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PBS plans: Ken Burns visits the national parks; The Times' Chandlers; Sesame Street

TV PRESS TOUR

'The National Parks: America's Best Idea,' a six-part documentary, premieres Sept. 27 on PBS.

August 03, 2009|Martin Miller, Maria Elena Fernandez and Kate Aurthur

Better make those park reservations now.

Ken Burns' "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," a six-part, 12-hour documentary celebrating the virtues of the country's nearly 400 federally protected spaces, sets up camp on PBS on Sept. 27 and stays through Oct. 2.

The country's most famous documentarian, who spoke Saturday during the semiannual Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, is hoping to do for the national parks what he did for its battlefields after the airing of his landmark PBS series "The Civil War" when visits to sites like Gettysburg skyrocketed by as much as 300%.

"We want the superintendents angry at us because of all the Popsicle wrappers they'll have to clean up," Burns said. "It's a good problem to have."

Collateral nuisances like trash and traffic jams notwithstanding, large swells of visitors will help ensure the park system's vitality and transcendent importance to the country, Burns said -- although, with about 275 million annual visitors and the green movement on the rise, it seems unlikely the parks will go unnoticed any time soon.

Without the shield of the national park system, Burns argued, places like Yosemite would be a gated community and Yellowstone would be an amusement park.

The American-born idea, which Burns characterized as the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape, spurred other nations to preserve some of their lands for the public as well. Today, more than 200 countries have set aside more than 4,000 sites.

Asked if the lengthy series was a tough sell, especially in comparison with many of his earlier works about sports, music and war, Burns said no. "The drama is as dramatic as anything else," he said.

The financial outlook for PBS

On Sunday, PBS President and Chief Executive Paula Kerger addressed the key question of the year: that is, of money and whether the earthquakes that have rocked the worlds of business and personal finance have caused a permanent change or a temporary one. PBS' local stations have been hit hard during the economic collapse, and PBS itself recently downsized by 10%.

"We're trying to be quite realistic about the resources we have available," Kerger said.

She went on to say that stations' budgets have been slammed from all sides: reductions in state money, university endowments, corporate funding and philanthropy.

But there is also good news for public television, she said. PBS is funded for the year already. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting will get $430 million this year and is hoping for a further bump to $450 million the following year.

Tonally, one journalist asked somewhat rhetorically, is there a difference between the Bush administration and the Obama administration in terms of affection for public television?

"I guess the best way to answer that question is that coming out of the administration, we received full funding for public broadcasting, which is the first time in eight years," Kerger said. "So I think that says something."

Documentary on L.A.'s Chandlers

They were grandly ambitious, they were deeply dysfunctional and they are now long gone from the newspaper they founded more than a century ago. They are the Chandler family, the former owners of the Los Angeles Times, and whether you know it or not, they led the transformation of Los Angeles from a sleepy desert community into an economic and cultural powerhouse.

That is the thrust of an upcoming documentary, "Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times," slated to air in October on KCET. Saturday, Harry Brant Chandler, son of newsroom legend and former Times publisher Otis Chandler, was joined by filmmaker Peter Jones and former Times publisher Tom Johnson to promote the two-hour work.

The documentary charts the enormous growth of the family's influence through five generations at the newspaper. Much attention is paid to Otis Chandler, who is largely credited with turning the paper into a world-class news organization during the 1960s and 1970s. But it's not all flattering.

"My father was certainly a flawed character," said Harry Chandler. "He wasn't a great dad, but he was a great publisher."

And of the newspaper industry's current woes, brought on by the rise of the Internet and the collapse of the economy, Johnson offered some possible remedies. First, papers must shore up "gaping holes" in coverage, which for the The Times, he said, means aggressively covering the city's suburban communities and San Fernando Valley once again. He also said papers never should have agreed to give away their content online and that the survival of print will depend upon one day charging for it.

When the documentary premiered in Santa Barbara recently, many members of the Chandler family apparently weren't impressed. "It's caused a few earthquakes in the family," Harry Chandler said.

A presidential seal of approval

"Sesame Street" turns 40 on Nov. 10. If you're thinking, "How is that possible?" you are not alone.

You are so not alone that the "Sesame Street" session Saturday began with a commemorative introduction by President Obama -- the same White House resident who has shilled for Conan O'Brien and George Lopez.

"This video is brought to you by the number 40," Obama announced.

The president of the United States then went on to explain how he watched Big Bird's TV show with his younger sister and how much his two daughters have learned from Elmo and their pals. He described the show as "timeless in the values that it instills . . . kindness and respect for our differences," Obama said.

To celebrate the show's big birthday, PBS will release a commemorative DVD on Nov. 10.

Also on that day, "Sesame Street" will air a one-hour episode that will feature Big Bird considering changing his habitat.

Don't do it, Big Bird!

--

martin.miller@latimes.com

maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com

kate.aurthur@latimes.com

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