Baltimore Sun

Focus of new PBS lineup: kids' TV, arts and journalism

In her address the at 2009 PBS Showcase in Baltimore Tuesday, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger said public television would dedicate itself to addressing three target areas of American life in the coming year: children's TV, the performing arts and journalism.

And then, she and her chief programmers unveiled a lineup of series and specials that viewers will see in coming months, which showed proof of the commitment on each of those fronts.


Leading the children's charge this fall on PBS will be Dinosaur Train, an engaging animated science series for preschoolers from the Jim Henson Company – now being run by Lisa Henson, daughter of the Muppet master who founded the firm. For all the proliferation of cable channels that claim to deal with science, PBS still owns the science franchise on television thanks to the landmark series Nova.

This kids' TV show wisely starts takes up the task of interesting children in science almost as soon as they start watching TV – building a new generation of science-literate Americans.


Meanwhile, the new Electric Company will be back for its second season, as Sesame Street enters its 40th. Talk about landmark franchises.

Great Performances will carry the arts banner 2010 on PBS, and the key to this lineup is diversity.

On May 27, the series will premiere In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams. The documentary charts the eight-year struggle by lyricist/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast to bring this musical set in Latino Washington Heights to Broadway, where it won four Tony Awards.

Later in the year, Spike Lee's film adaptation of the rock musical Passing Strange will be featured. The play about a young black man who leaves Los Angeles to live in Europe received seven Tony nominations.

On the journalism front, Kerger said that while PBS is deeply involved in developing new media platforms, "Our emphasis must remain on professional journalism."

She announced the re-tooling of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which was reported in the Sun Tuesday morning and online Monday night. Come September, Lehrer will be joined by rotating co-anchors and the show will be renamed The PBS NewsHour.

The 75-year-old dean of network anchormen who underwent heart surgery last year was applauded enthusiastically by the programmers and PBS station executives from around the country when he told them, "The news is that I am not leaving The NewsHour."

Another exceptionally good-looking production unveiled in Baltimore Tuesday is the adaptation of Michael Pollan's best seller about the intimate connection between plants and humans, The Botany of Desire. It will premiere in the fall.


PBS is banking heaviest on Ken Burns' National Parks: America's Best Idea, a mini-series documentary on the ideas and people responsible for the nation's parks. No one outside of Kerger was more prominent than Burns at the showcase on Tuesday.

Like Kerger, Burns acknowledged the harsh economic times and the ways in which the recession makes it more difficult for public TV programmers and producers to successfully do their jobs. But he then went on to provide one of the most emotional and upbeat moments of the conference in his closing speech.

"The marketplace could not have made The Civil War. The marketplace could not have made any of my films. Only PBS could do it," he said citing public television's commitment to public service and an informed citizenry.

"We are about something. We are special. As this morning session has so amply shown, we have content. We will get by."