PBS Chief: Organization Addressing Newtown Tragedy's 'Big Issues' With Week of Coverage

Paula Kerger
Paula Kerger
 Erika Larsen

PBS will dedicate a week of news and public affairs programming to an examination of the Newtown tragedy. The announcement came Monday during PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger's executive session at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. The special week of programming will begin Feb. 18 and include Frontline, PBS NewsHour, Nova, Need to Know and Washington Week With Gwen Ifill.

Violence on television has been a theme at the semi-annual press tour. PBS does not air the kind of violent programming that has been singled out for criticism in the wake of the horrific Dec. 14 shootings at the Connecticut elementary school. But Kerger told reporters that public broadcasting “can add to the national conversation” in a thoughtful and rigorous way by examining gun laws, mental illness and school security, among other topics.

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Frontline, for instance, will collaborate with the Hartford Courant on a profile of the shooter and his relationship with his mother. NewsHour will focus on violence in the media and gun-control policy; multiple gun manufactures are based in the Hartford area including Colt, Strum, Ruger & Co. and Mossberg & Sons, and together they employ thousands of people in the state. Science series Nova will focus on the effects of violence on the brain.

Much of the reporting as the tragedy was unfolding on that Friday morning less than two weeks before Christmas was wrong: Shooter Adam Lanza initially was identified at his older brother Ryan Lanza, and many outlets reported that Nancy Lanza was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary.

“A lot of people got a lot of things wrong,” said Kerger. “PBS is not the place to go for breaking news. We don’t try to cover breaking news. In moments of tragedy, there is a lot of fascination about the event itself. Where we can add to the conversation is to try to step back and say, 'What are the big issues, and where does this take us?' And you can’t turn that around overnight. And I think that’s where some of the other news organizations have stumbled. In the rush to have information out there really quickly, they actually miss the story."

Kerger also addressed the ongoing debate about whether to air Downton Abbey closer to its U.K. premiere. Executives at PBS have explored that option, but it raises many issues including how quickly the show can be re-edited without commercial breaks for PBS and how its viewership will be impacted by moving it to the fall, when it airs in the U.K.

“I’m not sure that jamming it into the fall at the same time that every other broadcaster is premiering their stuff really serves the viewers,” said Kerger.

Social media-enabled spoilers do not seem to have had a deleterious effect on Downton’s ratings. The Jan. 6 season three premiere was watched by 7.9 million viewers, quadrupling PBS’ average primetime ratings. And Kerger noted that the groundswell of publicity around the U.K. launch likely has built anticipation among U.S. audiences -- and brought the kind of attention that PBS never could afford to purchase with its modest marketing budgets.

“I want to make sure that we put Downton in a place where it has the opportunity to be seen and appreciated by as many people as possible,” she said.

And Kerger could not get off the stage at the Langham hotel in Pasadena without a question about the future of Sesame Street’s Elmo in the wake of creator and puppeteer Kevin Clash’s resignation amid allegations that he had sexual relationships with underage boys.

“The character of Elmo is larger than any individual,” said Kerger, adding that she has not “seen a negative impact” on Sesame Street or Elmo. “But time will tell, and we’ll obviously watch it very carefully.”

PBS also made several programming announcements in addition to the Newtown specials:

• The public broadcaster will air The Bletchley Circle, a well-received three-part British murder mystery, at 10 p.m. over three consecutive Sundays, April 21-May 5.

• PBS will present the first-ever autobiographical portrait of physicist Stephen Hawking this fall. A Brief History of Mine gives viewers insight into Hawking’s life via interviews with contributors including astronaut “Buzz” Aldrin, actors Jim Carrey and Benedict Cumberbatch, mathematical physicist Roger Penrose and entrepreneur Richard Branson.

Actor Benjamin Bratt will narrate Latino Americans, a three-part, six-hour series set to air on PBS in the fall. The documentary will chronicle the rich and varied history and experiences of Latinos, who have helped shape the United States over the past 500-plus years and have become, with more than 50 million people, the largest minority group in the U.S.

Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; @MarisaGuthrie

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