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PBS at the TCA press tour: PBS president mostly avoids discussing Fred Willard situation

It’s rare for PBS to come to the Television Critics Association press tour with anything like “big news,” but the network entered this year’s summer session fresh off receiving 58 Emmy nominations (including 16 for its Downton Abbey) and fresh off the fact that both Downton and Sherlock posted huge ratings for the channel in the last six months. Yet despite all that success, what might have been the biggest news emerging from PBS central in the last couple of weeks was the firing of Fred Willard from his work on the new series Market Warriors. Willard is having legal troubles after being arrested for lewd conduct when, according to the police report, he was caught masturbating in an adult theater. PBS almost immediately removed him from the new show about antique pickers looking for great deals (it’s as exciting as it sounds), leaving lots of questions about whether PBS had ever considered keeping him on board the program or if accusations of public masturbation were just always going to be a bridge too far for a network still best known for Sesame Street and WordGirl.

At this morning’s TCA executive session for PBS, featuring network president Paula Kerger, Kerger did a solid job of mostly avoiding the question. The incident only came up once, surprisingly, and in such a manner that it allowed for Kerger to answer the how of Willard’s dismissal but not the why. The closest that Kerger would come to talking about just why Willard was removed was when she mentioned that the network worried his “circumstances” would come to distract from the program itself, because nobody would ever want extra promotion brought to a mostly sedate and middling show that the History Channel has a better version of anyway, even if that promotion was negative in nature. Kerger talked the crowd through the circumstances behind re-editing episodes already in the can to remove Willard, then avoided speaking about the issue altogether for the rest of the session, the better to not confront the messy question of how to deal with a star who got arrested but wasn’t, y’know, killing anybody or anything, so does he really deserve to be replaced by Mark Walberg (no not that Mark Wahlberg)?

The rest of the PBS session was largely free of news. Kerger re-announced that Ken Burns is working on a film about the Roosevelts, though now the network could announce an all-star voice-over cast, including Meryl Streep as Eleanor Roosevelt. The network will air the entirety of Wagner’s Ring Cycle this fall, blowing up its entire schedule to do so, and Kerger also talked briefly about moving the network’s programming off of Thursday nights, to make room for local stations to air their own programming there. (Thursday, which is where most of the other broadcast networks place their biggest programs, has always been a problematic night for PBS in terms of ratings.) As such, POV and Independent Lens will be decamping for Mondays in the fall, with no mention of what will happen to long-running (and renewed) history series American Experience, though it will presumably share a timeslot with one of the two. Also, Kerger talked about Downton Abbey at any moment she could, giving Twitter credit for the show’s explosion in the public consciousness, because, hey, accentuate the positive, right? And just ignore that other stuff.

Erik Adams and I, your Swag Onion, will have more information from PBS weekend and the subsequent days of the TCA press tour in the weeks (yes, weeks) to come. Stay tuned!

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