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SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

 

PBS's 'Benjamin Franklin' is a lesson in great television

Friday, November 15, 2002

By JOHN LEVESQUE

SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER TELEVISION CRITIC

People who dismiss television with upturned noses and tired homages to Newton Minow's vast wasteland annoy me almost as much as people who drive with their foglights on when it isn't foggy. They say they hate TV because there's nothing good on.

They're wrong. And I suspect they know it but enjoy the air of superiority they think they achieve by disparaging the industry, when in reality they're simply uninformed snobs. Either way, it certainly doesn't stop them from pitying my plight and wondering how a TV critic can put up with watching all the bad stuff.

My standard reply: The same way a book critic puts up with dreadful novels, a theater critic puts up with awful plays, a music critic puts up with terrible concerts or a sports columnist puts up with lousy teams. We enjoy the process of thinking about what we've seen and sharing it with readers, irrespective of the event's quality.

Simple as that. The good, the bad, the ugly, the surprising and -- TV snobs, take note -- the magnificent, such as PBS's "Benjamin Franklin."

I had misgivings as I slipped the first tape of the special into the VCR. Knowing it was a documentary that includes historical re-creations, I feared the worst: tacky dramatizations meant to impart a sense of time and place because TV is a visual medium and, darn the luck, there's no newsreel footage from the 18th century.

Such re-enactments are often cheesier than a family-size pizza. Happily, "Benjamin Franklin" the film, like Benjamin Franklin the man, is classy, clever, inspired and playful -- a perfect rejoinder to those who can't seem to find anything worth watching in their TV listings.

Some of the re-creations offer the standard docu-scenes: carriages pulling up in front of buildings, people walking along cobblestone streets, Redcoats marching shoulder to shoulder. But they're rendered nearly superfluous by actors in period costume functioning like the scholars and other experts who populate most historical documentaries. In the style of today's modern chautauquas, in which performers mimic the garb and gab of figures from the past, Franklin comes to life in his own documentary. So do King George III, John Adams and Cotton Mather, as well as lesser-knowns with whom Franklin flirted (openly and often, it seems), floated (across the Atlantic, frequently) and flourished (in an astonishing number of ventures). One moment we see a talking-head historian discussing Franklin's take on a topic, and the next we see Franklin addressing it in his own words.

It's not a new device. The producers  successfully used the approach in their wonderful six-hour documentary, "Liberty! The American Revolution," which aired five years ago on PBS. This time they employed many of the same performers, among them Sebastian Roché, Roberta Maxwell, Peter Gerety and Colm Feore. One of them, Peter Donaldson, even plays the same person: John Adams.

In "Liberty!" it was Philip Bosco who played Franklin. In "Franklin" it's Richard Easton, looking pretty much the same and playing the scientist/statesman as a guy who knows he's brilliant but tries hard not to be a puffed-up pedant -- all while the camera is limiting him to head-and-shoulders exposure, as if he's just another qualified expert on the subject. Some additional notable performers: Ronald Guttman as le Comte de Vergennes, with whom Franklin negotiated/implored France's entry into the war against Great Britain; Jennifer Dundas as the captivating Catherine "Caty" Ray, a young woman (later married to Gen. Nathanael Greene) with whom Franklin maintained a long flirtation/correspondence; and Natacha Roi, as Madame Brillon de Jouy, a coy neighbor of Franklin's when he was in Paris.

Franklin and his common-law wife, the former Deborah Read Rogers, were "together" for more than 40 years but he spent more than half that time away from her -- most of it taking care of Colonial affairs in Europe. His parenting skills weren't spectacular, either. He tended to spoil rather than rear. He ended up estranged from his illegitimate son, William, who became royal governor of New Jersey through his father's considerable influence and stayed loyal to England during the Revolution, for which the elder Franklin never forgave him.

The flaws can't mask Franklin's remarkable achievements in science, diplomacy, civic engagement, education, journalism, the nature of electricity, etc. At 3 1/2 hours -- two hours Tuesday and 1 1/2 Wednesday -- "Benjamin Franklin" is a hefty commitment, but so, so worth it as an illuminating, enjoyable educational experience. Tape it for the kids if it's past their bedtimes. Tape it if you're hooked on "24" and "The West Wing." Tape it if you just want to watch it again. It's that good.

Like a book you can't put down, "Benjamin Franklin" entertains and enlightens with information that wasn't part of the curriculum in our American History classes, transporting us well beyond the witty aphorisms and the kite in the storm to a place where the past seems as contemporary as today's headlines. Or a crackling-good TV show.


THE MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL

 

The Ben Franklin we barely know is chronicled

By Tom Walter  November 19, 2002

What a guy. The guy, in fact. No one better exemplifies the American character than Benjamin Franklin. And no one was more important to American independence than he.

Born to a humble candle-maker, and with only two years of formal schooling, Franklin became a writer (Poor Richard's Almanack), publisher, businessman, scientist, diplomat, revolutionary and the most famous American in the world. He was the most extraordinary of an extraordinary generation of men.

So why is it that we know only the scantiest of information about him? Why don't we revere him as the greatest of the Founding Fathers?

It might have to do with the teaching of history. We know him as this homespun philosopher, flying a kite in a lightning storm, just before he goes inside to warm himself in front of a Franklin stove while his bifocals steam up.

That picture consigns him to the role of tinkerer, when, in fact, he was much more complicated and interesting.

The neglect might have to do with presenting history on television, which cannot convey complexity well. And when history is complex, it can seem dull, dry and confusing.

Finally, our lack of knowledge and appreciation might have to do with the myths we choose to believe. If the choices are George Washington on his white horse and Benjamin Franklin in Paris trying, against impossible odds, to arrange an alliance with France, well, there's no question whom we anoint.

"We like to believe that we won the American Revolution. That George Washington won it. That we won it because God was on our side, and we had noble leaders, and soldiers who never quit. It's sort of a John Wayne epic," historian Carol Berkin said in a recent interview. "If you move Franklin into the spotlight, you have to concede what all historians know - the deep, dark secret - that we never would have won the American Revolution without the French navy . . . that, really, this war was won by France's desire to see England get kicked in the seat of the pants. I don't think we want to own up to that, so Franklin gets pushed aside."

Not any longer. Benjamin Franklin is one of the more fascinating biographies you'll ever see on TV.

Using dramatic devices, such as dressing actors up in period clothing and having them speak the words of historical figures directly into the camera, the program makes Franklin and his times come fabulously alive.

It helps that Richard Easton, the actor playing the middle-aged and older Franklin, gives a performance that is both insightful and playful. His Franklin is wise, honest, wry and perceptive about his fellow men and his times.

Watching Easton, we get a feeling for the whole man. Some people might argue that this is one particular interpretation of Franklin and that there could be others, but so what? There is no such thing as a single view of history. It's all one angle or another, depending on what you choose to emphasize.

