Current Online

PBS bets a million and rolls an Egg

Originally published in Current, Jan. 15, 2001
By Steve Behrens

PBS has taken a cautious step toward adding a lively new arts series to its regular schedule—backing Egg for a one-year run, outside of common carriage, starting April 6.

PBS will put $1 million into the series, helping New York's WNET to produce 26 new episodes and repeat 10 from the pilot season that aired on about 14 stations, says Jeff Folmsbee, executive producer. Pew Charitable Trusts earlier pitched in $2 million over two years; a number of loyal WNET arts donors also back the series.

Produced by the team that won a dozen Emmys last year with the similar local series City Arts and City Life, Egg profiles performers and other artists with highly edited, verite mini-docs, without host narration. They define art broadly—from the street to the museum and stage—but stay clear of the pop stars who are the grist for Entertainment Tonight. Their style is closer to those of Frederick Wiseman and Ira Glass than the traditional narrator-driven productions of the BBC, WGBH or Ken Burns.

Egg's style, wrote Los Angeles Times critic Howard Rosenberg, is "gorgeous without being showy, brainy without being pretentious, poetic without being la-di-da." It amounts to "a standing ovation for creative arts from coast to coast," he said.

The coming season's first episode looks at artists who are especially good at making people happy — contemporary artist Jeff Koons as well as a Los Angeles-area master of bonsai miniature gardens and advanced yodelers from Washington State and elsewhere.

Folmsbee happily announces that the series plays in Peoria. The Illinois city was one of four (with New York, Atlanta and San Francisco) where the producers tested their pilot episodes in focus groups. Though he was terrified about what they would say, he said more focus-group participants liked the show than didn't, and the older ones liked it as much as the younger.

The big lesson, says Series Producer Mark Mannucci, was that viewers responded most strongly to character-driven stories. "That informed our decisions a great deal this year," he says.

The half-hour program will be paired with itself, constructing a bigger, hour-long "target" for viewers to hit, says PBS programmer John Wilson. Each episode will be followed by a repeat of the previous episode, in this sort of pattern: 2/1, 3/2, 4/3. It's a variation of PBS's plan for American High, which will also tack on a repeat each week, but in a pattern more suitable for a continuing story: 1/2, 2/3, 3/4.

The program will also add a one-minute segment for optional local stations' inserts--part of PBS's local/national initiative. Stations can simply add scrolling text of a local arts calendar, insert their own local video segment, or air the filler material as fed by PBS—an outtake of yodelling, for instance. Local windows will also be built into Public Square (working title), Life in Bold (working title) and future episodes of Zoom.

"We see [Egg] as ripe for opportunistic scheduling at the local level," Wilson says. During its pilot season, stations grouped it with their own arts programs or with independent films, he says. For programmers who believe the weekend audience wants to "kick back and escape a little," he observes, the program will fit in fine on Friday nights, when it feeds.

Ex-steelworkers rehearsed a version of Prometheus Unbound in an Egg segment from Bethlehem, Pa.

Freelance chicken women promote Egg at PBS's annual meeting last summer.

. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: Egg's local precursors in New York, City Arts and City Life.
. Outside link: Egg's site.

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