ROBERT KRULWICH: Pushing PBS to the 'Edge'

PBS looks at American pop culture with its new series "Edge." The network says "Edge" will attempt to offer viewers "a daring, thoughtful vision of what makes America tick."

The monthly series is hosted by the witty Robert Krulwich, the economic and business correspondent for CBS News and "CBS This Morning," and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio and The New York Times.

Among the segments featured on the premiere episode: a profile of Norman Mailer and his latest novel "Harlot's Ghost"; Deadheads in search of the perfect Grateful Dead Concert, and a look at The Courtroom Network, a new cable TV service carrying 24-hour trial coverage.

Krulwich will be joined for this hour by a repertory company of writers, humorists and social commentators including Buck Henry, Harry Shearer, Elvis Mitchell, Linda Barry and James Wolcott.

Krulwich talked about his life on "Edge" with Susan King.

Did PBS approach you about hosting "Edge"?

They came to me. I don't exactly know why (laughs). I am a little bit puzzled about it.

I gave a speech at their convention a few years ago where the question the TV industry was asking was, "What do we do?" It's the same question everybody is asking. The people you thought were watching you for the last 20 years seem to have gotten up and left or are watching less. You don't know exactly if they are (watching). That fact is affecting everyone who makes TV in this country. People are hanging onto their audiences by their fingernails.

PBS, like everyone else, is beginning to lose (its) audience. So they asked me, "What do we do?" I said, "One of the things is you have to change yourself a little bit. People like roast beef, but on the 12th year of roast beef, they want at least a new garnish. You are not reinventing and this is a time when invention is very important. When everything is up in the air you have to stay alive. It seems to me that you have to keep dreaming."

What gives "Edge" the edge over other entertainment-oriented magazine shows?

I think if we keep our goals clear, if we stay smart and surprising and talk about something--unlike economics--that someone is really interested in, I think we have a shot. There are some things (on the show) that will be about new TV stuff and books, but I think it won't come out normal.

Basically, I want it to be smart. I want to take a thoughtful look at what's going on in the culture and look past current icons. If there is a hot new movie or a hot new book, we have to pay attention to them. But we have to look past them to some other thought, and see what (the current icons) tell us about our society, what is missing, how happy we are and how sad we are. So it has to look beyond the merchandise.

Just like in fashion and sports, you want the news, but this is not the program for that. This is a program for people who say, "Well, what are artists telling us about ourselves? What should we be worried about? What should we be celebrating?"

There is a tendency in public TV to say, "We are dealing with a pretty smart audience. We are not afraid of ideas, so we don't have to dress them up in bells and whistles like CBS does. We can just do a regular TV show with a lot of guys talking in chairs."

You might get away with that if you were covering the defense industries or world peace, but when you are dealing with movies and theaters and art and dance, then I don't care if it's the professor of romance languages at the University of Chicago or someone living in a trailer, I think people expect television about culture to be beautiful and challenging to the eye.

We are paying a lot of attention to the way the show looks. It has to look different from its neighbors on public TV. I feel you have to be ambitious visually in a subject area like this.

You said that PBS' audiences are "smart." How would you describe the viewers of "CBS This Morning"?

The morning show has very odd audiences. I get an awful lot of mail from people who have foot fetishes. I get letters which say, "Dear Mr. Krulwich. Could you please send me a Xerox of your foot? I'd rather you not post this letter, because I don't wish to be made fun of."

If you got one of those that would be fine. But over the last few years I have gotten letters from 10 different people. I have worked with everybody on the morning show and everybody gets weird mail. You go on television desperate to tell them the truth and they write, "About your hair..."

Actually, in defense of those people, there is something about television that no matter if you are talking to Albert Einstein or Mr. Ed, the first item seems not to be the words, but the presentation.

"Edge" airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on KVCR and 9 p.m. on KCET and KPBS.

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