Benjamin Franklin emphasizes the brilliance, wit, love of live and sheer humanity of the man. While we know of his experiments in electricity, we may not know he won the Copley Medal - the 18th Century equivalent of the Nobel Prize - for his work. He was the only American elected to the Royal Society and the French Academy for 100 years.

Franklin also helped form one of the first voluntary self-improvement societies in the colonies, and helped found Philadelphia's first public hospital, a university, police and fire departments and the colonies' first lending library. The man never quit. At 70 - an age most people of that time never reached - Franklin went to France to convince the French to ally themselves with the colonies and against England. Franklin had almost no leverage, but pulled the alliance off.

Franklin also was the only man to sign the three centerpieces of American nationhood: The Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris that established independence and the Constitution.

The documentary also is assisted by filmed re-creations of the period, whether the squalid streets and sumptuous palaces of Paris, or the Redcoats going into battle, or simply a man swimming (Franklin was one of the few colonists who could swim).

And Easton isn't the only actor to provide a brilliant interpretation to a historic figure. Dylan Baker plays the young Franklin; Blair Brown plays his sister, Jane Mecom; Kathleen Chalfant voices Silence Dogood, Franklin's first pseudonym when, at 16, he submitted letters to his brother's newspaper; Roberta Maxwell as Franklin's wife Deborah; and James True-Frost as Franklin's favorite son, William, the Royal Governor of New Jersey whose politics caused a lifelong rift with his father.

There was so much life packed into his 84 years, that the 3 hours devoted to him hardly seem enough. This program will have people scrambling for the biographies and histories of the period. It's a terrific introduction to a terrific character.


 

THE ORLANDO SENTINEL & SYNDICATION

 

November 17, 2002 Sunday,

 

ELECTRIFYING MOMENTS;  PBS DELIVERS A DYNAMIC LOOK AT BEN FRANKLIN, WHILE TV LAND REVISITS SHOWS THAT BROKE TABOOS.  

 

by Hal Boedeker,

 

After success as a scientist, author, newspaperman, revolutionary and diplomat, Benjamin Franklin can add another title to his legacy: talking head. He shames the blowhards and pundits packing the television airwaves.  

 

This improbable but hugely entertaining situation comes courtesy of PBS' Benjamin Franklin, which airs Tuesday and Wednesday. The delightful documentary presents Franklin, played by two actors, rattling off his ideas. "Have you ever noticed when someone is making a speech which they introduce with the words, 'Without vanity I may say,' they always say something very vain about themselves right afterward?" Franklin says. "Some people think that vanity is an evil. I don't. I think vanity is one of the great comforts of life."  

 

The program mixes drawings, paintings, experts' observations and brief re-enactments in retracing Franklin's life. In the grandest flourish, actors speak the words of Franklin and his contemporaries to the camera, although they stop short of interacting because this isn't a drama.  

 

Thanks to a dynamic performance by Richard Easton as the older Franklin -- Dylan Baker is equally fine as the younger Franklin -- this Founding Father fits right in with all the experts weighing in on him.  

 

Purists might cringe at employing actors in a documentary, but the technique gives Benjamin Franklin a bouncy, endearing, you-are-there feel.  

 

The stylish show is more rollicking than a Ken Burns film and sounds strangely contemporary, too, with references to Andre Agassi, John le Carre and Rupert Murdoch.   Franklin probably led the most intriguing life of all the Founding Fathers. In almost every way, he astonishes, although reports of his womanizing have been greatly exaggerated. The program insists he was a world-class flirt who never acted on his playfulness.

 

The documentary tells his story in three chapters -- two will air Tuesday -- but which is the most remarkable phase of this life?

 

 Is it Part One, in which he rises from runaway to world celebrity who develops the lightning rod and wins the 18th century equivalent of the Nobel Prize?  

 

Or is it Part Two, in which he goes from champion of the British Empire to its bitter foe, disowning his son in the process?  

 

Or its it Part Three, in which he creates American diplomacy and saves the country's independence by building an alliance with France?  

 

Carol Berkin of Baruch College says the country didn't adequately salute Franklin for his achievements and instead immortalized George Washington. "When you pick your heroes to revere, you're also picking the myth about yourself that you want to tell," she says.  

 

Benjamin Franklin tells many remarkable stories about its subject. At 16, he wrote convincing newspaper letters pretending to be a middle-aged woman named Silence Dogood. He filled Poor Richard's Almanac with memorable aphorisms, notably: "Fish and houseguests stink after three days."  

 

He broke with beloved son William, who remained true to England as governor of New Jersey, a job his father helped gain for him.  

 

Benjamin "was very hard on family and friends and no different than an awful lot of leaders who are put in the public eye," says Willard Randall of Champlain College. "In the process of creating something new, he destroyed what was closest to him, his relationship with the person closer to him than anyone."  

 

To the end, Franklin stayed engaged, becoming the only Founding Father to campaign actively against slavery. In a jampacked life, he came up with bifocals and the Franklin stove, found and charted the Gulf Stream, invented the glass harmonica and developed American volunteerism through a social club.   "The Scriptures assure me that on the last day we shall not be examined on what we believed, but on what we did," Franklin says. "Our entrance to heaven will not be because we kneeled and said, 'Lord, Lord,' but because we did some good for our fellow creatures."  

 

This sprightly program does a lot of good for Franklin's reputation by giving him back to us in witty, human terms. The experts are enthusiastic and eloquent. The other actors, including Blair Brown as Franklin's sister and Roberta Maxwell as his wife, make vivid impressions.   It's just too bad that actor Easton can't make the chat-show circuit done up as Franklin. By quoting the great man, he'd raise the tenor of debate. Imagine what Easton could do for Crossfire, but, of course, Franklin warned: "He who lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas."  

 

 

GRAPHIC: BOX: TV Review  'BENJAMIN FRANKLIN'  ***** 

 

CAST: Richard Easton, Dylan Baker, Carol Berkin, narrator Colm  Feore. 

WHERE AND WHEN: PBS' documentary airs 9 to 11 p.m. Tuesday and 9 to  10:30 p.m. Wednesday on WMFE-Channel 24.  PARENTS' GUIDE: Sexual themes. 

 

 

TV LAND  PHOTO 2: Big Ben. Richard Easton (left) portrays the older Benjamin  Franklin on the PBS show, which pulls viewers in with a  'you-are-there' feel.

 

 

 

Newsday (New York, NY)

 

Sunday, November 17, 2002

 

By Noel Holston  

 

PICK OF THE WEEK   Ben Franklin   Tuesday and Wednesday, 9 p.m., WNET/13  

 

The prurient-minded viewer may be crushed to learn that this two-part biography of Benjamin Franklin, the candle maker's son who became a great inventor and a founding father, does not endorse his fabled propensity for dipping his wick. According to the historians interviewed in "Ben Franklin," he was an incorrigible flirt but not a prodigious philanderer.  

