Admittedly, PBS would have had a hard time living up to the experience of its first day at this summer's Television Critics Association's press tour here in Pasadena — the omelets, the cast of Downton Abbey, all that. But its second day started where a lot of people start with PBS: with kid stuff.
When the network announced a while back that they would be presenting an animated show called Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, aimed at littler kids and based on Fred Rogers' very first puppet, there was a lot of ... let's say, concern. Some of it was based on the idea that it's better to move on and create new characters and so forth, and some of it came from a more visceral "LEAVE MR. ROGERS ALONE" place in our hearts.
But Joanne Byrd Rogers, Fred Rogers' wife of more than 50 years, was at the presentation on Sunday to assure all of us that Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood is being produced in conjunction with a curriculum that the Fred Rogers Company (where she is on the board) has created over the last 40 years. The closest they can get to his blessing, I suppose.
I spoke later in the day to Lesli Rotenberg, PBS's Senior VP of Children's Media, and I'll be writing more about that conversation later and about Daniel Tiger, but for now, I'll share my favorite moment of that particular press conference, which — as usual — was one of the lighter ones. My friend Dan Fienberg, of Hitfix, had been talking over breakfast about the fact that Daniel Tiger wears a Mr. Rogers-like sweater, but no pants. (Typical for cartoon characters, and often commented upon.) When it became clear that everyone on stage — Mrs. Rogers, producer Angela Santomero (of Blue's Clues and SuperWhy, by the way), and executive producer Kevin Morrison from the Fred Rogers Company — had a good sense of humor, he went for it.
"I notice that Daniel doesn't wear pants in everyday life, but does wear swim trunks to the beach," Dan observed. "What is the consistency regarding pants?"
Morrison was utterly unfazed. "Yeah. I'll give you two reasons why he doesn't wear pants. The first is that Fred's original Daniel didn't wear pants. Actually, he didn't even have legs. And the second is that we're sticklers for research at the Fred Rogers Company, and we went to a large number of zoos, and none of the tigers wore pants."
"But how many of them wore swim trunks?" Dan volleyed back. "A few of them," offered Santomero.
After we got off the topic of Daniel Tiger, PBS presented its election coverage (with a panel of four female journalists, by the way) and a POV documentary on journalists reporting from the Mexican drug war.
And then: lunch with Ken Burns.
Burns was here presenting The Dust Bowl, his upcoming four-hour film that will air Nov. 18 and 19, which he made with co-producer Dayton Duncan, drawing in part on the work of New York Times journalist Timothy Egan, who wrote the book The Worst Hard Time about Dust Bowl survivors.
The three of them were joined on the panel by Calvin Crabill, an 88-year-old who remembers, among other things, being caught in a dust storm as a kid while out working with the cattle. Burns talked about how they rounded up guys like Crabill to interview them for the documentary — a process that included on-air appeals on PBS stations in the areas that defined the Dust Bowl, asking people to come forward with stories and pictures, which they did. Egan says a lot of the people they interviewed had stopped talking about their Dust Bowl experiences, for one simple reason: nobody believed them.
One of the questions that came up was how people in a time before national television news and electronic communication even knew what was happening when some of these storms came up, and Burns said that it was very common for people to conclude it was the end of the world.
Crabill says that he, as a little boy, did: "I'm trying to get the cattle rounded up, this thing came, and I just said to myself — I was a little boy who had gone to Sunday school, of course; now and then we had Sunday school — 'It's the end of the world.' I just assumed, a little boy, it's the end of the world. I just assumed it was the end of world. That was it."
My other favorite observation from Egan about interviewing people who were, in most cases, little when all this happened:
Most of the survivors are women, and the women could remember these amazing details: "Well, it was a Tuesday at nine o'clock, and I remember that was the day I was supposed to go out and do this." With men you'd say, "How was it?," and they'd stare at you, and then they'd say, "It was bad." And you'd do this interview technique of staring them back, and you'd go, "How bad?" And then they'd pause and go, "Real bad."
So we'll certainly talk more about The Dust Bowl when it's closer as well. But from that session, we headed over to hear about Half The Sky, a documentary based on the book about global issues affecting women and girls, written by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. (Tell Me More talked to WuDunn about the book last year and to Kristof this year.)
The documentary follows actresses including Diane Lane, Meg Ryan, and America Ferrera as they visit places where women are affected by things like human trafficking and high maternal mortality rates. As you can imagine, the question came up of whether it's kind of weird, or perhaps sad, that it takes the insertion of celebrities to draw attention to issues like these.
Ryan gave a pretty blunt answer to that one: "I think fame and celebrity just generally is so supremely bizarre that, I mean, no one is really prepared for it, but all you know is that there are occasions where your, whatever, spotlight is on you. You can just saddle up next to something smart and important and that will get some attention." In other words: sad or not sad, whatever works.
This is yet another piece that we'll need to come back to when it's closer to its air date on Oct. 1 and 2.
The most unusual — and certainly the most uncomfortable — discussion of the day was with movie/music/theater producer David Geffen, who's the subject of an upcoming installment of American Masters called Inventing David Geffen. Geffen doesn't make many public appearances or talk to the press much, and apparently flew in from Sardinia (!) just to do this discussion (!!). I think journalists at TCA are used to people who enjoy a nice open-ended question on which they can ruminate for a while, but that's not who Geffen is, to say the least. Erik Adams has a very good summary over at the A.V. Club with which I agree on just about every point, so it's probably more economical, given limited time and space, to direct you to it than to repeat it.
NOVA then presented Ultimate Mars Challenge, which follows the Mars Science Laboratory mission that aims to land the rover Curiosity. After that, we moved on to Pioneers Of Television, a series that tackles a few topics in television history every season.
This year, it's nighttime soaps, "funny ladies," and miniseries. Representing the soaps was Michele Lee, who was on Knots Landing for 14 seasons; representing the funny ladies was Cloris Leachman; and representing miniseries were Louis Gossett, Jr. (Roots) and the three leads of The Thorn Birds: Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward, and Bryan Brown.
While some of the presentation was sidetracked by Leachman's insistence on interrupting and pulling focus to herself (something she's done on TCA panels before), it wound up featuring some sweet exchanges between Chamberlain and Ward (who have barely seen each other in the 30 years since they made the series) and some straight talk from Gossett about how frustrating he continues to find television's lack of diversity.
"This industry is sensitive enough to change, and they're doing that on purpose," he said. "It's changing even as we speak. But the influence and the effect that it has when every lead is Caucasian male or female does work on the minds of our children. So as soon as we possibly can correct that, the better."
We closed the day with a performance from Cheyenne Jackson, who appears in the upcoming special From Dust To Dreams, airing Sept. 21, which documents opening night at the Smith Center, a new performing arts center in Las Vegas.
So, in sum: cartoon tigers, Cloris Leachman, theater, devastating catastrophes, global change, interplanetary exploration, and trying to pry answers out of reluctant moguls. This was Day Two.
Monday brings presentations from Fox. It will probably be a little different.