Life 360 fits the mood, but will it also surprise?
"It isn't just a new series," says a magazine ad tagline for PBS's Life 360, which premiered last week. "It's a series of surprises."
And it's a repositioning statement as well for a network whose leaders believe they can lure younger viewers only with programs that are surprisingly unlike PBS.
Critics already have caught their drift. "Public TV should be complicated and experimental and innovative," wrote Jonathan Storm of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "And, again . . . with Life 360, it is."
In the Kansas City Star, Aaron Barnhart called the Oct. 5 opening episode a revelation: "There is no other show remotely like it on television." Lee Margulies in the Los Angeles Times cheered: "Long live Life 360."
Station programmers, who did not see the completed first episode until the day of broadcast, have had their fingers crossed. About half of stations in the 75 largest markets are carrying it at PBS feed time of 9 p.m. and most of the rest an hour later. A few are delaying the show to other days or entirely passing on it.
Wrapping the show at the last possible moment let the producers add a segment related to the World Trade Center, though the show was already in tune with our newly sober era. The program would have seemed refreshing before the wounds of Sept. 11, observed New York Times critic Julie Salamon. "But now . . . the vibrant braininess and earnest humanity of Life 360 also feel like a salve."
The series benefits from its heritage. Two years ago PBS and CPB began asking producers for proposals for a series about unsung heroes. Then, last fall, the network awarded the job and $5.2 million to a joint endeavor of Oregon Public Broadcasting and ABC's Nightline unit. Their proposed series, then called Life in Bold, still included the heroic theme "in an understated way," says OPB production chief John Lindsay, who oversees the series along with Nightline's Tom Bettag. Janet Tobias, a veteran of OPB and newsmags on three networks, is executive producer.
The heroes held their ground in the first episode with Dora Militaru's central piece about a Vietnam paramedic and a shorter piece about a firefighter who died in the World Trade Center.
"Each of the hours speaks indirectly to how people in big and small ways do extraordinary acts of kindness for others," Tobias says. Those people aren't all thoroughly heroic, but she believes that helps ordinary mortals aspire to heroism.
The first episode is well tuned to the times, says Lindsay. "For the first time in a long time, people are trying to pull together. I think a lot of Life 360 absolutely fits into that."
He thinks America has changed permanently. "Knowing what I know now, I wish we could capture the mood of that first show," Lindsay adds. The producers can still alter the tone of performance segments in later episodes, which are the last to be produced, Lindsay says, but some already-produced segments "may be a little too whimsical for the country right now."
"Money has been spent on things that are really quite fine that you don't want to throw away."
Each hour-long episode mixes reporting, storytelling, comedy and musical performances with harder-to-classify pieces, built around a strong core segment. For example, the first episode's Vietnam segment, which connects the late pararescue airman Bill Pitsenbarger with the lives of soldiers he saved in 1966, led the producers to the theme of "Six Degrees of Separation," Lindsay says. The firefighter who died in Manhattan likewise had far-flung connections--to children in Omaha, who loved the man who ran their July 4th fireworks year after year (Nebraska ETV provided leads for the piece). Shorter segments, some with very hip animation, introduce and extend the theme. Two plaintive songs by Jewel, taped in a former synagogue in Manhattan decorated as a nightclub, maintain the somber tone.
This week's theme: A Place in Time. Next week's: Voice. Then: Food, Roots, Junk . . .
The announcement about Life 360 a year ago irritated some pubcasters, who saw PBS hiring ABC to make this new program while buying another from Fox (American High) and picking up a third rejected by CBS (American Family).
But despite the resources that ABC brings to the series--notably editing facilities and other infrastructure, plus archival tape, Bettag and host Michel Martin--80 percent of the creative work is being done by freelancers, many with network experience, according to Tobias.
Other producers are coming from stations, like Linda Stogner, a KERA staffer whose work "blew me away," Tobias says, and is now doing segments for two episodes. Stations also are helping with four episodes to be anchored on the road--using WPBT's remote truck in Miami and KLRU's studio set for Austin City Limits, and working with KTCA in Twin Cities and KQED in San Francisco.