 

It's doubtful that anyone else with an interest in history and fascinating human beings will be anything less than enchanted by this dramatically enhanced documentary from Twin Cities Public Television and Middlemarch Inc. Like their previous collaboration, the Peabody Award-winning "Liberty! The American Revolution," "Ben Franklin" uses actors - most notably Tony winner Richard Easton in the title role - to create a more vibrant, immediate portrait of the man than merely panning portraits and period documents, a la Ken Burns, could have yielded. All words spoken by the actors come directly from correspondence and diaries of Franklin and his contemporaries. The meticulous cinematic re-creations give the viewer a palpable sense of Franklin's times. Often as not, they add a welcome humor to the project, as in the sequence in which Franklin, trying to demonstrate how his early electrical generator can kill a turkey, accidentally knocks himself out cold.  

 

The opening hour Tuesday covers Franklin's prototypically American rise from humble-born indentured printer to successful businessman, popular author and celebrated inventor. The latter fame eased his entree into the courtly social life of London, where he initially strove to keep England and the jewel of its 18th century empire together, and later Paris, where he slyly lobbied the French to back the revolutionary cause he had come to embrace. These missions are covered in Tuesday's second hour and in Wednesday's installment, respectively, and they recall intrigues worthy of John LeCarre novels.  

 

The Franklin who emerges from this 3 1/2-hour portrait is a towering figure, a scientific and political genius. Yet he's also a ribald, fun-loving fellow with whom you'd love to sit down and have a drink. Not that he didn't live much of his "Poor Richard" aphorisms about thrift and industry, but he also marveled, as the documentary quotes him, at the ideal construction of the human arm for lifting a glass of wine to the lips.  

 

GRAPHIC: 1)  Ben Franklin, left, in his most famous portrait, and 2) right, in fireman's regalia.

 

Los Angeles Times

 

 

TELEVISION

Beyond the lightning, there was Franklin the superstar

 

By HOWARD ROSENBERG

November 18 2002

 

We're a society of quickened pulses, our impatience incompatible with historical perspective. Blame much of it on TV. Just as most entertainment shows fix all problems before the closing credits, so do news programs rev up facile answers prematurely, dismissing context as musty and irrelevant. These self-proclaimed lords of information are not so much architects of learning as carpenters who hammer in minutiae relentlessly.

 

So cheer "Benjamin Franklin," a very smart PBS biography from the production team that five years ago delivered the even more intoxicating "Liberty! The American Revolution." No tidy endings or team coverage here: Something chewable has been added to TV's menu of gruel.

 

"Ben Franklin" doesn't shimmer like "Liberty!" Yet once again filmmakers Muffie Meyer and Ellen Hovde, along with executive producer Catherine Allan, set the U.S. in a global landscape that enables us to better picture ourselves in relationship to others. Once again they dust off and energize events most often found hibernating in books and brains.

 

You'll be surprised to learn, by the way, that Franklin did not leave his mother's womb in 1706 as the balding, avuncular old man we see on $100 bills and elsewhere. Prior to finding a link between lightning and electricity when putting a key to a kite during a storm, and before entering geezerdom as one of America's founding fathers, he actually had a youth.

 

"It's easy to forget that he had hair once, that he was a little kid," says one historian here. And as a young man in London, adds another, "he sowed wild oats with abandon." This new film is a hybrid. Think docudramamentary, a mingling of lively comments from experts with superbly filmed reenactments and costumed actors (notably Richard Easton as Franklin) addressing the camera while speaking words from letters and diaries. They're a talky bunch, and "Benjamin Franklin" at times buckles under the weight of its own gab.

 

Yet expect smirky wit as well as gravity. There's truth to that old saw about those who ignore history being destined to repeat it. Beyond that, "Benjamin Franklin" makes history flat-out fun.

 

The crowd of scholars here attests to a wide and enduring interest in Franklin, whose amazing life has generated lore for storytelling around the campfires of all generations. No current U.S. public figure is remotely like him. He was born a candle maker's son in Boston, rising from "impotence to importance, from dependence to independence," he's quoted as saying about himself.

 

His great mental acuity fit the Age of Enlightenment in which he lived. He was a self-made businessman and prominent publisher who by age 35, we hear, was one of the richest men in Philadelphia. He was a slaver turned abolitionist, standing apart from his fellow founding fathers -- whose concept of liberty excluded blacks. He was a writer and a passionate inventor, credited with creating not only aphorisms galore but also bifocals, the Franklin stove, a system for street lighting, a more efficient post office and, most famously, the lightning rod.

 

The consensus is that Franklin generated his own sparks. "That blasted kite with its key," as one historian calls it, "made him a celebrity." Not that he wouldn't have reached stardom without it.

 

Two trips abroad are recalled here as pivotal in his growth as an epic American. The first, in 1757, has him returning to England on behalf of Pennsylvania to squeeze money from its founder's son, the aristocratic fop Thomas Penn. Fat chance. "Mr. Franklin's fame means nothing here," Penn sniffs.

 

A supporter of the realm whose eyes light up like Union Jacks when he says "the British Empire," Franklin stays in England nearly 18 years. His loyal wife, Deborah (Roberta Maxwell), remains at home, and his readiness to sever her from his life for so long hints, we're told, that he was less a saint in private than in public. While in London he also somehow wangles the New Jersey governorship for his son, William (James True-Frost), even though his raging Anglophilia later fades after Parliament imposes the repressive Stamp Act on the Colonies. When Franklin finally sails home, he's firmly for the revolt that's already underway, putting him in conflict with the royalist William.

 

Franklin is off to Paris a year later on a second seminal journey, "the master publicist," as some call him, this time secretly cajoling France to join the battle against the British. He plays the French like chess pieces ("You learn caution, not to make your move too quickly ... "), while visiting the salons of poufed, perfumed and powdered aristocrats whose own revolution waits in the wings.

 

The wheel of history does turn, doesn't it? In a bit of a role reversal from today, England was America's antagonist then, France the ultimately supportive friend. And Franklin's Paris period -- leading to a treaty with the French that was critical in forcing the British to their knees -- is described here as "the culmination, the pinnacle of his entire life." Still, his homecoming is modest compared with the euphoric hero worship accorded George Washington. "When you pick your heroes to revere, you're picking the myth about yourself that you want to tell," observes historian Carol Berkin.

 

Just how exciting were these times of great transition? You wonder if living at the epicenter of history is overrated, and how it ranks with stepping back and viewing events through the microscope of another epoch, as "Ben Franklin" does so effectively. Whatever the case, his story is well worth this chunk of TV time, as American history continues to be a PBS signature as big and looping as John Hancock's.

 

First "Liberty!," then "Ben Franklin," evidence anew that lightning strikes twice. Almost.


