Programming executive intends to re-invent PBS

November 07, 1990|By James Endrst | James Endrst,The Hartford Courant

ALEXANDRIA,VA. — ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- "The Civil War" is over.

Now what?

It seems a fair and obvious question to put to Jennifer Lawson, PBS executive vice president of national programming and promotion services.

In television, you're only as good as the program you have on, and it's been a month since the broadcast of "The Civil War," Ken Burns' landmark 11-hour documentary and the highest-rated series in PBS history.

But in prime-time terms, that's ancient history.

"There's no question about it," says Lawson during a recent interview in her office at the Public Broadcasting Service's headquarters in Alexandria, Va. " 'The Civil War' is a tough act to follow."

Though she seems up to the challenge, much stands in Lawson's way because her mission, in effect, is to reinvent PBS.

Faced with increased competition, a declining audience (down 3 percent last season) and cable competitors such as the Discovery Channel and the Arts & Entertainment network, PBS concluded after a two-year study that it needed, among other things, to streamline its programming operations, centralize power in one chief programming executive, increase the amount of advertising and promotion, redesign the national schedule and fight the perception that PBS is elitist.

In all of the above cases, PBS has turned to Lawson, 44, a former civil-rights activist who spent most of the past decade at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, managing multimillion-dollar program funds.

"I wanted this job because I care very deeply about public television," says Lawson, whose modest, even Spartan office digs leave the clear impression that few funding bucks stop here.

"I felt that I had the patience and understanding. I respect so much the people who work in public TV, and I felt, unlike an outsider, I would know what they were really talking about and what some of the issues were."

That assertion will be put to the test soon enough, considering the triple-threat powers as chief of national programming

selection, scheduling and promotion that PBS has placed on Lawson's shoulders.

So far, so good. This fall's first-ever Showcase Week -- PBS' version of premiere week, which began in late September and highlighted new programs, was orchestrated under Lawson's watch and appears to have been worth the unheard of $2 million spent on advertising, including spots on network television.

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