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PBS has a Latino series


LOS ANGELES - American Family, the first Latino drama in the history of broadcast television, will debut in January on PBS.

The series, which was announced to the nation's television critics yesterday, also is the first original weekly drama produced by public television in decades. It stars Edward James Olmos, Sonia Braga and Raquel Welch as members of a multi-generational Latino family living in East Los Angeles. The creator and executive producer is Gregory Nava, the writer and producer of El Norte and Selena.

"This series is about an American family that happens to be Latino," Nava said. "American Family is about everyone's family."

Expect the series to be political. Nava and cast members describe Jess Gonzalez, the family patriarch played by Olmos, as a conservative who continually battles with his liberal daughter, a community activist attorney played by Constance Marie.

"He's Archie Bunker meets Zorba the Greek," Olmos said.

If the series is half as loaded with ideological discussion and debate as the press conference about it was yesterday, PBS is going to get exactly the kind of buzz with American Family that president and CEO Pat Mitchell promised when she took control of public television 16 months ago after working as a producer and programming executive in Ted Turner's cable empire.

In her inaugural message to critics, Mitchell had promised to find innovative ways to bring new forms of programming and audiences to public television. American Family is an example of a fresh approach on the business side, too.

The series was made as a pilot for CBS two seasons ago. When CBS failed to put it on the schedule last fall, Nava was given permission to shop it elsewhere. Mitchell found the money to fund 12 one-hour episodes. Thus, viewers will see the pilot and 12 additional episodes in 2002.

The 13-episode-per-year order of such dramas is the programming model used by cable channels like HBO. But it's new for PBS, and American Family better have a quality look when it airs, or critics surely will ask whether public television should be airing programs rejected by the commercial networks -- diversity notwithstanding.

'Frontier House'

Another program showcasing the family will come to public television early next year: Frontier House, a reality series that follows 13 people from three families who spend six months in a remote part of Montana living as homesteaders did in 1883. It is PBS' second big dip into the TV tidal wave of reality programming and follows the success of 1900 House, which took an English family back to living in all the misery that was Victorian England. Frontier House is from the same producers.

It seemed only fitting that Mitchell's news conference -- the last major session on a three-week media tour that at times seemed to be about nothing but reality programs -- opened with her saying, "If I could just take a minute to talk about reality programming."

The comment was made for laughs, but she quickly got to the serious part of her message: Yes, we also have reality TV, but our reality TV is a good thing.

I'm not so sure she made her case.

"PBS actually pioneered reality programming, in particular the observational documentary going way back to the 1970s and the Loud Family," she said, referring to a landmark PBS documentary.

"Our reality programming does take you to an exotic location. It is a bit isolated, and it certainly does call for survivor instincts. But it's observational, not voyeuristic. There are no rats, just prairie dogs; no bikinis, just calicos."

She was trying to distance Frontier House from such series as CBS' Survivor and NBC's Fear Factor -- and she did it again when she stressed that 5,000 families applied to be part of the series, "even though there is no cash prize."

That last comparison is a bit disingenuous, because each of the three families is being compensated about $50,000. Following the news conference, Beth Hoppe, an executive producer for the series, said that's the estimated amount the families lost by spending the six months in Montana.

Starting this fall, viewers nationwide may be able to watch such prime-time programs as Frontier House and American Family on the same day and at the same time, no matter what part of the country they live in. Mitchell is trying to get all 346 PBS stations to create a national schedule similar to the one used by the commercial networks.

Most noticeably, Masterpiece Theatre will move from the showcase Sunday night at 9 spot it has enjoyed since the earliest days of PBS to Mondays at 9. American Experience and American Masters, the acclaimed biography series, will take over Sundays at 9 p.m. on an alternating basis.

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