PBS chief endorses ouster of Market Warriors host Fred Willard

By Barry Garron

LOS ANGELES — It’s unlikely that PBS will reinstate Fred Willard as announcer of Market Warriors, its new antiquing reality show, if Los Angeles prosecutors decline to press charges for his July 17 arrest for lewd conduct in a Los Angeles adult theater.

The comedic actor, whose role on the show was limited to voiceover announcing, was fired July 19 after news of his arrest went viral. Producers at WGBH tapped Antiques Roadshow’s Mark Walberg to replace him and to re-voice the episodes Willard had already completed.

Eaton (left) and Branaugh reveal details of Masterpiece plans for future seasons. (Photo: Rahoul Ghose/PBS.)

In Market Warriors, which premiered last week, antique-savvy buyers compete to buy and resell collectibles, and earn the highest returns at auction. Because Willard did not appear on screen, no scenes had to be reshot, PBS President Paula Kerger said during her July 21 executive session with the Television Critics Association. The debut run of the series’ six-episode season will not be disrupted.

“It’s a new series and our concern, really, is that his circumstance would become a distraction to the series,” Kerger said.

She endorsed the producers’ decision to tap Walberg to replace Willard on Market Warriors. “It actually links the shows together,” the PBS president said.

Market Warriors is a spinoff of Antiques Roadshow, and both are produced by Boston’s WGBH under Executive Producer Marsha Bemko.

Prior to Kerger’s appearance at the press tour last weekend, the network took some heat from for firing Willard so quickly after his arrest.

“It’s not news that one of the downsides of having a public media network that’s dependent on contributions from government and corporate sponsors is that it makes extremely timid decisions, especially around anything having to do with politics or, perhaps more so, sex,” wrote Time TV critic James Poniewozik in a July 20 commentary. “[W]ho exactly was going to be offended by Willard narrating a show for grown adults about trying to nab antique finds in flea markets?”

Kerger told critics that PBS had to act quickly as the “situation became known” because the series is still in production.

When a critic pressed Kerger on PBS’s willingness to bring Willard back if no charges are filed or if he is acquitted, she said:  “I think, at this point, we’ve got Mark Walberg and we’re going to tie the two shows together.”

But PBS’s chief was far less certain about the future of public broadcasting’s federal funding. Reacting to an appropriations bill making its way through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Kerger said the proposed cuts — including a rescission of $111.3 million in CPB’s fiscal 2013 appropriation — threaten the existence of some PBS stations. The House Labor Health and Human Services appropriations subcommittee last week approved a bill that would cut another $222.5 million from CPB’s funding in FY 14 and completely eliminate it in 2015.

Although federal appropriations supply only 15 percent of the public broadcasting system’s total revenues, many stations are dependent on the grants that CPB provides to local stations. Small stations serving rural populations rely on CPB for as much as half of their budgets, she said.

“The real consequence, and the reason that we work so hard and fight so hard to try to hold onto our federal funding, is that if that funding was to go away, there are a number of stations that would go dark,” Kerger said.

Large stations also would feel the pinch. “It certainly would have an impact on our ability to create and showcase the kind of programming that we proudly bring to you every year,” Kerger told the critics and reporters. But the worst consequence would be the loss of service to rural areas that rely on pubcasting stations for news and information. “[I]t would eliminate public broadcasting in areas where I know it’s tremendously used,” she said.

To cultivate more private support for its children’s service, PBS is working with local stations to raise foundation and corporate grants for PBS Kids and related content. Up until now, Kerger said, “we haven’t done such a good job of really talking about it. We have a lot of research that we’ve quantified about the impact that programming has on kids’ ability to learn.”

Kerger also updated critics on PBS’s controversial plan to introduce program breaks: The proposal, floated last year is dormant, at least for now, she said. PBS sought to reduce the length of promotional and underwriter messages before and after programs by inserting breaks within the programs themselves. Thus far, the only step taken has been to squeeze closing credits.

“We haven’t come up with a really good idea of how to do that,” Kerger said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s off the table completely, but we are very aware that one of the things that people treasure about the programming that they watch is that you can watch an arc of a story uninterrupted.”

In announcements from other program-focused sessions of the PBS Press Tour over the weekend:

  •  Viking River Cruises, sponsor of Masterpiece during the last season, agreed to extend its sponsorship two years, through 2013 to 2014. “This is truly good news because this allows us to look at what’s in the pipeline coming from British television and choose the very best of them,” said Rebecca Eaton, series executive producer. Eaton had hoped to announce four additional outings of the Endeavour mystery series but the deal is not yet completed. “Watch this space,” she said. “I think it’s very likely.” In the same session, Kenneth Branagh, star of the Wallander detective series, clued critics into some of the scripts under consideration for more episodes of the series: The White Lioness and The Troubled Man by novelist Henning Mankell.
  •  American Experience will combine some reenactment footage with authentic images in its production of “The Abolitionists,” which airs next year. Though the technique is rarely done in historical documentaries, it’s not unprecedented, said Mark Samuels, series producer.
  •  Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep and Edward Herrmann will provide the voices of Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, respectively, in a seven-part, 14-hour documentary by Ken Burns slated for 2014. This will be the first time their individual stories have been combined into a single production, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, PBS said.
  • For the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis on Oct. 23, PBS has scheduled an evening of special broadcasts: Cuban Missile Crisis—Three Men Go to War from producer/director John Murray’s Crossing the Line Productions. Also slated for that evening is a Secrets of the Dead episode, “The Man Who Saved the World,” about a Soviet submarine commander who refused to fire a nuclear missile.
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