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PBS put on the defensive over new host, 'Masterpiece Theatre'

LOS ANGELES - For PBS executives, it was not an easy time to meet the press.

A week after the trade publication Television Week listed a litany of crises facing PBS - a decrease in corporate, private, and government funding, lower ratings, and a revolt by member stations over attempts by PBS to increase their programming fees by more than 7 percent (PBS had to settle for 3 percent) - PBS president and CEO Pat Mitchell faced a room of TV critics at the summer press tour.

It wasn't pretty.

Actually, it never seems to be particularly warm in PBS executive sessions. Critics often seem to hold PBS to a higher standard than the broadcast networks, and because it is funded in part by tax dollars, that's probably fair.

But TV critics also have a tendency to get obsessed with a single subject.

This year's topic du jour: conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, host of PBS's new series Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered. PBS, long viewed as unduly liberal by conservatives, is now scaring liberals who think the addition of noted conservative Carlson is the beginning of a sea change.

Mitchell said the addition of Carlson was simply an effort to widen PBS's appeal, that he was the host of one of four ideologically diverse pilots - she declined to identify the hosts of the proposed programs that were not picked up - and his show turned out the best.

"We are not in the pursuit of that kind of political equivalency," Mitchell said. "We're not responding to those [political] pressures in any other way than to respond to the original pressure, which is to have all points of view."

She said it's usually one or two programs that end up defining a network even if that program doesn't fully represent the broad array of programs aired.

"Once PBS was defined by [conservative] Bill Buckley and Firing Line. More recently, we've been defined by many people as [liberal] Bill Moyers," she said, pointing out that PBS also airs what's considered one of the most balanced news programs, The NewsHour.

Once critics gnashed their teeth about Carlson, it was on to what's becoming an unfortunate PBS evergreen: Finding a sponsor for Masterpiece Theatre.

PBS had previously announced the show would have funding through 2006 - a necessity given the long lead time for drama productions - and Mitchell admitted that might have given potential sponsors an opportunity to delay signing on to sponsor the show. Mitchell remains confident a sponsor - or more likely, multiple sponsors - will be found.

Mitchell began her session saying the times are a changing, but went on to emphasize what's not changing at PBS, beginning with her leadership. She clarified that she had not applied for the job to succeed Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, that Valenti asked her to interview, which the head of the PBS board encouraged her to do.

"I did one round of interviews and I could see what was interesting and challenging [about that job], but I wrote the PBS stations and the PBS board and told them, I am where I want to be," Mitchell said. "I am passionate about what we are doing together and I am committed to being here."

Actress Geraldine McEwan (Gosford Park) takes on the role of Miss Marple in four new episodes of PBS's Mystery! during the 2005-2006 TV season.

Other new Mystery! series include Robert Lindsay in Jericho as a 1950s-era Scotland Yard officer, and Malice Aforethought, a two-part dark comedy about a country doctor who decides to kill his "difficult" wife.

PBS' Antiques Roadshow will have a half-hour spin-off series in early 2005.

Antiques Roadshow FYI will answer viewer questions, including a "whatever happened to?" segment about people who appeared on the original Antiques Roadshow and whether they sold whatever heirloom they had had appraised.

UPN's Amish in the City, a controversial reality show that takes five Amish youth and puts them in a house to live Real World-style with six more worldly youth, has secretly wrapped production, according to Daily Variety and will premiere with back-to-back episodes at 8 p.m. July 28.

The WB, that usually uber-hip network of angst-filled teen shows, tries on a different wardrobe this month with the July 29 premiere of Blue Collar TV, a sketch comedy series starring Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Larry the Cable Guy.

The series, originally announced for fall, was inspired in part by the success of Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie, which has sold more than2.5 million DVDs.

Garry Shandling will be the sole host of the Emmy telecast Sept. 19 on ABC. CBS's Tuesday night reality shows, Big Brother 5 and The Amazing Race, got off to a strong start this week, particularly in the key youth demographics prized by advertisers at 8 p.m. SOAPnet, a network available mostly to satellite subscribers, will begin airing reruns of Beverly Hills, 90210 in early 2005 and Melrose Place on Sept. 13.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen, the TV editor for the Post-Gazette, is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Los Angeles.

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