The selling of PBS: Here's what you could see Big Bird and Co. would have nowhere to hide

January 21, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

"Sesame Street" is brought to you today by the letters L-O-T-T-O and by the numbers 01, 14, 29, 37, 47 and 48.

As Congress debates whether to slash or eliminate federal support for public radio and television, we wonder what would become of our favorite PBS programs if Washington cuts them loose. Imagine a world of public television gone private and struggling for the mighty Nielsen rating point:

* "Sesame Street." Big Bird is not a "dead duck," as many have feared. On the contrary, the Samuel Goldwyn Co. -- "Sesame Street's" new owner -- announces the hallmark children's show will undergo no major changes.

Additional cast members, however, will be added. Joining Maria, Susan and Elmo this season will be Hawk (6-foot-4, 250 pounds), Sabre (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) and Zap (5-foot-6, 145 pounds). Samuel Goldwyn, which also owns "American Gladiators," introduces some new learning activities for children.

Besides letter and number lessons, children will participate in "The Joust." Here, boys and girls stand on separate 4-foot platforms and each child is armed with 7-foot pugil sticks. They are then encouraged to express themselves in this creative environment.

Also look for "Skytrack" on Sesame Street, now sponsored by Fisher-Price. Muppets are harnessed into an upside-down track elevated 20-feet. If a Muppet can beat the Gladiator to the end of the track, it wins 10 points.

If the Muppet loses, the Gladiator simply beats it up.

* "Shining Time Station." In the first new episode of this hugely popular children's program -- "Mr. Conductor's Secret" -- Mr. Conductor, played by George Carlin, breaks down and tearfully admits to having used crack years ago.

* "Mister Rogers." Beavis and Butt-head move to Mister Roger's neighborhood. Can you spell Metallica? Sure you can. At press ** time, two episodes had been shot: "Beavis Meets Mr. McFeely," followed by "Mr. McFeely's Hospital Stay."

* Barney. No changes.

In addition to quality children's programming, PBS has brought a virtual spectrum of award-winning science, music, news, and arts programming to a grateful public. So the shows are quickly snapped up by the networks and cable channels, which promise to maintain their integrity, tradition and content. As with all creative ventures, however, some high-level tinkering is necessary:

* "Great Performances." No one in the industry could have predicted that a new season of "Great Performances" could match "Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall," "Jelly Roll Morton: The Man Who Invented Jazz" and Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." But it's been done:

"An Evening with Barry White" (Feb. 23, 8 p.m.).

Kathie Lee at the Apollo" (March 3,4,6. 7:30 p.m.).

"Megadeth -- with special guest, Corrosion of Conformity" (July 4, as part of PBS' Independence Day Special).

"Toad the Wet Sprocket" (TBA).

"Bay City Rollers: Unplugged" (Christmas, 1996).

* "Nova." For more than 20 years, "Nova" has provided a virtua spectrum of outstanding programs on the mysteries of science, including "The Search for the Origins of Humans," "The Private Lives of Dolphins," "Secrets of the Psychics" and "What's New about Menopause."

Under the stewardship of Fox, "Nova" now boldly enters a new and exciting season. Here are just a few episodes in production:

"The Private Lives of Dobie Gillis."

"Secrets of the Psychic Friends Network."

"The Search for the Origins of Pogs."

"What's New about Menopausal Women Who Secretly Date Their Daughter's Boyfriends."

* "Julia Child." To mark her 25th year cooking on PBS, Julia Child whipped up lobster tacos early this month with her usual flair for creativity and humor. And the 82-year-old Ms. Child shows no signs of slowing down as her 26th season gets under way.

Now sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, Ms. Child's cooking program will introduce even more innovative dishes, such as "Shrimp in Beer," "Beer Popcorn Shrimp," "Beer Shrimp Scampi," and "Fried Shrimp Platter in Beer."

* "Masterpiece Theatre." The Emmy-winning program dumps host Russell Baker in favor of shock jock Howard Stern. At press time, only two productions are scheduled: Jean-Claude Van Damme and Heather Locklear will star in a new production of "A Streetcar Named Desire." Set to air during May sweeps. Also, "Portrait of a Marriage" -- a romantic chronicle of two English lesbians. (Excuse us. This is a rerun from last season on PBS.)

* "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour." Unlike the other PBS shows, this venerable news program will undergo dramatic changes -- but for the better, insist executives from The Home Shopping Network. The revamped "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsMinute" will feature one minute of news read by Jim Lehrer, Robert MacNeil and new co-host, Connie Chung. The three journalists will spend the remaining time selling autographed baseballs and videos of "Star Trek: The Really Bad Episodes." Bill Moyers will join the news team in the fall.

* Specials. PBS is known for them. From k.d. lang on "Center Stage" to Pavarotti in Central Park, to the extra-special "Barry Manilow: The Best of Me." Next season, look for "Sinbad: A Retrospective," sponsored by Taco Bell and the World of Futons.

And Ken Burns, creator of PBS' acclaimed documentaries on the Civil War and baseball, will start work on an 11-part, 22-hour documentary tentatively called "Baywatch: America's Pastime." It will air June through August.

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