Thinking Inside the Box

Putting up Some "Tent-Poles" in Early 2008

by Ellis Bromberg, General Manager of MPTV

by Ellis Bromberg
MPTV General Manager

It's tough, this TV business! We had an incredibly successful 2007, but at holiday gatherings friends and family kept asking me, "So what's coming up in the new year?" You can't rest on your laurels for very long!

At a public television meeting I attended in December, there was lots of discussion among station managers about "tent-pole" programs in 2008 -- those that are of such a special quality they will not only attract large audiences, but will lend themselves to critical acclaim and community engagement.

Although I believe we have extraordinary programming all the time, Milwaukee Public Television has, in fact, had good examples of such stand-out "tent-pole" series the past two years.

In 2006, it was our own production, THE MAKING OF MILWAUKEE. During its premiere broadcast (and several repeat showings, as well), its audience ratings were the highest among all programs being shown on all public TV stations in the nation. It also had substantial corporate and foundation support, our viewers and the critics loved it -- and it was the winner of two Emmy awards to boot!

In 2007, we were proud of the numerous local productions, special events, and new services we launched to celebrate MPTV's 50th anniversary. But the "tent-pole" program was undoubtedly THE WAR. It was the most successful national public television series in more than a decade, an outstanding work by producer Ken Burns, which also involved community outreach, companion documentaries (including MPTV's STORIES FROM THE HOMEFRONT: THE WAR IN WISCONSIN), local oral history projects, extensive promotion, and screening events across the country.

So what's the next big thing? It's difficult to select just a few jewels out of so many terrific upcoming specials and series, but here are seven not to be missed in early 2008:

- PIONEERS OF TELEVISION. This engaging four-part series, produced by Brookfield's Steve Boettcher for national PBS broadcast, uses never-before-seen images, timeless clips, and interviews to tell us about the people who left their imprints on sitcoms, late-night, variety, and game shows in the early days of TV. Wednesdays, January 2-23, at 7:00 pm on MPTV-10 and MPTV-HD.

- THE JEWISH AMERICANS. A three-part series that examines the struggle of a tiny minority to make its way into the American mainstream. While Jewish life in America is emblematic of the American immigrant narrative, it is also a unique story of ongoing discrimination and stereotyping coupled with remarkable accomplishments in American history, the arts, commerce, science, and academe. Wednesdays, January 9-23, at 8:00 pm on MPTV-10 and MPTV-HD.

- MASTERPIECE: THE COMPLETE JANE AUSTEN. A weekly marathon of all Jane Austen's novels featuring new presentations of "Northanger Abbey," "Persuasion," "Mansfield Park," and "Sense and Sensibility"; the acclaimed "Emma," starring Kate Beckinsale; "Pride and Prejudice," the Emmy award-winning miniseries that made Colin Firth a heartthrob; and "Miss Austen Regrets," a film biography that dramatizes Austen's lost loves. Sundays, January 13-April 6, at 8:00 pm on MPTV-10 and MPTV-HD.

- AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES. Four new episodes of this series which The New York Times called "the most exciting and stirring documentary on any subject to appear on television in a long time" when it premiered in 2006. Host Henry Louis Gates Jr. returns to trace the genealogy of poet Maya Angelou, author Bliss Broyard, actors Don Cheadle and Morgan Freeman, publisher Linda Johnson Rice, radio personality Tom Joyner, athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, comedian Chris Rock, rock `n' roll legend Tina Turner, and others. Coming in February.

- THE MILWAUKEE BALLET: ROMEO AND JULIET. Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Michael Pink's fiery retelling of the Shakespeare classic, taped at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in 2007. The tale of two star-crossed young lovers brilliantly creates a tug-of-war between true love and family duty as young Juliet and handsome Romeo must decide between their passion for each other and their desire to remain loyal to their feuding families. Featuring stunning costume designs created by Judanna Lynn and the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra's performance of Prokofiev's beautiful score. Premieres on MPTV in February.

- PRAYER IN AMERICA. A two-part, multi-faith series produced by the Milwaukee-based Duncan Group, PRAYER IN AMERICA examines how prayer has contributed to the fabric of American history, culture, and everyday life. Based in part on the book "One Nation Under God - The History of Prayer in America" by James P. Moore Jr., it is designed to inspire dialogue that could lead to greater understanding. The MPTV broadcast premiere will be in February, but we'll have an opportunity to discuss it before then at our MPTV COMMUNITY CINEMA screening, Thursday, January 10, at 7:00 pm, at Discovery World in Milwaukee; it's free and open to the public, so please join us if you can!

- CARRIER. A character-driven, edge-of-your-seat, nonfiction drama, and a once-in-a-lifetime total immersion in the high-stakes world of a nuclear aircraft carrier. This five-night, 10-hour series follows a core group of characters aboard the USS Nimitz, from the admiral of the fleet to the fighter pilots to the scrubs, as they navigate personal conflicts around their jobs, families, faith, patriotism, love, the rites of passage, and the war on terror. It's sure to be one of the highlights of the year! Premiering in April.

What else? Throughout the year, you can count on public television for extensive and in-depth coverage and analysis of the presidential campaign, including the national political conventions this summer, on THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER, FRONTLINE, WASHINGTON WEEK, the MPTV production INTERCHANGE, and other programs.

And we will be tweaking our digital services as we near the final transition from analog to digital television in February 2009. You'll be hearing lots more about that -- on-air and at a big digital TV display we plan to have with other broadcasters at the Wisconsin State Fair this summer!

So, yes, there's plenty coming up in 2008! Settle back and enjoy, come to our station events, and deepen your involvement in MPTV by becoming a member if you aren't one already.

From all of us at Milwaukee Public Television to you and yours -- our best wishes for a happy, healthy, and productive New Year!