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Frugality a new theme for networks

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. The economic stresses felt nationwide haven t escaped the television industry, which continues to suffer from both general economic malaise and the hangover effects of last winter s writers strike that resulted in a disastrous fall TV season, both ratings-wise and creatively.

Network executives hope to bounce back with midseason replacement series that they ll premiere between now and April, but the turbulent economy is having an impact even as they plan for the future.

At the Television Critics Association winter press tour, which began Tuesday, austerity measures are in effect. Networks have laid off both executives and worker bees and they re downsizing their presentations to TV critics. Obviously the networks still hope that getting their messages about new and returning shows out to critics will then trickle down to awareness among viewers, but they re not making the big splashes they once did. The CW is barely presenting (just a cocktail party with the stars of the new 90210), NBC Universal s cable networks are sitting out opportunities to herald new programming, and ABC has canceled its stars party despite an abundance of new midseason series.

For PBS, up first with presentations of new programming, the economic downturn means worries about both corporate underwriting for programming and government funding. Filmmaker Ken Burns work has long been sponsored by General Motors, but with GM in dire shape, it s unclear what will happen to the company s sponsorship of Burns PBS programs.

PBS president Paula Kerger said Burns next few programs are in very good shape for funding, but she acknowledged, We are looking at all corporate underwriting as an area. We will be wrestling with the same issues [as commercial broadcasters] of how to make sure we shore up our sponsorships.

She s somewhat heartened with the prospect of a new administration in Washington and President-elect Barack Obama s signal of an interest in funding the arts.

That bodes well for public broadcasting, but we re also realistic that these are very tough economic times, she said. Anyone in my shoes would be thinking as I am that although I think we provide a service to the American public, we should not assume that because we ve done great work in the past that we will be the recipient of funding going forward.

Congress will have to make difficult decisions dealing with the budgets they have in front of them. We ll have to work hard to make our case.

Burns latest documentary, National Parks: America s Best Idea, will air next fall. He is also readying a new chapter for 1994 s Baseball documentary, which will re-air in spring, 2010, with a new chapter titled The Tenth Inning, catching up on what s happened in the sport in the past 15 years.

In other PBS news, the Jim Henson Co. (Sid the Science Kid) will produce Dinosaur Train for fall 2009. The show will attempt to spark interest in life science, natural history, and paleontology among preschoolers.

The producers of PBS s Carrier documentary are going behind the scenes with the Big Apple Circus for Circus, a documentary series slated to premiere in fall 2010.

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 winter press tour in Los Angeles.

Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com

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