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PBS Still Looking for Next ‘Downton,’ but Celebrating Fred Rogers Renaissance for Now

TCA: The broadcaster will air “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” next year.

Fred Rogers is more popular than ever, and PBS is very much celebrating the fact that it was responsible for bringing the children’s programming pioneer into people’s homes for generations. Not only did PBS originate “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in 1968, but it also introduced the animated spinoff “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” in 2012.

Furthermore, PBS aired the documentary “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like” in March and announced that it will air the critically acclaimed “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” as part of its Independent Lens programming next year. At Monday’s panel at the Television Critics Association press tour, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger noted, “It feels like there’s a Fred Rogers moment that is resonant.”

Kerger reflected on the ongoing influence of Rogers after one reporter had asked what PBS was doing to find the next “Downton Abbey.”

“We’re always looking for that new something,” she continued. “We’re living in an abundance of great dramas right now… ‘Downton’ was an extraordinary moment; some call it lightning in a bottle moment. But lightning strikes more than once.”

But even if PBS will keep an eye out for something that will “truly pop” like “Downton Abbey” did, she wanted to remind journalists that PBS is a variety service and that the “quiet man in a red cardigan” is currently popping in his own, less showy way. In turbulent times, a gentle voice who promoted “graciousness and civility” and celebrated people’s differences helped to bring people together.

Beyond the legacy of Fred Rogers, PBS is still going strong. While it’s true that nothing has quite reached the heights of “Downton Abbey” or even “Sherlock,” which has been on hiatus seemingly forever, PBS hasn’t been fallow. Airing “The Great British Bake Off” has paid off for the channel, and last year’s “The Vietnam War” 10-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had a huge impact in the streaming sphere in the U.S. and in Vietnam. It’s still making an impression now that it’s available on Netflix.

Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes, "Victoria"

Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes, “Victoria”

PBS

Of course, “Masterpiece” has been PBS’ central Sunday programming draw for decades, and there’s new blood behind the scenes to continue that tradition. On Monday, it was announced that Perry Simon would be the broadcaster’s new programming chief and general manager. Simon hails from BBC America, Vulcan Productions, Viacom Productions, and NBC Entertainment. He will oversee all non-children’s programming and begins his post in September.

“Masterpiece” has been busy with ongoing series such as “Poldark” and the return of “The Durrells of Corfu” soon. Meanwhile “Victoria,” which stars Jenna Coleman as the iconic queen, will be entering its third season. Kerger says that PBS hopes for a strong future for the series.

“We’ll see ‘Victoria’ for some time,” she said. “We’re fairly early in the queen’s life…. [We’ll make it] as long as it continues finding audiences.”

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