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PBS Stations Bracing for "Evolution" Backlash


David Hatch
August 27, 2001

A controversial seven-part series on evolution, airing nationwide on PBS next month, has prompted several member stations to schedule additional programming that gives more weight to the opposing view, creationism.

The Evolution series explores the formation of life from a scientific perspective, focusing heavily on Charles Darwin, whose theory of natural selection states that all life evolved from a single organism over hundreds of millions of years. Some religious groups, such as fundamentalist Christians, reject his views.

At deadline, it appeared that most if not all PBS member stations would carry the eight-hour special, which is scheduled to run Sept. 24 to 27. Sources were unaware of any stations that won't air it because of the sensitive subject matter but said it could happen.

Idaho Public Television, with stations in Boise and Twin Falls, will carry a few related programs around the special, including a local call-in program and two shows favoring the creationist viewpoint.

Nevertheless, the Idaho stations are bracing for angry viewers. "I expect we will hear [from] some people who are critical of us for deciding to air this program," said Ron Pisaneschi, director of broadcasting for the state public TV network.

The North Carolina Public TV network, which includes stations in Chapel Hill and nine other small cities, will air hour-long discussion panels featuring clergymen discussing evolution and faith following the first three segments of the series.

"We're encouraging them to air complementary programs," PBS spokeswoman Dara Goldberg said, noting that the network is making "Genesis: A Living Conversation With Bill Moyers" and other fare available to stations.

But at Nashville, Tenn.'s PBS station, WDCN-TV, President and CEO Steve Bass said they will run just the special.

"I haven't heard a peep about this series here," said Mr. Bass, a member of the advisory committee for Evolution and a former executive at PBS member station WGBH-TV in Boston, a powerful producing station and co-sponsor of the project. Meanwhile, compared with other major programs on PBS, Evolution has an unusual financing arrangement: It received no money from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, PBS or corporate underwriters. Instead, its sole backer is a co-producer, Clear Blue Sky Productions, owned by billionaire Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen.

Producers sometimes put up the money for PBS shows, but that's rarely the case for major productions, said Richard Hutton, executive producer of Evolution. He said there was "no need to go to PBS or corporate underwriters" for financing because Clear Blue Sky backed the project from the start.

One byproduct of the arrangement, whether intentional or not, is that PBS and its stations now have a convenient defense if viewers, religious groups or lawmakers complain. They can say no network, station or government money was used for the series.

"In the PR battle, something like that might be useful if a big stink does come up," Mr. Bass said.

The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a right-leaning, nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, has already complained to PBS about Evolution, arguing it gives short shrift to scientific critics of Darwinism.

The institute was invited to participate in the final episode, entitled "What about God?," but the think tank declined because it wanted a voice in a segment addressing scientific issues.

Sources connected with the project wouldn't discuss its cost, but an industry observer said it's at least "several millions" of dollars.

Clear Blue Sky is also picking up the tab for an advertising blitz that launches late this month in daily newspapers in 16 major markets and on some cable channels, such as Discovery and A&E.

The co-producers are giving Evolution a big marketing push to create an early buzz. They recently sent journalists a CD-ROM and game cards about the program contained in a replica of Darwin's On the Origin of Species book. An interactive Web site, www.pbs.org/evolution, launches Sept. 24 and educational materials are being offered to schools, which will choose whether to use them.

Also, a companion book, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, by science writer Carl Zimmer, is available from publisher HarperCollins.