The New York Times

 

A Bit More Credit, Please, for a Founding Father

 

By NEIL GENZLINGER

 

Such were the 1700's, and "Benjamin Franklin," tonight and tomorrow night on PBS, provides an entertaining look at a man who took advantage of all the opportunities his untamed, eventful century offered. Washington, Jefferson et al. may have emerged from the Revolutionary era as larger than life, but the program makes a good case that Franklin's wide-ranging achievements were more impressive and that his role in securing independence was just as crucial.

Who today hasn't thought at some point that he is smarter than the boss, the governor, the umpire, but realized there's nothing he can do about it? Franklin, born in 1706 in humble circumstances, saw that at his particular moment in time there was something he could do about it; that the opportunities were limitless and the field wide open. "Franklin from the get-go understood that he was a modest man's son but he had powers that rich men's sons didn't have," Michael Zuckerman, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says. "He was smarter than they were, he was more adroit than they were, he was stronger than they were."

The notion that a person did not have to be constrained by the circumstances of his birth was radical for the time, the program tells us. Perhaps Franklin's pivotal decision was to break his apprenticeship and go to England, landing there at the age of 18 amid the ideas of the Enlightenment. He began to evolve a chameleonlike philosophy that would let him play roles as varied as frugal businessman in Philadelphia and ladies' man in high-society France.

The program elevates itself above most television biographies by mixing the usual experts with actors who portray the central characters. The actors do nothing more than recite passages from letters and other documents of Franklin's day, but they do it with an ease that makes the gimmick feel completely natural. Dylan Baker and Richard Easton are perfect as Franklin, younger and older.

Franklin's versatility is of course a dominant theme: we get good looks at his work as an inventor, writer and statesman. It's the type of career jumping not often seen today; Ronald Reagan, going from actor to politician, comes to mind. And just as Mr. Reagan showed that perhaps acting and politics are not that far apart, Franklin showed that science and politics are cousins. Near the end of his life he pushed the other founders to set aside differences over details and simply proceed with the experiment that was American democracy. Like flying that famous kite, the idea was to try it and see what happened.

So why did this energetic genius not quite make the pantheon? Carol Berkin, a history professor at Baruch College, suggests that Franklin, so good at cultivating whatever image suited his current task, ultimately fell victim to image making, since his most important contribution as a statesman was persuading the French to enter the Revolutionary War on the side of the colonists. The new nation wanted a triumph-over-hardship, God-is-on-our-side image best embodied by Washington at Valley Forge, not by a diplomat who arranged a bailout by a foreign power.

"If you immortalize Franklin," she says, "then you say we couldn't have done it without France. And so when you pick your heroes to revere, you're also picking the myth that you want to tell."


 

THE NATIONAL POST / THE FINANCIAL POST (CANADA)

 

November 16, 2002 Saturday National Edition 

SECTION: Comment; Pg. A22

 

The most American of Americans

 

by Robert Fulford  

 

Was there ever a better moment to think about the origins and complexities of the American spirit? A renewed, vigorous anti-Americanism is strutting smugly across our landscape, and Canadians are trying with increasing desperation to pretend that the terrors facing Americans are not really of deep concern to us and may well be exaggerated by the Republicans for selfish political reasons.  

 

Perhaps we should try to remember who the Americans are, where they came from, and what they brought into the world. And this week, as if on cue, PBS comes forth with a persuasive, charming, and engrossing biographical series, Benjamin Franklin, which will run on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, three and a half hours in all, setting before us in loving detail the most American of Americans, that peculiar titan who embodied and articulated the United States at the moment of its birth.

 

One of the oddities of this remarkable account of the quintessential American is that much of it is the work of Canadians; it could almost be called Franklin: A Canadian Perspective. Ronald Blumer, who spent two years writing the script and then served as a co-producer, grew up in Montreal and learned the documentary trade under the great Donald Brittain at the National Film Board. Richard Easton, who creates an astonishingly credible Franklin, also began in Montreal, acted in the first Stratford Festival in 1953, and, most recently, has become a Tony-winning Broadway star. Peter Donaldson plays Franklin's nemesis, John Adams, and Roberta Maxwell plays Franklin's forlorn and neglected wife, Deborah. Colm Feore narrates.  

 

This is no ordinary documentary. Aside from its virtuoso production skills, Benjamin Franklin carries an unusual charge of emotion. The script, the acting, and the words of the academics who appear on-screen communicate an exceptional love for Franklin, mingled with astonishment at the variety of his accomplishments and the largeness of his spirit. His faults (he could be duplicitous, and he was hardly a model family man) are part of the story, but there's never any doubt that the people describing his life are in awe of him. There's an unusual sweetness about their approach, unexpected in a TV series. It's as if they were a family uncovering the biography of a beloved ancestor who had been half-forgotten and needed to be recalled by posterity.  

 

A man of the Enlightenment, Franklin believed in the power of reason. But he modified that European ideal with a peculiarly American form of spontaneous inventiveness. His openness to quirky ideas and his way of improvising solutions to each problem as it arose were the beginnings of the attitude that became the American style; Ben Franklin and Louis Armstrong, it has always seemed to me, were geniuses who emerged, two centuries apart, from the same hectic, impatient New World, a place populated by unquenchable optimists who believed they could make themselves into whatever original version of humanity they cared to create.  

 

Franklin lived out the up-from-poverty dream that was crucial to that world, beginning as the 15th child of a candle-maker and becoming not only prosperous and world famous but, above all, a central figure in the high drama of the American Revolution and the creation of U.S. Constitution. As his successes unfold on the screen they seem nearly unbelievable, even to those who have known of them for years. The public-school dropout who invented the lightning rod and discovered the Gulf Stream was also a much-admired comic writer -- and a successful businessman. The philosopher-scientist, who seldom met a theory he didn't love, was also the scheming diplomat who drew France into the Revolutionary War against the British. The shrewd politician was also an idealist, the only Founding Father who fought slavery and thus came down on the right side of the issue that would obsess America in the following century.  

 

Carol Berkin of Baruch College, one of a platoon of historians who show up in the series, claims that at the end of his days, and even after, Franklin never received proper credit for the diplomatic genius he displayed in Paris. America had found its hero in George Washington. By focusing on Washington, she argues, Americans were able to say that the soldiers starved at Valley Forge and then triumphed because God, Truth, and Justice were on their side. But: "If you immortalize Franklin, then you say, we couldn't have done it without France. And so when you pick your heroes to revere, you're also picking the myth about yourself that you want to tell."  

 

In the 21st century it's Franklin the aphorist who retains his popularity. He's present whenever we refrain from throwing stones because we live in glass houses, expect God to help those who help themselves, worry about a horse and rider being lost for want of a nail -- or feel, as Franklin put it, snug as a bug in a rug. Simplicity was among the masks worn by this complicated man; apparently the same simplicity that keeps him alive in the language also charmed the French court of the 1770s and made American independence possible.

