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PBS kinder, gentler approach

PBS invented reality programming, according to President Pat Mitchell. In 1973, it aired the controversial account of a family in trouble: An American Family, still considered a seminal event in TV documentary filmmaking.

Suddenly, reality programming is red-hot. The unexpected success of CBS' Survivor had the Big Three networks obsessed with emulating it. And it's time for PBS to "put [reality programming] to use again," Mitchell says.

By coincidence, PBS is already part of the trend, although its version of reality lacks the voyeuristic tone that seems to be the attraction of the hyper, new reality shows, system officials say.

PBS takes "an educational approach to reality programming," says Debra Falk, spokeswoman for WNET(TV), which licensed the rights to documentary series The 1900 House from Wall to Wall Television, which produced it for Britain's ch. 4.

In The 1900 House, which aired to big numbers in Britain last fall, a modern British family was planted in Victorian England. A townhouse near London was configured to exacting 1900-era specifications, and the family agreed to adhere to a Victorian lifestyle.

Unlike the Big Three shows that are on the air or in the works, The 1900 House doesn't pit the participants against each other. The producers "weren't out to see the family fail," Falk says.

But the results are similar: U.S. viewers are hooked, tuning in to The 1900 House in droves, at least by PBS standards. On the first two Mondays it aired, June 12 and 19, the show garnered an average 3.6 rating (the four-parter concludes July 3). That's "great" compared with PBS' usual prime time average of 2.0, Falk says.

The numbers should be even better when the U.S. version hits the air, perhaps in 2002. Beth Hoppe, executive producer for wnet on The 1900 House, and Wall to Wall are currently raising money for Frontier House.

This documentary would set two families and several single men in Montana circa 1880, when the West was being settled, Hoppe says. PBS will follow the participants for six months, which will make for a truer experience, she says. It also will make for a more expensive one. Whereas The 1900 House cost about $1 million to make, Hoppe expects Frontier House to cost "much more" because of the longer time to spend filming.

Meanwhile, Mitchell is mulling her own version of a reality series. Without specifically updating the Loud family saga of An American Family, she said recently, it might be time to take a look at the institution of family in the new millennium.

Mitchell has asked several PBS affiliates to work up tapes examining the American family of today; local stations would produce different segments of the series. For now, though, spokesman Tom Epstein says, the series remains in the idea stage.