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All politics aside in PBS series

Times Staff Writer

“America at a Crossroads” did not get off to an auspicious start. From the beginning, the ambitious $20-million effort to examine the complexities of the post-Sept. 11 world through a series of documentaries -- an initiative of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the private nonprofit that distributes federal funds to public television and radio -- was greeted with skepticism.

Independent producers and local station programmers, alarmed that CPB officials at the time were agitating for more conservatives on the air, feared the venture was driven by a political agenda. Tensions flared publicly at a March 2004 forum in Manhattan, where hostile audience members exchanged angry accusations with a panel assembled to discuss the project.

“This whole thing stinks,” declared an employee of the National Black Programming Consortium.

Since then, tempers have cooled substantially.

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The 11-part “Crossroads” series that will air in prime time next week on PBS has received largely positive reviews in the public broadcasting community, including from many station executives initially wary of it.

“I would not have said this was my first choice for where we should have put our efforts,” said Ron Pisaneschi, director of broadcasting at Idaho Public Television. “We have limited amounts of funds at our disposal and we have a lot of different things we could spend it on. But at the end of the day, I think we have 11 documentaries that are pretty darn strong.”

Three years in the making, “Crossroads” serves as a measure of how much public broadcasting has succeeded in moving past the political tumult that recently gripped it.

“I think the system is working together very strongly now,” said Greg Diefenbach, CPB’s new senior vice president of television programming. “This series evidences that public broadcasting is alive and well.”

Such sentiment was rarely expressed several years ago, when discord erupted as Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, then-chairman of the CPB board, sought to right what he saw as a liberal tilt in public broadcasting. Tomlinson resigned in November 2005 after the corporation’s inspector general found that his efforts -- which included consulting with White House aides and monitoring the political leanings of guests on public affairs shows -- broke federal law and violated CPB rules.

Since then, public broadcasting officials have worked to rid “Crossroads” of any political taint. Washington public television station WETA took over production last year and brought in veteran PBS journalist Robert MacNeil to host it.

“I was intrigued by it,” MacNeil said. “What better can public broadcasters do than steer the dialogue and ask some serious questions?”

But it remains to be seen whether the project can meet its lofty goal of sparking a national discussion about the complex political and cultural challenges facing the U.S. in the wake of Sept. 11. The 12-hour series, which begins next Sunday with the two-hour “Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda,” will test the public’s appetite for contemplating weighty topics such as the effect of security measures on civil liberties and the history of Islam in Indonesia.

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In scheduling the series over six consecutive days, producers are hoping “Crossroads” will draw more attention than if the films had been spread out over a longer period. Still, local station executives fret about holding the attention of the audience with such intense fare.

“Is it going to be ‘Desperate Housewives’? No,” said Bill Young, vice president of programming for KERA, the PBS station for North Texas. “It’s going to be a hard 12 hours to get through. But you have to hope that one of the hours is going to strike a chord with somebody, and that’s going to create a dialogue.”

Some programming executives still believe the “Crossroads” money would have been better spent bolstering tent pole shows such as “Masterpiece Theatre,” which still hasn’t found an underwriter since ExxonMobil ended its sponsorship in 2004. They noted that programs like “Frontline” and “Wide Angle” already grapple with many of the topics spotlighted in “Crossroads,” and that they could have greatly expanded their current offerings with some of the project’s $20 million.

“We’re spending so much money on a series that will be fairly ephemeral,” said Garry Denny, interim director of programming at Wisconsin Public Television. “There’s not much new here. I think its impact on public television and public television viewers will be minimal, at best.”

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Martin Smith, an independent documentary producer who works frequently for “Frontline,” initially declined to participate in “Crossroads” out of concern that it would be politicized. Ultimately, he decided the project could help finance serious journalism and produced a film for the series about failings in the training of Iraqi troops called “Gangs of Iraq.”

Smith said he applauded CPB for supporting substantive programs, but added, “There was some reinventing of the wheel here. I just wonder why the system won’t invest its extra dollars in those centers of excellence it already has.”

PBS officials said the 11 documentaries being shown next week -- culled from more than 400 proposals -- would expose the work of filmmakers new to PBS and would showcase perspectives not often given a broad platform.

“I see this as being a great complement to the work that PBS’ ongoing series have been doing,” said John Wilson, chief TV programming executive for PBS. “Can you ever say you’ve done it enough when it’s a topic of such importance? As the world watches American media, and how America looks at itself, I think a series like this can send a signal that public broadcasting is willing to look at very tough issues from a number of points of view.”

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The films employ various approaches. In “Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience,” U.S. troops share personal stories through verse, poetry and letters, illustrated with stark photography and graphic animation. “The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom” follows former Bush administration advisor Richard Perle as he tangles with critics over his support for the war in Iraq. Other films are more straightforward journalistic pieces by reporters from Newsweek, the New York Times and “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.”

Jeff Bieber, one of the series’ executive producers, said “Crossroads” was meant to be provocative and to surprise viewers who “deem us too straight and boring.”

“There was a question of how we deal with programs that have sharp points of view mixed with traditional balanced documentaries,” he said. “But that gives the series its real edge.”

Michael Pack, the former CPB official who created the project, said the diversity of the films was “a vindication of the original ‘Crossroads’ concept.”

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“It clearly proves the process was not politicized,” said Pack, who left CPB last year to return to documentary filmmaking.

Perle said he was initially a bit surprised when he was approached to participate in “Crossroads” because, “in my experience, watching public broadcasting over many years, it has a decidedly liberal bias.”

He received some frosty receptions at forums held around the country to promote the series. Still, Perle said he found the encounters intriguing, adding that he would participate in the project again. “I’m a big believer in arguing these issues out,” he said. “We all benefit from a good lively debate.”

matea.gold@latimes.com

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