Discussion of two recent controversies--Louis Rukeyser's bitter exit from the long-running financial program "Wall Street Week," and the potential presence of an HIV-positive Muppet on the children's show "Sesame Street"--dominated PBS' session with television reporters gathered in Pasadena on Friday.
PBS President and Chief Executive Pat Mitchell tried to distract the media by offering them the venerated newscaster Walter Cronkite, who appeared live via satellite from Martha's Vineyard to discuss his role as the voice of Benjamin Franklin in a new animated children's series, "Liberty's Kids." The historical series will debut Labor Day weekend, with a host of other celebrities voicing parts, including Ben Stiller and Sylvester Stallone.
But reporters were more interested in grilling Mitchell on the lingering "Wall Street Week" and "Sesame Street" issues, both public relations snafus that have dogged PBS.
Rukeyser abruptly left "Wall Street Week" earlier this year in a feud with both PBS and his producers, Maryland Public Television. They wanted to revamp the show, which had become PBS' lowest-rated prime-time series, in part, Mitchell said Friday, because the investor community had changed over the years to include more women and a generally younger audience. But the suggested changes, she said, were "nothing dramatic and nothing that included changing the host."
Rukeyser has since reemerged on CNBC, and 158 PBS stations air him--though only six in the top 20 PBS markets, Mitchell noted.
And in the fall, Sesame Workshop, which produces "Sesame Street," plans to introduce an HIV-positive character in the South African version of the show, arousing concern among U.S. lawmakers. Mitchell subsequently sent a letter assuring congressional members that no public money was going toward the introduction of that character and that there were no plans to introduce such a character in the American "Sesame Street."
"Every 2- to 4-year-old in South Africa knows about HIV or AIDS," Mitchell said Friday, explaining why such a character was culturally relevant in that country. She said viewer mail she'd read convinced her "it's not the time now" to expose kids in this country to the issue.
Mitchell also stressed that such creative decisions are made not by Congress or PBS but by Sesame Workshop, stressing "the firewall" between PBS content and government input.
Still, reporters weren't entirely convinced, with one asking Mitchell how lawmakers might respond if "Sesame Street" introduced a handicapped Muppet.
"You're asking me to go into the minds of Congress," Mitchell said.
The twin controversies come at a time when PBS is struggling with station layoffs, dwindling viewership amid competition from copycat cable programming and a looming $1.8-billion conversion to digital transmission. And then there's the perennial dilemma: the search for funding for a broadcasting service that relies on the largess of the viewing public for more than half its revenue.
And yet, said Mitchell, who came to PBS more than two years ago from CNN Productions, "it is quite amazing that the institution stays as strong as it does."
To that end, PBS, which recently picked up 41 Emmy nominations, talked up a host of new programming for the fall and beyond. The menu includes "Colonial House," from the makers of "Frontier House" and "The 1900 House"; a production of "The Gin Game" starring Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke, to be shot at the KCET Studios in Hollywood; and "The Blues," a seven-part documentary series on the music genre from filmmaker Martin Scorsese.
In other nods to PBS' branding imperatives, the broadcasting service will start airing a "Be More" promotional campaign in the fall and has entered into a partnership with TiVo to promote PBS' upcoming programming related to the Sept. 11 attacks.
That programming will include "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero," from PBS' investigative series "Frontline."