 


 

 

PEOPLE MAGAZINE PICKS AND PANS

 

* SHOW OF THE WEEK

 

 

 

Benjamin Franklin PBS (Tues.-Wed., Nov. 19-20, 9 p.m. ET)

 

High rollers see his face on the $ 100 bill; frugal types cite his adage that a penny saved is a penny earned. But how much does the average American know about Benjamin Franklin beyond the general impression that he was a long-lived Renaissance man?

 

This two-part, 3 1/2-hour program makes good use of traditional documentary techniques in covering the 84 years of a Founding Father who excelled in journalism, science, diplomacy and business. But the producers supplement the usual corps of talking-head experts with a well-cast troupe of costumed actors who deliver the actual words of historical figures under discussion. Foremost among the performers is Richard Easton (a Tony winner for The Invention of Love), who portrays the older Franklin as a gent of sparkling wit, agile mind and strong backbone. He's such a charming guest, you'll want him to stay and dine.

 

Bottom Line: Ben comes up big

 

 

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TV GUIDE COVER

 

TV PICKS

 

 

Teenage runaway Ben Franklin morphs into a revolutionary Renaissance man.

 


Philadelphia Inquirer

 

Tuesday November 19, 2002

 

A worthy documentary on an exceptional man

 

By Jonathan Storm; Inquirer Columnist

 

 

It's just a small, fascinating comment in an immensely fascinating biography, but it explains so much of Benjamin Franklin's place in American history:

 

"When you pick your heroes to revere," says Carol Berkin, of the City University of New York's Baruch College, "you're also picking your myths about yourself."

 

We pick dynamic, independent George Washington, military man of action and modest accomplishment, to be the father of our country, crystallizing the myth of a dynamic nation that single-handedly threw off the yoke of the oppressor, not with subtle connivance but with determined action.

 

And Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin, towering intellect and diplomat of sophisticated skills, who cajoled France into giving the help that allowed America to win its revolution, is consigned a secondary spot in the pantheon.

 

PBS's biography Benjamin Franklin (today and tomorrow at 9 p.m. on WHYY) is anything but secondary. Richly researched and innovatively produced, the 31/2-hour program melds actors speaking the actual words of history with the comments of a genius brigade of historians to provide an intimate and satisfying portrait of an era, and of one of the greatest men who ever lived. Extraordinary programming that demonstrates that television, usually an action medium, can shine in the realm of history and ideas, Benjamin Franklin challenges the audience with complex concepts and historical detail while rewarding it with the pleasure of conversation with great men.

 

Richard Easton plays Franklin. Like actors in roles from King George to John Adams to several of the French gentlewomen who adored old Ben, he addresses the audience directly, sitting in evocative period settings. The technique serves to liven the 18th-century conversation that in previous renderings has often seemed stiff and far away.

 

Producer-directors Muffie Meyer and Ellen Hovde have worked with John Sayles and Albert Maysles, made films for PBS's Nature and The American Experience, and won bucketloads of awards - including a Peabody for Liberty! The American Revolution in 1997, which also had actors addressing the audience. This time, they mix their humans with computer-generated graphics and location shooting in Vilnius, Lithuania (a striking stand-in for 1700s London), and Franklin's adopted hometown of Philadelphia.

 

The film's producer is Twin Cities Public Television in Minnesota, not WHYY (Channel 12) in Philadelphia, which would be the logical choice to present Philadelphia's favorite son. WHYY makes virtually no national shows for PBS, but it did hold a nice reception yesterday, where big donors could chat with Meyer, Hovde and Easton.

 

Easton, who won a 2001 Tony, is in town for a Wilma Theater performance in Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favor. He's joined on TV by Dylan Baker, who plays Franklin as a young man; Blair Brown, as his sister; and a host of stage and screen actors. The producers even hired a Belgian calligrapher, who practiced for weeks, to imitate Franklin's handwriting and famous signature.

 

In their diligence, the producers seem almost as loony - in a benevolent-genius kind of way - as Franklin himself.

 

They depict a man whose mind simply could not rest, who invented bifocals and discovered the Gulf Stream in his spare time, who was mesmerized by electricity, and, with a large dose of the performer in him, debunked the animal-magnetism theories of Franz Anton Mesmer.

 

Tonight's installment is divided into two hours, "Let the Experiment Be Made," and "The Making of a Revolutionary." The first, the more fascinating, traces Franklin from his youth in Boston - which he flees at age 17, breaking his indenture to his brother - through his success in Philadelphia as a businessman, publisher and, eventually, scientist. His discoveries about electricity are compared to Newton's about gravity a century before. He wins the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. In 1753, at age 47, the son of a nobody tradesman is the most famous American in the world.

 

By this time, Franklin already has concocted numerous mechanical inventions, and has helped to found the first lending library, volunteer fire company, and institutions that became Pennsylvania Hospital and the University of Pennsylvania. And he has figured out a way to run the postal service at a profit.

 

"The genius is social," says Penn's Michael Zuckerman, one of more than a score of top historians and scientists assembled for this mini-series. "People [banded] together on a scale that nobody in the world had ever dreamed before. The voluntary association is Franklin's invention, and it's what built America."

 

Part Two, from 10 to 11 tonight, traces Franklin's nearly 18 years in England, where he works as an agent for several colonies, concentrating on efforts to get the descendants of William Penn, who owned three-quarters of Pennsylvania, to pay some taxes.

 

Part Three, from 9 to 10:30 tomorrow, is the most intellectually satisfying segment. "The Chess Master" chronicles the seven years Franklin spends in France during the Revolutionary War, working - often at cross-purposes with other Americans - to secure crucial financial and military aid.

 

Always conscious of image, Franklin, by then an international sophisticate, shows up in Paris in a coonskin cap, to underscore the French image of him as "the Natural Man" from the wilds of America. He proceeds to charm the French court and King Louis XVI out of so much money that France crumbled under its own revolution a few years later.

 

Franklin famously proposed that the wild turkey, not the haughty, sometimes scavenger, eagle, be America's symbol. Like Franklin, the turkey is a little too useful, wily and social for symbolism, but we'd all go hungry eating eagles at Thanksgiving.

 

Benjamin Franklin combines the qualities of both birds, soaring beyond the often pedantic and pedestrian TV treatment of history to provide a tasty and satisfying dish.

 


NEWARK STAR-LEDGER

Ahead of his time

 

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

by Matt Zoller Seitz

 

 

TOO MANY history lessons revolve around a big lie: that people of another time or place were no different from you or me.

Historical movies are especially guilty of propagating this lie, going out of their way to find similarities between, say, 1840s Alaskan gold miners or 17th-century Chinese warriors or ancient Romans and the contemporary Americans observing their adventures from the comfort of an air-conditioned multiplex.

