Saturday, November 21, 2009

Producer's new program could be more sweet music for PBS

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"My Music Presents: Ed Sullivan - The Sixties," which will be shown on WQED on Nov. 28, will include archival footage from The Beatles' appearance on the "The Ed Sullivan Show."T.J. Lubinsky, the former WQED producer who created the doo-wop-themed pledge specials that proved enormously popular for PBS stations nationwide, has continued to create several PBS programs each year since leaving WQED in 2003 and striking out on his own with TJL Productions.

The producer, who works out of a home office in Gibsonia, ignited the doo wop craze 10 years ago and his programs have raised millions for PBS stations over the past decade.

For his latest program, he moves into a slightly more recent era with "My Music Presents: Ed Sullivan -- The Sixties" (9 p.m. Nov. 28, WQED-TV).

It's not Lubinsky's first experience working with the video image of Sullivan: In 2001, Lubinsky repackaged "The Ed Sullivan Show" for PBS stations. For the new all-archival-footage program, Lubinsky edited together the music acts -- The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Herman's Hermits, The Doors, Petula Clark -- and left Sullivan's plate-spinners on the cutting room floor.

Sullivan actually isn't seen much, except to introduce the acts, with narrator Jay Thomas setting the cultural scene and narrating brief interludes between classic performances.

But this latest pledge special was not an easy sell.

"There was a lot of resistance to this show," Lubinsky said. "I don't know if it's because certain management at PBS felt it maybe was too old, but it was a real challenge to get people to focus on the fact that this is The Beatles, The Doors, the Stones.

"It's a great relationship [with PBS] but people are generally unfamiliar with new, untested areas. There's risk and such pressure for funding. ... Thankfully, nine times out of 10, the shows still work."

Lubinsky said although some may think of "The Ed Sullivan Show" as old news, the music featured on the program remains popular with many viewers.

"My Music Presents: Ed Sullivan -- The Sixties" was tested earlier this year on PBS stations in Detroit, San Francisco and Iowa and it did well. It was the biggest fundraiser for a single-play special in three years at the Detroit station, according to a producer there.

Of course, they can't all be hits.

"The one we did on movie songs was a big bomb," Lubinsky acknowledged. "I learned when you try to be master of all, you're master of none. It was too broad with music from the '50s, '60s and '70s and too many people and [viewers] couldn't connect to any one person."

The two-hour Sullivan show -- about 80 minutes without the pledge breaks that were taped earlier this year in San Francisco -- will air in about 85 percent of the country, Lubinsky said, which is pretty standard for his pledge specials.

Although his programs are produced and edited locally, Lubinsky hasn't taped a show in Pittsburgh in many years -- costs for some labor unions proved prohibitive -- but he's hoping to end that drought next year.

His next big project: Developing a "Hullabaloo" special, using footage from the 1965-66 NBC prime-time variety series. He'll continue to provide pledge shows to PBS through 2013 and possibly beyond, according to a PBS spokesman.

PBS senior vice president and chief TV programming executive John Wilson said Lubinsky's shows have been "among the consistent top-performing programs we've offered our stations, so they look forward to them and know their audiences like them and are willing to support them."

Unlike some pledge programs, Lubinsky's shows do not deviate wildly from part of PBS's mission to provide cultural programming.

"One of the things we want, whenever possible, is to make sure the pledge schedule is connected to the regular schedule so the audience that's watching for 'Great Performances' and 'Austin City Limits' and 'Soundstage' find something appealing to them in pledge drive where they can express their support," Wilson said. "It's connecting the dots between our pop music performance programs and pledge specials."

For Lubinsky, the goal with his shows is to connect music and viewers' memories.

"We try to bring the audience back to the point that they're in their living room again," he said. "Music is the vehicle but the real goal is connecting that crowd and audience.

"Anybody who grew up in the late '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s, this is how we all got together," he said of Sullivan's show. "This was 'American Idol' before there was 'American Idol.'


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