has had a home at the Center for over 20 years,” said Simone Eccleston, who is the Kennedy Center’s Director of Hip Hop Culture and Popular Music.
That job title may be proof of a changing world. A while back, “hip hop” would rarely be seen alongside “culture.” Now it’s an ideal culture for PBS, which occasionally seems young and wild.