But documentaries are often guilty as well, glossing over enormous, very basic differences between present-day people and their ancestors while insisting that a particular person who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago might have been "the first feminist" or "the first democrat" or "the first rational man" or some such nonsense. Every complaint has its exception, however, and in this case, the exception has a name: Ben Franklin.

In "Benjamin Franklin" -- a documentary series airing tonight, from 9 to 11, and tomorrow from 9 to 10:30 on Channel 13 -- the title character comes across as overpoweringly modern, perhaps more advanced than anyone in the audience.

Written by Ronald Blumer and directed by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer , the series brings the most widely quoted of America's Founding Fathers to vivid life. He comes across as so intelligent, funny, fair-minded and curious that he makes even the most sophisticated, likable Americans seem like Cro-Magnon brutes in comparison. (A staunch abolitionist, Franklin is also one of the few Founding Fathers to escape the wrath of politically correct historians.)

Most Americans know Franklin as one of the few non-presidents to appear on U.S. currency, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a humorist, an eccentric and the guy who thought America's symbol should have been the turkey rather than the bald eagle.

But there was much more to him than that -- so much that this mammoth nonfiction series can only begin to scratch the surface of his long, complicated life. Born in 1706, Franklin had an upbeat personality and a curious mind. In childhood he had access to a diverse array of books and devoured all of them. He liked to discover how things worked, then put his learning into practice.

He was a self-starter; at a time when few people knew how to swim, a barely adolescent Franklin got hold of a book on the subject and taught himself proper strokes in a local pond, then added a few of his own. He later invented swim fins, one of many scientific he helped create when he wasn't busy improving public life or pondering human nature in prose.

Franklin is credited with inventing the lightning rod, bifocal glasses and the smokeless fireplace, and with establishing numerous public institutions we now take for granted, including public hospitals, lending libraries, agricultural colleges and volunteer fire departments.

On top of that, he was one of the most quotable Americans who ever lived. His "Poor Richard's Almanack," a yearly volume of agricultural and political information, was also a masterwork of humorous observation, chock full of pithy lines about human contradiction. My favorites are, "A good example is the best sermon," "Fish and visitors smell after three days" and "A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one."

The filmmakers must have had a devil of a time boiling Franklin's life down to something resembling a straightforward narrative. At the risk of indulging in the sort of reductionist labeling I criticized at the start of this review, the man may have been the original multi-tasker, simultaneously studying science, debating politics in coffeehouses, running a newspaper and flirting with pretty women.

At a time when newspapers were the quickest form of mass communication, he was also way ahead of the curve when it came to constructing his own public image.

The filmmakers' brightest stroke is their admission that Franklin's whole life was a kind of public performance, one where the actor gradually became the character he'd decided to play -- a cheerful, rational, egalitarian, fun-loving fellow who tolerated other people's weaknesses and lived by the Golden Rule.

His autobiography is packed with self-deprecating acknowledgments of how vain it is to write one's autobiography. The narration notes that when Franklin was a young printer's apprentice who had to haul raw paper stock across town in a wheelbarrow, he neglected to fix one of the wheelbarrow's squeaky wheels because he wanted others to hear it, look up, see him at work and think, "What an industrious young man."

Hovde and Meyer take a few stylistic risks with "Benjamin Franklin," and some of them seem a bit weird at first. For instance, they mix interviews with contemporary historians and "interviews" with Franklin and some of his contemporaries, presumably to make Franklin's life and influence seem more immediate. ( Richard Easton plays Franklin as an old man, Dylan Baker as a young man.)

As a documentary device, it's not quite kosher -- it makes the project seem like half nonfiction, half movie -- but you get used to it after a while, and it doesn't do any damage. It's fun; Franklin probably would have gotten a kick out of it.


The Houston Chronicle

 

HEART AND SOUL OF AMERICA

Documentary examines the extraordinary life of Benjamin Franklin

By ANN HODGES  Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle TV Critic

 

Benjamin Franklin's life would make a miniseries set to music: My Way.

Well, we don't have that, but we do have the next best thing.

PBS turns the documentary spotlight on that most amazing American tonight and Wednesday, and what an eye-opening tribute it is.

He is no stranger, of course. He is the only founding father whose signature appears on America's three most historic documents -- the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution of the United States.

But believe me, you've never seen Ben Franklin like this before: full of life, feisty, flirtatious and speaking for himself, in his own well-chosen words.

Tony winner Richard Easton, peering from behind bifocal spectacles like the ones that Franklin himself invented, does for Franklin what actor Hal Holbrook did for Mark Twain. Franklin's wit, wisdom and genius is the light that shines here, and Easton's powerful performance turns it up full wattage.

The usual scholars are on board, too, and their cogent comments are valuable. But Easton's Franklin is the star talking head of this very successful tweak of the documentary form. Credit that to executive producer Catherine Allen and her Twin Cities Public Television team.

Franklin's stiff painted portraits did not do him justice; on-camera performances and cinematic reproductions would be more his style, they thought. And they were so right.

With their public TV budget in mind, they hired theatrical actors to do that job. Another good move -- they're all terrific. And so is writer/co-producer Ronald Blumer's script, which includes letters, essays and other original source material.

The actors' readings were filmed in a New York studio, with rear screen projections providing the period looks. But many other scenes were filmed in Philadelphia, Colonial Williamsburg and -- since Franklin's 18th-century Paris and London no longer exist -- in Vilnius, Lithuania, where along with the cobblestone streets, the prices were right.

One of the biggest problems was how to duplicate Franklin's very distinctive handwriting, not just in his signatures on the great documents, but in his most revealing letters. Master calligrapher Brody Neuenschwander of Belgium spent weeks practicing Franklin's script with a quill pen, using paper made the same way it was in Franklin's day, and the same ink Franklin used, a mixture dating back to ancient Rome.

The Franklin we meet in this fascinating program would have loved all that tender loving care and fussing over him.

Tonight's two-hour opener tells how this son of a puritanical Boston candle maker was yanked from school at age 10 to go to work. He taught himself, by reading every book he could lay hands on as a printer's apprentice. By 16, he'd devised an amazing method of teaching himself to write his own books.

In his book, Poor Richard's Almanack, he warned that "Fish and houseguests stink after three days" and "Those who lie down with dogs rise up with fleas." At 35, as one of America's richest men, he wrote The Way to Wealth -- "God helps them who help themselves" -- and it has never been out of print since.

"He never saw a problem he didn't try to solve," narrator Colm Feore informs. His lifelong crusade to improve the quality of everyday life in America produced an astonishing list of firsts. And his scientific curiosity made him, at age 47, the first world-famous American. He won the equivalent of today's Nobel Prize for science, for discovering the relationship of lightning to electricity.

That scientific triumph is prelude to "the making of a revolutionary." He's the toast of London, and convinced that America's future lies with the British Empire. But then the Brits turn on him for a political dirty trick, and he turns diehard rebel, even at the cost of losing his own son.

