PBS predicts funding increase

Network sets three docs on religion to air next year

PBS expects the current White House to be a friendlier gatekeeper to public funding than the previous administration.

PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger told TV critics gathered at the semi-annual press tour that the organization is hopeful it will receive a funding increase next year from $430 million to $450 million.

"It looks like our funding might increase slightly," Kerger said.

The relationship between the President Obama and PBS seems to be pretty cordial. The pubcaster unveiled a video clip Saturday of Obama's taped introduction for the upcoming 40th anniversary of "Sesame Street," and the first lady visited the show this month.

Asked if she has noticed any difference between the current administration and that and George W. Bush, Kerger said, "The best way to answer that question is, coming out of the administration, we received full funding for public broadcasting for the first time in eight years."

Kerger hastily added that "none of us are crystal-ball gazers" and was cautious during PBS' TCA presentation when a critic asked how she feels when the government spends billions bailing out the banking industry.

"I don't know that I can even make a comment about that," she said.

Kerger pointed to an annual Roper poll that shows Americans rank public broadcasting as the second-most-important use of funds after defense.

"I do worry that in tough economic times, people think the arts are dispensable," she said.

PBS started the day by announcing three religion-themed documentaries planned for next year. "God in America," "The Buddha" and "The Calling" will look at different aspects of religious faith.

"For many Americans, exploring religion and faith is one of life's biggest and most central questions, and PBS offers some of the most compelling, wide-ranging programming on this subject anywhere on television," PBS chief programming executive John Wilson said.

"God in America," produced as part of the channel's "Frontline" and "American Experience" documentary programs, is a six-hour film examining 500 years of American religious history from the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the 2008 election.

"Buddha" is a two-hour doc from multiple Emmy winner David Grubin that details the life of the enlightened Indian sage and tracks his biography aided by paintings and sculptures.

The four-hour "Calling," from independent producer Danny Alpert, follows eight people on their journey into the clergy of Islam, Catholicism, Evangelical Christianity and Judaism.

Also, PBS announced that former "Doctor Who" star David Tennant will reprise the role of Hamlet for an upcoming TV adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2008 stage production of the Shakespeare classic. "Hamlet" will air next year.

During the panel sessions, documentarian Ken Burns took the stage to talk about his latest PBS project, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," a six-part, 12-hour film debuting Sept. 27.

"This is the story of democracy, or the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape," Burns said. "Like the idea of freedom, it is one of our great exports."

Another panel celebrated the 40th anniversary of "Sesame Street," with producers saying the show will feature a new host -- Murray Muppet -- and employ some CGI for the first time.

The "Sesame Street" panel was introduced with a clip of Obama saying, "This video is brought to you by the number 40." Along with TBS' George Lopez talk show, it is the second program featured at press tour that has nabbed an intro clip from the president.

Producers also surprised critics by revealing that "Sesame" will parody AMC's grown-up drama "Mad Men."

" 'Sesame Street' has always been written on two levels," said Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Workshop's vp education and research. "The children don't understand these parodies, but the adult does. ... Think about the title 'Mad Men,' and think about the emotional curriculum that might be linked to that."