PBS at TCA: Free Bates!

Hugh Bonneville shows his support for John Bates.

Welcome to T Dog Media’s (snarky) coverage of the Television Critics Association Press Tour. While yours truly isn’t in Cali for the tour (though he wishes he were… well, I have a living to earn, you know), there will be recaps and comments on the day’s activities.

And believe me, there is no shortage of items to make fun – er, I mean light of.

The TCA tour kicked off this weekend with PBS, and the biggest attraction was the Downton Abbey panel held Saturday night. The cast flew in from London for the festivities in Beverly Hills and was more livelier than your typical PBS Q&A session. There was a lot to celebrate – Downton recently snared sixteen Primetime Emmy nominations, including one for Outstanding Drama – the first for PBS in 35 years (Upstairs, Downstairs, which won in 1977).

And with the addition of Shirley McLaine to the cast (as Elizabeth McGovern’s mother, Martha), sparks are certain to fly – especially between her and Maggie Smith.

Clips from the upcoming season were shown to the press, with series creator Julian Fellowes pointing out the series would encompass two years in the early 1920’s (1921, 1922 perhaps?) with several plots being resolved, including what would happen to servant John Bates, who was convicted for murder. Well, at least he got support at TCA from Hugh Bonneville (who plays Robert Crawley), who showed off a Free Bates shirt he was wearing at the end of the panel (as long as he doesn’t have Drew Peterson’s lawyer, Bates will be fine.)

Downton Abbey’s season premiere is January 6. Can’t wait.

In other PBS news at TCA over the weekend:

– PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger held an executive session and told critics she was very pleased with Downton Abbey’s performance, which brought new viewers to PBS, and she has social media to thank. She also addressed the funding dilemmas at several PBS stations, many of which don’t receive financial support from state governments. Kerger also talked about upcoming programming at PBS, including Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood from the Fred Rogers Company, specials marking the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a planned Monday night independent film showcase.

– Ken Burns (Baseball, The Civil War) unveiled his latest project at the tour Sunday with Dust Bowl, a four-hour two-night project that has nothing to do with football (or Penn State), but about a duststorm in Oklahoma that took place in the 1930’s, which had an impact on the state as many families would relocate to California.

– David Geffen appeared at TCA to promote his appearance on American Masters, and this session was just as weird as the Downton Abbey one. Geffen clearly looked uncomfortable on stage as critics were firing questions at him, as the media mogul generally does not grant interviews. As Geffen did not want to talk about his achievements, he opened up on issues such as AIDS and a false cancer diagnosis he received. Maybe to him, that’s more important than what he did in pop culture, and there’s nothing wrong with that. American Masters‘ portrait on David Geffen will air later this year.

– Fans of classic TV rejoice: four more installments of Pioneers Of Television are in production, as it was announced at the PBS press tour this weekend. This time around, the focus will be on miniseries (particularly Roots), funny ladies, nighttime soaps (Dynasty, Knots Landing), and superheroes (yet more clips of… the Boom! Pow! Zap! era of Batman.)