Beverly Hills, CA -- PBS hasn't been this hot since the Seventies. That was the takeaway from the opening weekend of the 2012 Summer Television Critics Association Tour.
Every broadcast network and most pay and basic cable networks will present their new summer and fall programming here during the next two weeks. But after a star-studded and stimulating two-day opener by PBS – the highlight of which was dinner with several of the Emmy nominated cast members from the "Masterpiece" phenomenon "Downton Abbey" – it's hard to imagine that any of the networks set to appear here throughout the tour are going to offer as rich and rewarding a series of panels and events. (Today's presentations by Fox may prove me wrong, largelybecause of the current host crisis at "American Idol.")
Multiple Emmy nominations for the series' second season (16 in all) were a given, but when PBS set its TCA schedule several weeks ago it couldn't have known that four of the "Abbey" cast members set to attend its dinner event would be among the six who were nominated in various categories last Thursday. Season 3 newcomer Shirley MacLaine was also in attendance, along with series creator, writer and executive producer Julian Fellowes.
The highlight of the "Abbey" event was the presentation of an extended trailer that revealed major plot turns in the season to come, most tellingly a shocking financial loss suffered by the Earl of Grantham that threatens to plunge the family into economic despair. As the trailer played half the TCA members in the audience breathlessly took to Twitter and Facebook to share the details of what they were watching. The other half questioned why PBS would choose to reveal so titanic a spoiler more than six months before the season premiere.
Make no mistake: Despite an anemic attempted backlash by certain bloggers and online journalists, Season 2 of "Downton Abbey" is unarguably the programming event of 2012, and there is no reason to believe Season 3 won't enjoy similar success. That brings me back to my comment above about PBS suddenly being as hot today as it was 40-plus years ago. Granted, in the Seventies there were far fewer television options, but young people (including teenagers) were during that decade hooked on a great number of PBS programs, including "An American Family," "Upstairs Downstairs," "I Claudius" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus," to name but a few. Also, "Sesame Street" debuted at the start of the Seventies (specifically in November 1969), forever changing the viewing behavior of children.
But now, with "Downton Abbey" and, of equal importance, the sizzling "Sherlock" franchise (which received a whopping 13 Emmy nominations last week), PBS is enjoying a significant infusion of new viewers, many of them teens and young-adults. The robust expansion of PBS Kids across all media has also contributed to this current surge of acclaim and audience growth.
Troublingly, this groundswell of fresh PBS success comes at a time when it is dealing with increasing financial pressures. "We are, as an industry, looking at multiple ways that we can connect with viewers, and so we are producing more and trying to do more with what are, in fact, limited resources," PBS President and Chief Executive Officer Paula Kerger told TCA members on Saturday. "Our stations across the country have had challenging times the last couple years for sure. Philanthropy is now actually going up a little bit, but during the toughest moments for the economy, that was a challenge for our stations as it has been for every nonprofit organization in this country."
"Corporate underwriting has been more or less flat, and so, when you layer all that together, it has not been the easiest of times," she continued. "That said, we have had some good indications of support for our local stations. This last year has been better than the year before, and we are looking very carefully at the year ahead and particularly as it might impact our federal funding. That is, obviously, of great concern."
PBS' financial issues certainly weren't in evidence during its TCA days, which featured the usual dazzling array of presentations. They included a panel with the cast of "Call the Midwife," a British series that will run on PBS as an hour drama outside of the usual "Masterpiece" umbrella; performances by young contenders in the documentary mini-series "Broadway or Bust," best described as a real-life version of the Oxygen series "The Glee Project" in which all of the young competitors are winners of regional awards; a cooking demonstration by Martha Stewart, on hand to promote her new weekly PBS series "Martha Stewart's Cooking School"; the introduction of an animated PBS Kids series titled "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," a follow-up to the classic "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"; a session with entertainment entrepreneur David Geffen, the subject of an upcoming "America Masters" profile; a panel for an upcoming documentary based on the book "Half the Sky" about women's rights in oppressed and oppressive cultures featuring Meg Ryan, America Ferrera and Diane Lane; a session with television legends Richard Chamberlain, Cloris Leachman, Michele Lee and others, who talked about the latest installments of PBS' "Pioneers of Television" franchise; and a lunch and press conference with filmmaker Ken Burns, as engaging as always in presenting his upcoming multi-part documentary "The Dust Bowl," which debuts in November. Burns described the decade-long drought and resulting dust storms that ravaged much of the southern plains region in the Thirties as "the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history" and "a ten-year economic apocalypse." As is typically the case with every new project from Burns, "The Dust Bowl" should be one of the most talked about programs of the fall season.