TCA 2013: PBS 'Brings It' with Downton Abbey, Billie Jean King, Journey and More - Ed Martin

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Beverly Hills, CA -- PBS during its three days of presentations at the Summer 2013 Television Critics Association tour offered several sessions that were more stimulating than almost everything we had seen here during the last two weeks. In fact, the only panels prior to PBS that literally shot a palpable jolt of energy through the group of approximately 250 critics and journalists assembled here were the FX session detailed in Tuesday's TCA report for "American Horror Story: Coven" in which Kathy Bates went medieval on NBC's butt and a Showtime panel with the cast of its profoundly adult new drama "Masters of Sex" that was almost as frank as the show itself.

The most unexpectedly engaging PBS session was one on Tuesday for "American Masters: Billie JeanBille+Jean+KingKing," which will premiere on September 10 to mark the 40th anniversaries of King's historic Battle of the Sexes game against Bobby Riggs and the founding of the Women's Tennis Association. Tennis legend Billie Jean King, at almost 70 as open and animated as anyone ever seen on a TCA stage, was so utterly dismantling with her cheerful recollections about the triumphs and challenges she has faced in her life that she could have held court for hours. After two exhaustive weeks of non-stop sessions almost every day, most of which went on a little too long, the press actually wanted King to talk and take questions long past the 45 minutes allotted for her panel.

As noted in yesterday's TCA report , PBS' dinner and press conference Tuesday night with cast members from "Downton Abbey" was very possibly the most eagerly anticipated session of the tour (with the possible exceptions of an AMC panel with the cast of "Breaking Bad" and a Showtime session with the stars of "Homeland"). But interest in and enthusiasm for PBS sessions was already in high gear during the two days before the "Downton" event and continued right through the day yesterday. (Note: PBS at this tour produced three days of TCA events after ABC decided to cancel the second of its two days. At a time when most networks are hard pressed to put together one or two days filled with interesting and productive panels, PBS really brought it.)

Downton AbbeyHistorically, dozens of critics and reporters who flock to TCA tours for the broadcast network sessions, along with a few cable panels, pack their bags and split when the PBS days begin. The burgeoning popularity of "Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock" have somewhat curbed this unfortunate flight, but I've never really understood why editors, critics and reporters who make their living covering television content don't stick around for PBS. Its panels almost always feature a smattering of stars, many of them bigger than most broadcast network performers. This time around they included Wilmer Valderrama for the documentary "Los Graduados," Rita Moreno and Benjamin Bratt for the documentary series "Latino Americans," Lucie Arnaz for "American Masters: Marvin Hamlisch The Way He Was," newsman Charlie Rose, Keanu Reeves for the documentary "Side By Side" (about the rise of digital technology in filmmaking) and Tom Hiddleston (Loki himself!) for "Great Performances: The Hollow Crown." On Monday night, Roseanne Cash performed a number of classic and new songs at an event for "PBS Arts Fall Festival: Nashville 2.0." On Tuesday afternoon members of the rock band Journey, including new lead singer Arnel Pineda, performed at a press session for the "Independent Lens" special "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey."

Even for those whose publications aren't necessarily star-driven the extraordinary breadth of contentRuby+Bridgesduring PBS tour days can be professionally very productive, not to mention personally quite enriching. Yesterday, Civil Rights icon Ruby Bridges (the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South and the little girl immortalized in the Norman Rockwell painting The Problem We All Live With) and journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault (one of the first two African Americans to attend the University of Georgia) appeared with Henry Louis Gates Jr. for the documentary "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross." Comic-book gods Todd McFarlane (the creator of Spawn), Len Wein (the creator of Wolverine) and Gerry Conway (a longtime writer of Spider-man known among fans as The Man Who Killed Gwen Stacy) were here for the three-part documentary "Super-Heroes: A Never-Ending Battle." There were two very engaging panels for documentaries that will in November mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, "American Experience: JFK" and "Cold Case: JFK."

True to tradition, PBS also delivered compelling tour guests that weren't even human. On Monday afternoon a Moluccan cockatoo and a green-winged macaw were on stage during a panel for an upcoming edition of "Nature" titled "Parrot Confidential," about the crisis resulting from the abandonment of tens of thousands of pet parrots in this country. Both birds were popular with the crowd. The session featured a man named Marc Johnson, who along with his wife Karen Windsor founded Foster Parrots, Ltd., which is a sanctuary for hundreds of unwanted and displaced birds in Hope Valley, Rhode Island. This session may not have been highly newsworthy, but it offered yet another example of the good work PBS does in identifying all kinds of problems and challenges in our world and bringing experts in to talk with the TCA about them.

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