Dr. Fauci, Roberta Flack and Zora Neale Hurston Documentaries on the Way, PBS Boss Announces

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PBS’ “American Masters” series will chronicle the life and work of Dr. Anthony Fauci in the documentary “Tony – A Year in the Life of Dr. Anthony Fauci,” PBS president/CEO Paula Kerger announced on Wednesday. The doc, which the public broadcaster revealed during its portion of the Television Critics Assn. press tour, will air in spring 2023.

According to PBS, the doc followed Fauci for 14 months, starting with Inauguration Day 2021 — nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, gaining access “in his office and in the corridors of power as he battles the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the political onslaught that upends his life and calls into question his 50-year career as the United States of America’s leading advocate for public health.”

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“Tony – A Year in the Life of Dr. Anthony Fauci” will air on PBS after a planned theatrical release.

That was one of several announcements made on a virtual TCA panel by Kerger, whose update on the state of PBS included an upbeat note: At least at this moment, public broadcasting stations do not appear to be in a funding battle with Congress. “It’s always in the back of my mind, I worry about government funding,” she said. “As we’ve talked in this forum, I never make the assumption that this isn’t someth’ng that we need to continunally work to make our case. The funding goes principally to our stations. It’s powerful to have a media organization that is local. It is really important as legislators make decisions that communities and legislatures understand their communities benefit [from public broadcasting].”

Asked about controversial programming or figures on PBS — (one reporter noted the 2019 special “Dave Chappelle: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor”), Kerger noted that was a Kennedy Center production, not a PBS choice, but that of course “we get questions about editorial… We get a lot of viewer feedback. Sometimes stories are very personal. Sometimes people contact us around editorial decisions we make.” Kerger noted that PBS has an ombudsman who handles some of those questions.

Among other questions, Kerger said PBS is watching closely the performance of new cooking competition series “The Great American Recipe” to see whether it can be turned into a regular franchise. “It’s doing well on broadcast, the first two episodes are some of the highest rated Friday nights for us for the year,” she said. “Projects like this, we were hopeful it would do well on digital platforms, and it appears it is attracting younger and more diverse viewers.”

As for streaming, although PBS has a presence there, Kerger added that she is still “a strong believer in the future of linear… we still have a very large broadcast audience.”

Paula Kerger - Credit: David Buchan/Variety
Paula Kerger - Credit: David Buchan/Variety

David Buchan/Variety

Kerger and PBS conducted their press tour sessions virtually, after the Television Critics Assn. was forced to scrap an in-person press tour last week due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles. Among the other programs and news announced on Wednesday morning by Kerger and PBS:

• A new special featuring the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, gathered by the Met and the Polish National Opera, and comprised of recent Ukrainian refugees and other artists. The group launches a European and American tour on July 28 that will end with a performance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday, August 20, at 8 p.m. ET, which will be filmed for broadcast on PBS in September.

• “Native America” will return for Season 2 in 2023, with four new episdoes. The original series premiered in 2018; Season 2 will present “stories of Native Americans who are carrying forward Indigenous values to transform our 21st century world.”

• “Southern Storytellers,” a documentary series about creatives from the south in literature, music, film and TV, will premiere in summer 2023. From PBS, Arkansas PBS and filmmaker Craig Renaud, the series will follow “some of the region’s most compelling and influential contemporary creators to the places they call home — the communities that fertilize the stories they tell in books, songs, poems, plays and on screens large and small.”

• From PBS Digital Studios: A new series From The WNET Group, “The Bigger Picture,” to premiere August 9, 2022, on the PBS YouTube channel, hosted by Harvard University historian Dr. Vincent Brown that looks at U.S. history through iconic photographs. Also new series “Welcome to Alief with Mo Amer” and “Rogue History,” launching fall 2022 on digital platforms.

• Also from “American Masters” will be the broadcast premiere of “Roberta Flack” on January 24, and featuring her story as well as interviews with Rev. Jesse Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Yoko Ono, Angela Davis, Eugene McDaniels, Joel Dorn, Peabo Bryson and more.

• The “American Experience” biography “Zora Neale Hurston” will premiere in 2023 on PBS, looking at the “Their Eyes Were Watching God” author and Harlem Renaissance icon.

• The new PBS Kids series “Work It Out Wombats!,” an animated series from GBH Kids and Pipeline Studios, will target kids ages 3-6 and “introduce computational thinking concepts that will help young viewers solve meaningful problems, learn flexible thinking and how to express themselves — all while using the practices and processes at the core of computer science.”

• PBS Kids will mark the 10th anniversay of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” the top-rated preschool series on PBS, with fan-favorite episodes and the Season 6 premiere on Sept. 5, streaming free on the PBS Kids service.

And as for the Dr. Fauci doc, the program will chronicle Fauci in “heated discussions about the vaccine with Black residents in downtown Washington, DC, to his explanation for how the NIH-funded lab in Wuhan, China, could not have created a virus that made COVID-19, Dr. Fauci is candid, truthful and passionate. Nothing Fauci had previously faced, including the impassioned activists who challenged him during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, prepared him for the vitriol, political backlash, and the threats against his safety and that of his family. ‘American Masters: Tony – A Year in the Life of Dr. Anthony Fauci’ will examine the life of the man behind the podium—a scientist, husband, father and public servant who admits on camera how he would have done things differently in hindsight.”

“American Masters: Tony – A Year in the Life of Dr. Anthony Fauci” comes from Topspin Content and American Masters Pictures in association with Room 608, Inc. The doc is directed by Mark Mannucci and produced by Lia Dosik Carney, Eddie Barbini and Mark Mannucci. Laura Jespersen is Co-Producer. Michael Kantor is executive producer for American Masters.

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