No longer content to passively see viewers tune out and watch cable, PBS has decided to ag gressively counterprogram.
Last week, as the four networks were airing the season premieres of new and returning series, PBS devoted its prime-time schedule to one show: Ken Burns' 11-hour documentary "The Civil War."
On Sunday, public TV kicks off its fall season with a potpourri of new and returning series and specials entitled "Showcase Week."
"It's a celebration," said Jennifer Lawson, executive vice president for programming and promotional services. "It's not so much a sampling of all you can see on PBS, but a sampling of some of the best we traditionally have. We deliberately highlighted these programs because we wanted viewers to know that if they like these shows, there are more where these are coming from."
Lawson admitted PBS doesn't have the viewership it would like. "Like the networks, we have been affected by the drop in viewership overall and the increased competitive nature of what viewers have available (to watch)," she said.
"Our numbers have dropped slightly. All of our activities are designed in part to help reverse that trend and more importantly, it is just a part of our new approach in trying to make people aware of public TV and what it has to offer."
To heighten awareness of "Showcase Week," PBS is airing commercials on its competition. "We want the voice of public TV there as well," Lawson said.
Kicking off the week is the season premiere of "Nature," and the Harold Pinter drama "The Heat of the Day," the season opener of "Masterpiece Theatre."
Paul Winfield, a familiar face on PBS ("American Playhouse" and "Wonderworks") hosts "Showcase Week."
While cable's Arts & Entertainment Network and Discovery Channel still acquire a majority of their programs from England, Australia and Canada, PBS has decreased its number of imports. "We have made a conscious effort over the last 10 years to put far more of our resources into our own productions," Lawson said.
"That was our intent behind the creation of 'American Playhouse,' 'Wonderworks,' 'American Masters,' and 'The American Experience.'
"At one point, someone said we may have too many series that are entitled 'American something,' " she said, laughing.
Another "American" series, "American Pie," is set to air during the winter. "It's an anthology magazine series from all over the country that highlights local vignettes, the uniquely regional quality of America," she said.
Until now, PBS stations would individually purchase the programs that made up the PBS schedule. "That put PBS in a passive position of just scheduling what the stations collectively decided to buy," Lawson said.
That is why each local station can choose to air PBS programs at different times or not at all.
PBS hopes to achieve uniform scheduling sometime next year.
The network is banking that in some cases viewers would rather watch a special multipart series such as "The Civil War" over an entire week instead of airing one episode a week over several months. When a series is extended over a period of time, viewership tends to drop.
"Putting the series on during a week, there is a greater likelihood viewers who find it compelling material will come back to it," Lawson said.
See accompanying story for a schedule of "Showcase Week."