The product of all this labor ends up feeling like something you'd find on NPR, as Lindsay observes.
"I don't have a problem with that," says PBS programmer John Wilson, who shepherded the concept to air. "I like public radio, and I like the audience that public radio attracts."
Listening to the firefighter segment, you might easily think you were hearing an NPR imitation. Indeed, the credits reveal it was an actual NPR voice, Alex Chadwick. There's also a tiny and amusing piece by Robert Krulwich, an NPR alumnus who works for ABC.
Tobias points to Ira Glass's This American Life as a major inspiration, though Life 360's first episode has far less idiosyncrasy, a bigger dose of network-news style and way more digital effects.
The show originally sounded like a rip-off of Glass, wrote critic Lee Margulies of the Los Angeles Times last week, but Life 360 turned out to be "outstanding" on its own terms.
Most station programmers are giving Life 360 a shot. Forty percent of stations in the top 25 markets are carrying it at PBS's 9 p.m. feed time and 52 percent later that night, according to Selena Lauterer of OPB. Two stations in the top 25 are delaying the show until Sunday.
Some, like Ken Lawrence of HoustonPBS, said before the broadcast that they had confidence in Tobias and others to make a success. Others, like Shirley Casados, the programmer at KNME in Albuquerque, had low expectations based on the segments they'd seen. "We saw very little," she said, "and what little we saw did not impress us." She hoped for the best.
Bill Stanley, the programmer at KSPS in Spokane, believes PBS should have delayed the premiere until programmers could see more of the series. "It's almost like they set it up for programmers not to like it," he said.
"It's just that whatever we do, it has to count," Stanley worried. "We're in a financial situation where we can't afford to make mistakes."
"I know exactly where they're coming from," responds Lindsay.
But PBS wanted episodes wrapped close to airdate to keep them fresh, says Wilson. Programmers had seen sample segments in February, June and August, he says, but the first episode wasn't completed until a week before airdate, and even then PBS requested further changes.
PBS doesn't have an underwriter to help ballyhoo the new series, but it's spending more on launching Life 360 than on past limited series like Jazz, says Lesli Rotenberg, senior v.p. of brand management and promotion. The budget is confidential, but it's clearly up. PBS is concentrating as much on five "popout" promotions this year--including Life 360 and Evolution--as it spent on 25 programs last year.
By the time the flights of ads have flown, according to her numbers, the message about Life 360 will have made 690 million "impressions" on Americans, mostly on the target audience of "active, engaged citizens" (formerly known at PBS as "social capitalists") who are the most likely viewers. People who watch the selected NBC network shows, headed by West Wing, will have seen the ad an estimated 3.7 times apiece. Viewers of CNN's Crossfire, A&E's Biography and other selected cable programs will have seen the ads 4.4 times each, Rotenberg says.
At the same time, more than 70 public TV stations are accepting PBS aid to buy newspaper ads. Banners are turning up on Salon.com and other websites. And the campaign will continue making impressions for 10 weeks through underwriting credits on This American Life and other public radio series.
In its quest for buzz, the campaign narrowly avoided a minor calamity of its own last month. Four days after the Sept. 11 bombing of the World Trade Center, PBS had planned to hang a major billboard in Times Square with a headline, "You're born, you live, you die. Wait, what was that middle part again?" The headline went right into the trash, and now PBS owns a large supply of cheap binoculars that it planned to hand out on site so that New Yorkers could look up and see live entertainers performing in front of billboard.
"We had the opportunity to just change the message," Rotenberg adds. "We thought it was the wrong thing to do, having a big PBS billboard going up."
For Rotenberg, promising a "surprising" new series is part of remaking PBS's unsurprising and staid image. People have the "misimpression" that PBS is "stodgy and stuffy," she says. "You have to have something to dangle in front of people that delivers in a big way, and this show does it."
