What’s the thinking person’s network thinking?

[11 July 2007]

By Rick Kushman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The Television Critics Association press tour kicked off this week with PBS, which was good, and in an odd way, not so good.

The good part: we’re having some high-end talks about big things with genuinely smart and genuinely talented people. Topics are ranging from home astronomy to World War II to marathoning, and we’re talking to stars such as Carl Reiner and Carol Burnett and filmmakers Ken Burns and David Grubin.

Already, PBS has had an evening event at the planetarium at the Griffith Observatory, where we talked about little things like meteorites, finding planets and, you know, the universe. That was to introduce a new series coming in October, “Wired Science,” which will look at how science and technology are changing the world.

The downside to PBS being first is that, when the public-TV gang shows up in the middle of a tour, it’s a refreshing break from sitting through soul-numbing press sessions hyping the next docu/reality series following a semi-celebrity or bounty hunter or beauty salon owner.

Not that there aren’t plenty of smart, talented people from the cable and broadcast networks, and not that everyone at PBS is completely smart.

One subject we’ll be dealing with, for instance, is PBS’ continuing bad habit of scheduling its highest-profile specials at precisely the time when they’ll get the least publicity.

The big one this time is Ken Burns’ seven-part, 144-hour documentary, “The War.” It looks at World War II by following a handful of men from four cities across the country.

This will be an event equal to Burns’ “Baseball” or “The Civil War,” and you’d think PBS would want to schedule it when it can get the most attention.

Instead, PBS announced at the press tour in January that “The War” would premiere during the opening week of the new fall season. The critics asked why. Why not schedule it a week before the season starts, when it would be the only big deal on TV, which means newspapers, magazines, and even the nightly entertainment shows, would play it huge?

The questioners noted that there is only so much space on a page or in a broadcast, and the overall new prime-time TV season, with its dozens of new shows, would grab the biggest headlines. PBS programmers were dumbfounded.

“We think our stuff is as good as anyone’s,” they basically said.

Not the point, we tried to tell PBS. The vast majority of American TV viewers are waiting for news of the network shows, and the entertainment press is going to give it to them.

We hear you and we’ll think about it, the PBS programmers said. Well, they sort of did. About a month later, PBS announced a new start date for “The War”: Sept. 23, the second week of the season.

No, no, no, no, no. That’s just as bad - nearly as many new shows premiere on the second week. And, what’s wrong with the week before the season?

Even some PBS execs don’t understand the reasoning. “I have no idea what they were thinking. But there must have been something, I suppose,” one PBS official not involved with scheduling told me at the Griffith Observatory event. That person, understandably, asked not to be named.

So, that’s what we’ll be asking PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger - who seems to be a smart, perceptive person - and her scheduling execs. If there was something, I can’t wait to hear what it was.

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And now, time for our weekly feature, What’d They Do to My Show?

Let’s start with the good stuff. HBO finally announced that the sixth season of Larry David’s inspired comedy, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” will start on Sept. 9.

“Curb,” which hasn’t aired a new episode since December 2005, will be back with all the regulars, plus guest stars including Richard Lewis, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen and Vivica A. Fox.

ABC finally said when it’s bringing back the charming “Knights of Prosperity,” though it will just be to burn off the episodes it’s already made. Still, fun is fun, and it will be back for four Wednesdays (at 8:30 p.m. EDT) starting Aug. 1.

If you’re one of the few people watching CBS’ “Pirate Master,” the disappointing “Survivor”-on-a-pirate-ship game, don’t look for it on Thursday night. It’s moved to Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EDT.

Also, don’t look for CW’s “Hidden Palms.” The network suddenly called the July 4 episode the “series finale” and put the low-rated teen soap to rest.

Another show that died an unexpected death, ABC’s “The Nine,” will get its remaining six episodes burned off Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT starting Aug. 1.

“The Nine” had one of the best pilots last fall and got loads of good publicity, but like so many other - say it with me - serialized mysteries, it never caught on with viewers.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/whats-the-thinking-persons-network-thinking/