Don’t cry for “Downton Abbey.” PBS isn’t.
As the popular period drama about the lives of British aristocracy and their domestic servants winds down with its sixth and final season, the network is already setting its sights on what’s next: a new Ken Burns documentary about Jackie Robinson, the new drama series “Mercy Street,” an election in which PBS will partner with NPR, and the much-anticipated documentary about the Broadway musical phenomenon “Hamilton.”
“Great stories, well told,” said PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena on Monday.
Documentarian Burns was on hand later in the day with Rachel Robinson, the 93-year-old wife of baseball great Jackie Robinson, to talk about a two-part film premiering in April.
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Burns’ documentary explores how the civil rights movement dovetailed with Robinson’s baseball career. In a clip from the film, President Barack Obama sits beside First Lady Michelle Obama while discussing the importance of the sports star.
“It’s a sign of his character that he chose a woman that was his equal,” Michelle Obama says in what proves to be a funny scene as the president stares at her, clearly reading into her statement a parallel to his life. “I don’t think we would have had Jackie Robinson without Rachel Robinson.”
We also wouldn’t have Barack and Michelle Obama without Jackie Robinson, Burns said.
Rachel Robinson referred to the couple’s work for equality in America as “the experiment” and shared poignant details about their early married life, when she and Jackie were forced to ride in the back of buses and were denied service at certain Southern restaurants and hotels.
After one such episode, when they could find nowhere to eat, the couple came back to their little room and “fell across the bed laughing,” Rachel said. “You have to have a reaction that protects you. The tension wasn’t between the two of us, the tension was between us and that community.”
When Burns first showed her a cut of the film, she said, she had to hide her tears.
“This is clearly one of the great love stories of the ages,” Burns said.
In her presentation, Kerger was quick to cite ratings for the network’s latest drama, “Mercy Street,” which premiered Sunday night after “Downton Abbey.” The Civil War series, executive produced by Ridley Scott, earned a 2.2 overnight rating, a number that Kerger said exceeded the network’s expectations and would rise.
She remained mum on whether the project would be greenlit for a second season, saying only, “We have very much left the door open for a Season 2.”
“Hamilton’s America,” which will be part of “Great Performances” in the fall, is a feature film documentary that follows “Hamilton” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda and his team during the two years leading to the Broadway opening.
The hit musical, based on Ron Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton” and hailed by some critics as the most inventive Broadway show of the last decade, uses hip-hop to tell the story of the nation’s Founding Fathers. It has been nearly sold out since it debuted on Broadway last summer.
Kerger said the documentary literally makes history sing, combining interviews with principal players and behind-the-scenes footage including Miranda composing songs for the show in Aaron Burr’s Manhattan bedroom.
“You have these moments when you look at a piece of work and you can tell that it’s changing everything,” Kerger said. “I feel that about ‘Hamilton.’”
In politics, PBS is partnering with National Public Radio to share digital, video and audio content leading to the presidential election.
In science, PBS will release the six-part series “Genius by Stephen Hawking,” commissioned by PBS with National Geographic and narrated by the famed theoretical physicist.