Public TV draws only a fraction of the "active, engaged" psychographic segment, Rotenberg says, and wants the rest. Missing are many of the younger ones.
In just the kind of review PBS was hoping to see, Kansas City Star critic Aaron Barnhart wrote last week that Life 360 isn't the NewsHour. "It's more like Jim Lehrer's daughter living in SoHo and teaching in a multiculti high school."
This may clash with others' expectations of PBS. Ron Santora, the programmer at WNED in Buffalo, who saw too little of the series to air it this season, says he was disappointed by a pre-screened segment: a slice-of-life of tribulations inside a busy restaurant kitchen. It might have been a great set-up piece for a discussion, Santora says. But the segment ended and the producers jumped to another. "There's no analysis, no look at what we just saw. I said, 'This isn't what we're about. This isn't what we do. This is, in essence, sheer voyeurism."
Santora won't get those talking heads from Life 360, says Lindsay. "That feels like the TV of yesterday. There are plenty of places for serious issues discussion." The restaurant segment is lighter and was supposed to be, he says. "It won't be people sitting around yet another desk and having another issue debate. … If Life 360 became that, there would be no point in having it."
Life 360 weekly magazine in production for fall PBS debut
If Public Square is the All Things Considered of public TV, then PBS's other major new nonfiction series, Life 360, is its This American Life.
Janet Tobias, e.p. of Life 360 makes the comparison, noting that her show, like Ira Glass's pubradio hit, features thematic groupings of narratives about people. Both programs also are pre-produced, unlike the newsier Public Square, which is expected to continue production right up to airtime.
Life 360 is also much further along than Public Square, chugging toward its debut Friday night, Oct. 5 . Production will continue into the fall, and editing begins this month, says Tobias.
Much of that editing will take place in the editing rooms of ABC's Nightline unit, which often are vacant until the afternoon and evening rush of the late night program, says Tobias. The program is being made in an unusual partnership between Oregon Public Broadcasting and Nightline, which last year collaborated on a Frontline documentary about juvenile justice paired with a week of Nightline programs on the same subject for ABC. The partnership also involved producer Tobias, then at OPB, and ABC Nightline correspondent Michel Martin, who continue their partnership in Life 360.
Martin presented clips from the new series at PBS's Philadelphia meeting, including emotional scenes from the episode of genealogical "roots," showing a group of African-American women touring the ruins of West Africa's slave trade. The segment and another in the show were produced by Claudia Pryor and Greg Branch, two African-American former NBC producers who have formed their own company called Network Refugees.
"This is a unique partnership drawn from the very best talent out there," says Tobias. Though ABC and OPB staffers are working on the series, she says, much of the work is being done by indies, working with core units at ABC facilities in Washington, New York and San Francisco. The top supervisors are OPB's John Lindsay and Nightline's Tom Bettag. Among the contributors are Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Wall Street Journal. and ABC's Robert Krulwich, the onetime NPR star who hosted Edge, a short-lived magazine program for PBS.
Comedians Margaret Cho and Jake Johannsen, and musicians including singer Steve Earle also will contribute. Every episode will include at least one musical performance, Tobias says. The music, like the other segments, will support the episode themes, which include junk, laughter, flying and life milestones.
An episode will be like a jazz riff, Tobias says. "You look at the theme one way, then another way, turn it on its head, through music, personal narrative. At the end of the hour, you emerge, having been deeper into the theme."
Prepping to start the series, she studied tapes of public TV's groundbreaking magazine-style Great American Dream Machine of the early 1970s, which she counts as a "fascinating, fresh exercise" and "a really brave, bold show."
Though host Michel Martin with her hard-edged, network-style confidence doesn't sound much like Ira Glass, the producers hope Life 360 will be a landmark program for public TV, just as Glass's This American Life is for pubradio. "Life 360 will be the first new weekly PBS series in almost 10 years," says the program description. "It is one of the flagships of what [Pat] Mitchell calls 'the New PBS.'"
Web page posted Oct. 10, 2001
Copyright 2001 by Current Publishing Committee