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KCET COMEBACK SHIFTS TO HIGH GEAR

Times Staff Writer

The recent Los Angeles area Emmy Awards gave clear-cut evidence that local programming at public television station KCET is alive and well. Channel 28 won nine of the local Emmys, more than any other station in town except KCBS-TV Channel 2.

Only two years ago, KCET didn’t even garner that many nominations , reflecting the severe programming and personnel cutbacks that had been instituted in 1982 to stave off bankruptcy.

But while the station’s local programming has bounced back from that financial crisis, what hasn’t been so quick to revive is its national programming--the big-budget productions for the Public Broadcasting Service that once were KCET’s hallmark.

Station officials say, however, that progress is being made there, too, as the next two installments of PBS’ “American Playhouse” will demonstrate. Both were produced by KCET.

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Airing Monday is “Paper Angels,” an hourlong drama by Genny Lim about the painful experiences of Chinese who were detained on San Francisco’s Angel Island while trying to immigrate to the United States between 1910 and 1940.

Following on June 24 is a new production of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” with Jessica Lange as Maggie, Tommy Lee Jones as Brick, Rip Torn as Big Daddy and Kim Stanley as Big Mama. (A co-production with Showtime, the program already has run on the pay-cable network.)

The back-to-back scheduling of the KCET productions is purely a coincidence, says Phylis Geller, director of national productions for Channel 28. But she says they conveniently serve to kick off a new push that the station is making to increase its presence on the PBS schedule.

“We are in as good a position as any public television station in producing for the national schedule,” Geller maintained in an interview.

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That wasn’t true three years ago. The national programming staff was virtually wiped out by the KCET layoffs. Only Geller, who then was the executive representing KCET in the consortium of stations that produce “American Playhouse,” kept her job.

She continued to produce for “American Playhouse,” but nearly everything else came to a standstill while KCET’s management righted the ship and slowly began moving it forward. They made their first priority improving service to the local audience.

Now the national department, under the supervision of David Crippens, vice president of national productions, has regained the manpower it had before the cutbacks and is busily developing projects for next season and beyond, Geller reports.

Because national productions take longer to mount than local ones--the decision-making process is more cumbersome and the larger budgets require more fund-raising efforts--projects in the works at Channel 28 now might take years to get on the air, she cautions.

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But already slated for production are a new installment of “Musical Comedy Tonight,” Sylvia Fine Kaye’s history of the American musical, and a performance program featuring choreographer Trisha Brown.

In a sign of how the times have changed in public television, however, these and many other national projects in development at KCET are geared for existing PBS series rather than as showcase specials or KCET-produced series.

Just as “Paper Angels” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” are appearing on “American Playhouse,” so will “Musical Comedy Tonight” air under the “Great Performances” banner and the Trisha Brown program under the coming “Alive From Off Center” umbrella.

Gone are the days when KCET could by itself mount a major series such as “Hollywood Television Theater” or “Visions,” Geller says. There just isn’t enough money in the public television system--among both the stations and the corporations and foundations that traditionally have underwritten PBS programs--to launch major new series in genres that already are represented.

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“We have to feed into these ongoing series; they are existing pools of financing,” she explains.

KCET isn’t limiting itself to developing for the existing series, but other projects are being kept to a modest size to improve their chances of being funded. For example, the station currently is seeking financial backing for six half-hour episodes of a comedy anthology series called “Survival Guides,” about coping with life in the ‘80s.

It also is looking for support for a six-part documentary series about relations between the United States and Japan since the end of World War II.

Meanwhile, Geller is proud of the two coming “American Playhouse” productions--and not just because she was the producer of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the executive producer of “Paper Angels.” She feels both are relevant to the special role that KCET has designated for itself in the public television system.

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Part of that role is to tap into the talent pool that exists just outside its doors in the television and movie industry. Thus the new production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"--which was made into a film in 1958 (with Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives) and was done on NBC in 1976 (with Laurence Olivier, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner).

“This is a revival of a classic. That in itself has validity,” Geller contends. “And considering the actors we got, I feel very comfortable saying that I believe each generation should reinterpret these roles. I mean, Maggie is a role that Jessica Lange should play.”

Another part of KCET’s self-made role, she says, is to reflect the diverse ethnic and cultural constituencies that it serves. Thus “Paper Angels” deals with part of the history of Chinese-Americans. The actors are Chinese-American, as are its writer, director and some of the other production staff.

“This is something about a minority group,” Geller says of “Paper Angels,” which Lim adapted for TV from her stage play, “but in the emotion of its drama will appeal to everybody.”

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“I think we are carving out a niche for ourselves,” she sums up. “These are the kinds of programs that don’t already exist and that have something to do with who we (at KCET) are.”


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