By Wednesday, Franklin is in his mid-70s and on a mission to bring France into the Revolutionary War on America's side. "It's stark staring mad," the University of Pennsylvania's Michael Zuckerman describes that assignment. But he did it.

He was 79 when Thomas Jefferson replaced him in Paris, and he was so sick he had to be carried into the hall when he helped write the Constitution.

In the judgment of history buff Walter Isaacson, CEO of CNN, "Understanding Franklin's soul is understanding the soul of America."

You'll never have a better TV chance than this to take that great soul's measure.

 

Benjamin Franklin, 8 tonight and Wednesday, PBS/Channel 8. Grade: A+.

 

 

 


THE BALTIMORE SUN

 

 

PBS gives Franklin his due in biography

His inventiveness, diplomacy recounted


By Chris Kaltenbach

He's the guy on the $100 bill, the inveterate tinkerer renowned for flying a kite during a rainstorm, the man who came up with the idea for daylight-saving time, the 18th-century world traveler who made the first comprehensive map of the Gulf Stream, the only president of the United States - to borrow a line from the Firesign Theater - who was never president of the United States.

Or to put it another way: Benjamin Franklin was the first truly Renaissance figure in U.S. history, an intellectual genius whose working-class roots made him an early champion of the democratic ideals on which this country would eventually be founded. As a statesman and diplomat, he - more than Washington, more than Jefferson - may have been the key figure in this nation's birth.

Tonight and tomorrow on PBS, Franklin gets a TV biography befitting his stature. Benjamin Franklin not only weaves a compelling tale, in tracking this tradesman's son from the back streets of Boston to the royal courts of Paris to Philadelphia's Independence Hall, but it entertains as well, thanks to an engaging mix of scholarship and drama that fleshes out Franklin's story without cheapening it.

An amazing feat, considering that much of the 3 1/2 -hour production (two hours tonight, 1 1/2 tomorrow) consists of actors, portraying Franklin and his contemporaries, addressing the camera directly. Such re-enactments often prove the bane of historical documentaries, which are usually better served when their stories are told through pictures, erudite talking heads and off-screen narrators. But filmmakers Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and Ronald Blumer never allow the actors to dominate the story or to call attention to themselves. And it helps that the cast is accomplished and/or talented enough - especially Tony Award-winner Richard Easton as the older Franklin - to serve rather than be the story.

It also helps, of course, to have a compelling story to tell in the first place.

The flashpoints of Franklin's life - Poor Richard's Almanac, electricity, the Revolution, autobiography - have become part of American folklore, but the finer details tend to be forgotten. It's in those details that the true measure of the man is found.

Part 1, "Let the Experiment be Made" (9-10 tonight), introduces Benjamin, the 15th son of Boston candle and soap maker Josiah Franklin, as the product of a world where, only 15 years before his birth in 1706, women were accused of being witches and were being burned at the stake in nearby Salem, Mass. It was a world in which superstition reigned over science and men were born to certain stations in life, with little hope of advancing.

For much of his life, Franklin would work to change both of those fatalistic concepts, helping to usher in an age of reason and of at least intellectual equality. He was, says Robert Middlekauf of the University of California at Berkeley, "a very powerful mind with a very powerful curiosity, immense gifts and considerable flaws."

But he never viewed himself as better than his times; one of his early heroes was the famed Puritan preacher, Cotton Mather, who once vowed never "to enter or leave a room without doing some good in it" - words Franklin lived by.

The first hour details how Franklin establishes his reputation, first as a printer (one of the most successful in the Colonies), and later as a scientist. He was among the first - perhaps the first - to understand electricity, and suspect that its power could be harnessed for good. His work in the sciences made him world famous.

Part 2 (10-11 tonight), "The Making of a Revolutionary," examines how Franklin went from being intensely proud of his British heritage and citizenship to leading the Colonies' struggle to be free. "Retired" at age 42, thanks to a fortune made as a printer and writer (his Poor Richard's Almanac included such invaluable bon mots as "Love your neighbor, but don't pull down your hedge"), Franklin turned against the Crown only after being humiliated before a British court.

Ironically, he was attempting to make peace between Britain and America when his efforts backfired and he fell out of favor. He never forgot, or forgave, how quickly the British turned on him. In July 1776, his signature would appear on the Declaration of Independence - a document he helped draft.

Part 3, "The Chess Master" (9-10:30 p.m. tomorrow) traces Franklin's career as a diplomat - he almost single-handedly persuaded France to ally itself with the Colonies during the Revolution - and statesman, helping to draft the Constitution.

Benjamin Franklin gives its subject the treatment he deserves. Keeping in mind all Franklin did during his lifetime, that's no small accomplishment.


Tulsa World  & Albany Times Union

 

November 19, 2002 Tuesday Final Home Edition

 

SECTION: ENTERTAINMENT; Television; Pg. D4

 

Our most quicksilver Founding Father

Ben Franklin comes alive in extraordinary PBS documentary

 

by MARK McGUIRE Albany Times Union

 

Richard Easton, a Tony Award-winning actor, portrays an older Ben Franklin in the two-part PBS documentary "Benjamin Franklin," a biography of one of America's founding fathers. Franklin died in 1790, at age 84. JOHN CLIFFORD / Associated Press

 

No matter how expansive historical documentaries might get, their makers are almost always limited to the media of the era in question.

 

The World War II documentary -- that History Channel staple -- is grounded in grainy newsreel footage. Films about life in ancient Rome lean on half-ruined statues and structures. Even Ken Burns' compelling "The Civil War" had to make do with archival photos, paintings, maps and empty landscapes. But documentaries about the Colonial era and Revolutionary War can seem especially flat -- as visually exciting as an oil portrait of a dead white guy in a powdered wig. If we think of Washington, Jefferson and Adams as men of rectitude and aristocratic bearing, it is because we can't picture them in anything but a formal pose.

 

That is not the case in the extraordinary PBS offering "Benjamin Franklin" (8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday). "Documentary" may not even be the exact word for this 3 1/2-hour exploration of this founding father. Call it dramatic documentary.

 

Sure, there are the requisite talking heads, paintings and etchings, and scans of artifacts with funny-looking S's. There's the voice-over narration by Colm Feore ("The Sum of All Fears"). There are re-enactors demonstrating the folly of the military tactics of Franklin's era (ready, aim, die).

 

All are vital, but what makes "Benjamin Franklin" and its subject come alive is brilliant performances -- notably the Tony-winning stage actor Richard Easton ("The Invention of Love") as the older Franklin; Dylan Baker is nearly as adept in his appearances as the younger Franklin.

 

The actors portraying Franklin and other historical figures address the camera, explaining their thoughts and actions in words drawn from their actual writings. We hear Franklin, his son William (James True-Frost), John Adams (Peter Donaldson) and King George III (Anthony Cochrane). There are wives and friends and foreign emissaries and others.

