FOR PBS PROGRAM CHIEF, IT’S MISSION POSSIBLE
Suzanne S. Weil, who has probably seen every show there is to see on tigers, sharks and whales, knows what brings viewers to public television: “I always say, if we show animals eating each other, it gets a 5 (rating), and if we show animals eating people, it’s a 10!”
Weil is only half-kidding. As the Public Broadcasting Service’s programming chief, the former arts administrator with no prior broadcasting experience, has the somewhat tricky job of merging quality with viewability. As it happens, the National Geographic Special on “The Sharks” is PBS’ all-time most-watched show, followed closely by the same series’ “Land of the Tiger"--hence the joke about animals and ratings.
PBS, coming off its best season ever in terms of viewership, is always on the lookout to expand its audience. Hence, network executives’ occasional references to “double-digit ratings” during the network’s annual press gathering here.
“That’s all right, as long as we don’t dilute the mission,” Weil said, kicking off her shoes and relaxing in a lounge at the Arizona Biltmore.
“I don’t want to be pompous about this, so I say this in a wry way, but we’re in the ‘truth and beauty’ business. It’s ideas, it’s things that get people thinking. There’s this kind of missionary in all of us to try and make the world a better place, and it’s kind of difficult to talk about it like that.”
If that starts to sound a bit highbrow, Weil reminds that the sheer numbers of people PBS now reaches take it out of the elitist category.
“When you’re reaching about 100 million people a week, that’s not elitist anymore. Whether it’s an opera or a documentary, by putting it on a pervasive medium that is available to 97% of the public and 2 or 3 million people are going to watch at once, that’s really turning it into popular culture.
“We’re certainly not reaching only the Brie and Chablis crowd.”
Weil, 51, who coordinated the performing arts program for the Walker Art Center in her hometown of Minneapolis and moved to Washington as a director with the National Endowment for the Arts, is also a fan of Tina Turner and Willie Nelson, both of whom have been featured on PBS.
“I think that’s as much a part of what we do as anything. The culture of this country is so incredibly varied and wide and delicious, that I think it’s our job to present it all.”
To accomplish that, Weil believes her role as programming chief calls for her to be part yenta and part bargain hunter.
The “yenta factor,” as she calls it, brings together the ideas that come through her Washington office with the production teams at the various public television stations from which much of the PBS fare originates.
The bargain hunter is on the lookout for programs from all over the world that can augment the schedule.
All this is performed by Weil and her staff of two dozen with a production budget of about $4 million, or about what each of the three commercial networks spend just to promote their fall lineup.
With some astute planning--and by being “scrappy and greedy” with its minimal seed money--PBS winds up with a schedule worth about $130 million, largely in funds from corporate underwriters.
Still, lack of funds stands between Weil and what many consider to be an important requisite for PBS: a continuing weekly series. Not a “Masterpiece Theatre” or “Mystery,” but a drama or comedy with characters that viewers can tune in to week after week, much as they now do for Louis Rukeyser or Big Bird.
“There are several people who think that until we do that we won’t be grown up as a network,” Weil said. “We’ve had conversations with the Norman Lears of the world. We’d certainly be wide open to ideas.”
Weil says she is partial to comedy because “there are things you can say and do in sitcom format that you can’t do now.” But a PBS sitcom would have to include some social commentary and have a “biting edge.”
“There’s no point in doing some underfunded comedy series the (commercial) networks already do so well. Everybody has agreed that to do something like that is so bloody expensive. How many times do the networks try and fail just to get something on the air?”
In fact, Weil says that one of the things that sets PBS “so far apart” from NBC, ABC and CBS is that “we don’t try and fail very much.” There will have to be more risks taken--and more money available for unused pilots, just as at the Big Three--before PBS can make the next quantum leap.
Weil would also like to see some sort of show broadcast “from every cultural center in the country, a different one every Saturday night or something like that. Bluegrass and jazz. I’m hoping we can get the wherewithal to do that.
“I’m from the middle of the country, and I know not everything happens at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. We don’t get enough from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.”
For now, Weil is satisfied with the rewards of quality programming, such as seeing the works of Evelyn Waugh sell out of bookstores after the presentation of “Brideshead Revisited.”
Nor is she overly concerned that the fall season will be the first in several years not to feature an American-produced blockbuster. That lack, she explains, is the result of federal cutbacks from a few years back finally catching up with the various producing stations.
But the recently formed Program Development Fund supplied by member stations--which will provide about $2.25 million for next year--already has ensured the supply of future series. “The Africans,” due for 1986, is an example of how the fund can be regenerating, as a book and course material based on the show will bring royalties back to PBS’ coffers.
Weil also cites as solid American fare such fall shows as the “Creation of the Universe” and the documentary series “Lone Star,” produced by the El Paso public television station and featuring Larry Hagman as narrator.
“Not as a cheerleader for PBS but just as a viewer, I would put our broadcast schedule against anybody else’s in the world right now for finding something with some depth and some interest and some range. More than Channel 4, more than the BBC.”
And as head programmer, she keeps on the lookout. “The best ideas are ones that come out of left field. If somebody had said to me several years back, ‘There’s this big tall lady who cooks food,’ I would have said, ‘Who wants that?’ ”