PBS is diving deeper into the streaming space with a new Amazon Prime channel dedicated to its acclaimed films and nonfiction fare from Ken Burns, including Nova, Frontline, American Masters and other long-running series.
The PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel, launching Aug. 4, will be available to Amazon Prime subscribers, putting the entire Burns collection along with Independent Lens, POV and other series in one place.
The announcement came from Paula Kerger, president and CEO, during the first day of the PBS’ Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, which has shifted from an in-person conference for hundreds of journalists in L.A. to a virtual format over the next two weeks.
The CEO appeared (from home) alongside PBS in-front-of and behind-the-camera talent Ken Burns, Finding Your Roots’ Henry Louis Gates Jr. and PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff.
Kerger, who noted that the public broadcaster has seen its audiences grow during the pandemic and “was created for times like this,” also said she’s “bullish on the year ahead,” which will include a full streaming rollout (the service has been in beta) and a number of new projects.
Kerger, celebrating PBS’ 50th anniversary in a socially distant, politically divisive environment, said the broadcaster’s 335 member stations quickly shifted their schedules this spring in response to the Covid-19 crisis to include town halls and viewer-driven specials, historical documentaries and other relevant programming.
The brand started working with Los Angeles Unified School District in early March to provide educational content to some 700,000 students, many of whom would have no internet access while sheltering at home. The alliance soon served as a model, Kerger said, for a larger rollout of distance learning.
That free pre-kindergarten through 12th grade content eventually drew 4 million viewers a month, she said, quadrupling the network’s pre-pandemic reach.
Along with its educational mission, PBS has aimed for an inclusive thread in its content “representing the full range of American experience,” Kerger said. “Our commitment runs deep, and we have the opportunity to take good work and make it better.” That will include examining the seismic back-to-back events of the year in the coronavirus and the deaths of George Floyd and other Black citizens at the hands of police.
Burns, who with his fellow panelists was on hand to champion the PBS ethos, said the network is “perfectly suited to very fairly and impartially parse the incredibly complicated thing that is the U.S.”
The prolific filmmaker and author has eight projects in the works, he said, though most have been slowed by the pandemic and a year he called “99% horrible.” His next documentaries, not expected until 2021 and 2022, will focus on Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, Benjamin Franklin and the U.S. and the Holocaust. Further afield, he’s in various stages of production on a piece about the American Revolution, which he called “the most misunderstood of wars,” LBJ and the Great Society, Leonardo da Vinci and the de-extinction of the American buffalo.
At a time when “it’s easier and it pays well to accentuate the divisions” in society, PBS “is helping to stitch us all together,” he said.
The upcoming slate of PBS projects include:
- The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song from Gates traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America with guests including Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, Rev. Al Sharpton and Cornel West. Airing in February 2021, the four-hour series was completed before the coronavirus lockdown, Gates said. “It’s the story of grace and resilience, struggle and redemption, hope and healing,” he said. “We desperately need this given all we’ve endured and lost in this crazy year.” The Harvard educator is already working on his next four projects, dubbed “the social justice series,” which will delve into everything from the Jim Crow laws to the Covid-19 public health crisis and its disproportionate toll on the Black community.
- PBS Kids Talk About: Race and Racism, a half-hour program for families, will include content from kid-friendly series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Arthur, and Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum. Scheduled for Oct. 9, the show will feature age-appropriate discussions between kids and their parents about racism and allyship.
- How It Feels To Be Free, an American Masters documentary about African-American women—Lena Horne, Nina Simone and Pam Grier among them—who blazed a trail in entertainment. The special, executive produced by Alicia Keys for a winter 2021 airing, will include archived performances and interviews with its subjects as well as discussions with contemporary artists like Halle Berry and Lena Waithe who were influenced by them.
- Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan, an interview series, will have the New York Times bestselling author speaking to thought leaders including public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson about their personal passions. It debuts Oct. 5.
- Mr. Soul!, a look back at a pioneering Black variety show called Soul! that debuted on public TV in 1968 and ran for six seasons. The program, with host Ellis Haizlip, celebrated Black artistry and served as a platform for political expression. The documentary about Haizlip, from his award-winning filmmaker niece Melissa Haizlip, premieres in winter 2021.