 

Some very familiar faces include Peter Gerety ("Homicide: Life on the Street," "The Wire") as Joseph Galloway, and Anthony Heald ("Boston Public") as Jonathan Austin.

 

The resulting effect might be termed "Ye Olde 60 Minutes."

 

While it is fresh and revelatory, the form isn't exactly new: The "Franklin" producer-director team of Muffie Meyer and Ellen Hovde and writer Ronald Blumer used it in their 1997 PBS miniseries "Liberty: The American Revolution."

 

Easton conveys Franklin's curiosity and playfulness -- the man was a shameless flirt, but apparently not a philanderer -- with subtle inflections, shifts of weight and arched brows. The word isn't used, but "genius" is constantly on the mind when thinking of Franklin, and Easton does him justice.

 

"Benjamin Franklin" tracks the man from his boyhood in Boston, correctly noting it is hard to picture the aging guy on the C-note as a kid. We see this Calvinist tradesman's son indentured as a printer's assistant at age 10 to his older brother. It was humble beginning, but Franklin is shown de fying the conventions of his age and rising far beyond his origins. In the process, he challenged the Puritan notion that man had no control over his destiny.

 

His resume reads like the stuff of fiction: printer, journalist, runaway, expatriate, businessman, scientist, mathematician, inventor, aphorist, philosopher, author, climatologist, loyalist, revolutionary, statesman, abolitionist.

 

Still, that resume sells him short.

 

"From this moment on I intend to live my life as a rational creature," Baker's Franklin says at age 20.

 

Franklin is the first modern man, welcoming change instead of fearing uncertainty.

 

A devout Tory, he became an ardent supporter of the revolution -- even though his son William Franklin served as royal governor of New Jersey. A one-time slave owner, he became the first and only Founding Father to call for abolition of the "detestable traffic" of humans. His reasoning was pure Franklinian: He conducted an experiment that determined black kids learned as quickly as whites. Therefore, they were not inherently inferior.

 

The documentary notes that for all he did, his greatest accomplishment was as a statesman. Franklin served in the critical role of unofficial ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War, securing aid, arms and cash vital to the Colonial victory.

 

Franklin died in 1790, at the absurdly old age (for the time) of 84. Some 20,000 people attended his funeral.

 

More than two centuries later his memory lives on in history books, on the $100 bill and in his greatest experiment of all, democracy.

 

But the man himself comes alive in "Benjamin Franklin." An extraordinary man, an extraordinary film.

 

 

 

The magazine Media Life was puzzled at how an educational program could possibly get such a large viewership. This is their explanation in the issue of Nov. 20.

 

PBS's sweeps grabber: Ben's babes

 

Sexed-up Franklin biography pumps up ratings

 

By Kevin Downey

 

It hardly seems appropriate to lump Benjamin Franklin into a group that includes ABC's "The Bachelor" and the bevy of beauties strutting down the runway last night on CBS's "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show."

 

But as the subject of a three-and-a-half hour special that concluded on PBS yesterday, America's most famous founding father provided a ratings boost similar to those other personalities, all of which were used to drive ratings up in the November sweeps.

 

For the non-commercial PBS, the concern is not setting ad rates for local affiliates but reassuring corporate sponsors that spending $220 million annually to underwrite shows is more than a feel-good exercise.

 

Ratings for PBS's "Benjamin Franklin" helped. The first part of the two-night miniseries pulled in a 2.9 household rating and 4 share on Monday, according to the network. That is about 61 percent better than the network's national average this season.

 

"They are very dependent on special programs," says Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming services at Carat.

 

"But the average primetime rating on PBS is actually better than what you get on your average cable network." Moreover, PBS's household rating is up one-tenth of a point so far this season, compared to an eight-tenths of a point decline for all television viewing. The six broadcast networks are down 1.5 points, while ad-supported cable is up two-tenths.

 

PBS's adult 18-49 rating is flat this season, which is decent compared to a seven-tenths of a point decline for all television viewing.

 

Ratings on the broadcast networks are down nine-tenths of a rating point in the demo, while cable is up one-tenth of a point, according to Magna Global USA.

 

Although PBS rarely stoops to the sex-it-up shenanigans of the networks, even with mention on "Benjamin Franklin" of his fathering an illegitimate child and his penchant for women half his age, pumping up ratings in the November sweeps is nearly as important to public broadcasting as it is to the commercial networks.

 

"A lot of their better programming is put on when they are in fund-driving mode," says Brill.

 

"In terms of the sweeps, though, everyone wants to put their best foot forward because it's the only time when you can tell how a network is doing in every local market."

 

The sweeps and ratings, in general, are becoming more important for PBS because corporate sponsors represent a growing portion of its overall revenue.

 

In 2001, for example, PBS had revenue of $542 million. Of that, 41 percent came from corporate sponsors, who paid an amount comparable to what a network like Fox generates from advertising in an average month. The percent of revenue coming from underwriters accounted for 36 percent in 2000 and 33 percent the year before.

 

PBS does have appealing qualities for corporate sponsors, however, that don't necessarily revolve around ratings. For one thing, people watching PBS tend to be somewhat more affluent than most TV viewers. Nearly 40 percent of PBS's audience, for example, have household incomes in excess of $60,000, compared to 37 percent for all TV viewers.

 

PBS viewers also tend to be better educated and older, a combination especially appealing to companies targeting people with disposable money, like financial services.

 

"The value of linking your image to PBS is something big corporations that want to portray a positive and upscale image do," says Christine Becker, assistant professor in the department of film, television and theater at the University of Notre Dame.

 

PBS can also boast something that few programs on broadcast or cable can -- it doesn't have commercials, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. With more networks and more commercials competing for the attention of viewers, a sponsor's message at the beginning and ending of a broadcast can be an effective way to stand out.

 

"In an age when we are overwhelmed with commercial messages, a company that can underwrite a show may be the only sponsor, and cut through the clutter of messages on broadcast and cable," says Becker. "In that sense, PBS has always been an alternative."

 

LETTERS TO PBS

 

 

Imagine a guy holding a 27" television set out the window. That's me every day I hawk up the courage to turn the thing on. When my wife returns home in the evenings, she is usually pleasantly surprised to find the tube has survived another day

 

 'Patience...' I tell her.  'It's only a matter of time.'

 

 I'd like you to know that your series on Ben Franklin bought the condemned set a few more days.

 

For the first time in a terrifyingly long while, I have been rewarded for watching TV.  My life was actually made better by staring into the box.  I have never been more shocked or surprised by something I've seen on television and to be honest, I'm not sure how and to be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about it. 

 

I can only hope that the good people at Middlemarch Films do not make a habit of producing programs of such exceptional quality for I would truly hate to deprive the neighbors from seeing the old Sony take the four floor swan dive.

 

 

With tremendous respect for what you have accomplished, And no small hope that you won't do it again,

 

 I am,

 

 Richard Roughton

 

 

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