First productions announced in Reader's Digest-PBS pact: Mr. & Mrs. Lincoln and '40s nostalgia

Originally published in Current, Dec. 4, 1995
By Karen Everhart Bedford

PBS and the Reader's Digest Association unveiled the first two projects to be funded through their new programming alliance during a presentation at the network's Fall Planning Meeting.

The public TV network and the publishing company announced Nov. 6 an agreement to collaborate on up to $75 million worth of programming funded by the publisher over the next five years.

Details are sketchy about the two historical series that both partners agreed to create, but several station executives present at the session said the alliance looks very promising.

The Nov. 29 appearance by Reader's Digest Chairman James Schadt and Editor-in-Chief Barbara Morgan was ''one of the more inspiring presentations I've been to,'' said Tom Howe, general manager of UNC-TV in North Carolina. ''It was reassuring to find out that there are companies out there with similar values to ours, similar missions to ours.'' Reader's Digest Association is majority-owned by a nonprofit foundation, according to PBS.

PBS and the publishing company each agreed to produce a project proposed by the other. A series about the country's most legendary first couple, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd, is the brainchild of PBS President Ervin Duggan, according to filmmaker David Grubin, who will produce the series out of research conducted jointly with author Doris Kearns Goodwin.

''He's really made this happen,'' said Grubin, referring to Duggan. ''It was really a dream that he had, and he invoked it in us.''

The project includes Grubin's television series, a book by Goodwin, and multimedia ancillary materials. ''It's a dream project and not all the details are worked out.'' The series will be ''anywhere between four and eight'' hours long.

The second project, which the Digest originated, is America in the Forties: A Sentimental Journey. It is planned as a three-hour chronicle of ''Americans in America during one of the most momentous decades of the century,'' according to the association's description. It will draw on vintage musical performances, archival footage and home movies, and will include music videos of nostalgic footage, stills and posters set to the lyrics of popular songs.

Details about who will produce the series were unavailable last week. During its next meeting with the Digest, PBS plans to propose a ''list of the best station-based and independent producers'' capable of producing the series, according to spokesman Stu Kantor.

Both projects could air by 1998-99.

Duggan told the Washington Post that the partners could make more program decisions during their meeting next month, ''but I think these first two suggest the range of what the alliance can do.''

When Digest executives took the podium at the fall planning meeting, they assured station leaders that they share the same values and quality standards as PBS.

The Digest is looking for public TV's ideas, programming and brand-name exposure to reinforce its reputation for quality products, said Schadt. The company talked with other potential TV partners and found none that came close to PBS's standards. He assured managers that PBS's ideals of programs that inform, entertain and enrich people will be maintained.

''The same things your viewers watch are what we produce,'' said Morgan, senior v.p. for RDA's books and home entertainment products. ''Contrary to what has been written, we have no control over what you will put on your broadcasts. If we do not agree on a project, then PBS can produce it without us, or we can sell it without PBS broadcasting it.''

''To me its a win/win situation for all of us,'' Morgan continued. ''A tremendous investment for your programming, greater visibility and videos for us, and no one having to commit to anything they do not believe in. I don't see how the deal could be any better.''

The new alliance will help public TV combat the false perception, ''generated by folks who don't like us, that we don't talk to middle America,'' said Virginia Fox, executive director of Kentucky ETV. ''Reader's Digest is a symbol of middle America, and the symbolism in that alliance has value.'' Viewers will see the Reader's Digest partnership as proof that ''public TV is more like me.''

TV programs to be created will be based on editorial content from Reader's Digest publications and home entertainment products, as well as proposals from public TV stations and independent producers, the partners said in their initial press release. Topics will focus on children, family, lifestyle, entertainment and education subjects ''that traditionally have broad appeal to both PBS viewers and Reader's Digest customers.''

''This alliance strengthens public television's ability to produce and distribute more of the high-quality programs for which we are known and trusted,'' Duggan said in the press release. ''This is a powerful example of our new strategy of advancing our mission by doing business with companies that share our ideals while complementing our resources.''

The agreement is ''part of our strategy to grow rapidly by adding new customers, new products and new distribution channels,'' said Schadt. ''We have terrific editorial content that will be adapted for quality family TV programs--and those programs will be the creative source for increasing our product flow of videos, CD-ROMs and other products we will market directly to customers. PBS programs will also heighten awareness of the Reader's Digest brand name, which will boost response rates for our direct marketing efforts.''



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Later news: Digest submits PBS program ideas to market research; first programs come to air in February 1997.

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