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What You See Is What She Gets

Television: Kathy Quattrone, PBS' new chief programming executive, has some definite ideas about what should be presented.

August 07, 1996|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You want to hear a story about someone pulling herself up by those proverbial bootstraps? Talk to Kathy Quattrone, PBS' new executive vice president and chief programming executive, who has the power to approve--or reject--potential public television projects. There's an American drama for you.

At a glance, you might think lush lawns and posh schools. Elegant and soft-spoken, she is tall (5-foot-11), lean and blond. As she discusses PBS' program plans--particularly to enhance the underplayed area of American drama--her voice reflects cultured American speech. But there's nothing elite about her West Virginia roots--just a lot of grit.

"I always felt as if everything is possible if you just approach it the right way," Quattrone said during an interview in Pasadena. "It was a survival technique."

Her mother, Freeda Malone, worked in a glass factory. Her father left home when she was 4; there was no child support. When she was a senior at Fairmont State College in her hometown, her mother was killed in a work-related accident. Kathy moved in with a friend's family.

She graduated in 1973, with a degree in education and speech communications. For three years, she taught drama and communications at the local high school--shades, she jokes, of TV's "Welcome Back, Kotter."

But her dream was always broadcasting. In 1976, now as Kathy Channell, married to a graphic artist she had met in college, she took the first job she was offered--as a production assistant for WNPB, the public TV station in nearby Morgantown.

"I pulled cables and hung lights and ran a generator and carried equipment, and had an opportunity to do just about everything because it was such a small station," she recalled happily. "It was a very creative station. . . .

"People were very comfortable with one another . . . so I developed early in my career a very easy sense of myself as part of a working team that has stayed with me and is part of what I try to create in the environment that I now have some impact on."

In 1984, through a trade ad, she became program director for PBS' WMFE-TV in Orlando. Three years later, she was recruited by PBS as associate director for program business affairs. By the time she got there, her first marriage was over. Five years ago, she married Mike Quattrone, who had been program director at a PBS station in Philadelphia, and she changed her name again.

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Quattrone's rise to PBS program chief was not easy. She became the top deputy to programming vice president Jennifer Lawson in 1992, but when Lawson left in March 1995, Quattrone had to watch while a parade of rivals from commercial and cable TV came in to be interviewed for the job by PBS President Ervin S. Duggan. She wasn't even named acting program chief. That title belonged to PBS' chief operating officer, Robert G. Ottenhoff, though Quattrone did the work. Was that hard?

"Truthfully, I think it was easier for me than for a lot of other people," she replied, "because I had a great opportunity, and that was to basically run things in the interim. And I just did it. . . . I think, rightfully, Ervin felt he had to do a very wide sweep--and I'm glad he made the decision that he did."

Duggan, in a separate interview, explained that Quattrone was a "candidate from the beginning" but he had to "satisfy my own curiosity" that she was the most qualified.

Her appointment last June at the annual PBS stations meeting sent a wave of relief through the system that the programming job wasn't going to be turned over to an outsider.

"There's a real sense of reassurance that she's the right person for the job," said Sharon Rockefeller, president of Washington's WETA-TV. "She's done an exemplary job during this last year. She's kept the ship on course during turbulent times."

Noted Stephen Kulczycki, KCET-TV Channel 28's senior vice president of programming: "She kept the enterprise steady when it could have been spinning in an awful lot of chaos. She kept her eye on the prize, helped new programs get started, took care of producers [making] sure their voices were heard."

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Quattrone said her priorities are to "focus on growth and momentum. The biggest thing to me in the whole federal funding debate was how important public television is to a whole lot of people. So it's important to make sure that we're continuing to deliver."

With the coming end to PBS' long-running drama showcase "American Playhouse," both Duggan and Quattrone now want to focus on developing another steady stream of original American drama for the network. Indeed, Duggan said that one of the reasons he was sold on Quattrone was that she had suggested exploring a cost-saving "Playhouse 90s" approach, with filming done entirely in a studio instead of on location.

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