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All politics aside in PBS series

April 09, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — "America at a Crossroads" did not get off to an auspicious start. From the beginning, the ambitious $20-million effort to examine the complexities of the post-Sept. 11 world through a series of documentaries -- an initiative of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the private nonprofit that distributes federal funds to public television and radio -- was greeted with skepticism.

Independent producers and local station programmers, alarmed that CPB officials at the time were agitating for more conservatives on the air, feared the venture was driven by a political agenda. Tensions flared publicly at a March 2004 forum in Manhattan, where hostile audience members exchanged angry accusations with a panel assembled to discuss the project.

"This whole thing stinks," declared an employee of the National Black Programming Consortium.

Since then, tempers have cooled substantially.

The 11-part "Crossroads" series that will air in prime time next week on PBS has received largely positive reviews in the public broadcasting community, including from many station executives initially wary of it.

"I would not have said this was my first choice for where we should have put our efforts," said Ron Pisaneschi, director of broadcasting at Idaho Public Television. "We have limited amounts of funds at our disposal and we have a lot of different things we could spend it on. But at the end of the day, I think we have 11 documentaries that are pretty darn strong."

Three years in the making, "Crossroads" serves as a measure of how much public broadcasting has succeeded in moving past the political tumult that recently gripped it.

"I think the system is working together very strongly now," said Greg Diefenbach, CPB's new senior vice president of television programming. "This series evidences that public broadcasting is alive and well."

Such sentiment was rarely expressed several years ago, when discord erupted as Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, then-chairman of the CPB board, sought to right what he saw as a liberal tilt in public broadcasting. Tomlinson resigned in November 2005 after the corporation's inspector general found that his efforts -- which included consulting with White House aides and monitoring the political leanings of guests on public affairs shows -- broke federal law and violated CPB rules.

Since then, public broadcasting officials have worked to rid "Crossroads" of any political taint. Washington public television station WETA took over production last year and brought in veteran PBS journalist Robert MacNeil to host it.

"I was intrigued by it," MacNeil said. "What better can public broadcasters do than steer the dialogue and ask some serious questions?"

But it remains to be seen whether the project can meet its lofty goal of sparking a national discussion about the complex political and cultural challenges facing the U.S. in the wake of Sept. 11. The 12-hour series, which begins next Sunday with the two-hour "Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda," will test the public's appetite for contemplating weighty topics such as the effect of security measures on civil liberties and the history of Islam in Indonesia.

In scheduling the series over six consecutive days, producers are hoping "Crossroads" will draw more attention than if the films had been spread out over a longer period. Still, local station executives fret about holding the attention of the audience with such intense fare.

"Is it going to be 'Desperate Housewives'? No," said Bill Young, vice president of programming for KERA, the PBS station for North Texas. "It's going to be a hard 12 hours to get through. But you have to hope that one of the hours is going to strike a chord with somebody, and that's going to create a dialogue."

Some programming executives still believe the "Crossroads" money would have been better spent bolstering tent pole shows such as "Masterpiece Theatre," which still hasn't found an underwriter since ExxonMobil ended its sponsorship in 2004. They noted that programs like "Frontline" and "Wide Angle" already grapple with many of the topics spotlighted in "Crossroads," and that they could have greatly expanded their current offerings with some of the project's $20 million.

"We're spending so much money on a series that will be fairly ephemeral," said Garry Denny, interim director of programming at Wisconsin Public Television. "There's not much new here. I think its impact on public television and public television viewers will be minimal, at best."

Martin Smith, an independent documentary producer who works frequently for "Frontline," initially declined to participate in "Crossroads" out of concern that it would be politicized. Ultimately, he decided the project could help finance serious journalism and produced a film for the series about failings in the training of Iraqi troops called "Gangs of Iraq."

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