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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
might cringe at employing actors in a documentary, but the technique gives Benjamin Franklin a bouncy, endearing, you-are-there
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.
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?
is it Part Two, in which he goes from champion of the British Empire to its bitter foe, disowning his son in the process?
its it Part Three, in which he creates American diplomacy and saves the country's independence by building an alliance with
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,"
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."
broke with beloved son William, who remained true to England as governor of New Jersey, a job his father helped gain for him.
"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."
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."
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' *****
Richard Easton, Dylan Baker, Carol Berkin, narrator Colm Feore.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Beyond the lightning, there was Franklin the superstar
By HOWARD ROSENBERG
November 18 2002
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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
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.
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
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
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
Benjamin Franklin PBS (Tues.-Wed., Nov. 19-20, 9
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?
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
TV GUIDE COVER
runaway Ben Franklin morphs into a revolutionary Renaissance man.
Tuesday November 19, 2002
A worthy documentary on an exceptional man
By Jonathan Storm; Inquirer Columnist
just a small, fascinating comment in an immensely fascinating biography, but it explains so much of Benjamin Franklin's place
in American history:
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
their diligence, the producers seem almost as loony - in a benevolent-genius kind of way - as Franklin himself.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
MARK McGUIRE Albany Times Union
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
matter how expansive historical documentaries might get, their makers are almost always limited to the media of the era in
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
very familiar faces include Peter Gerety ("Homicide: Life on the Street," "The Wire") as Joseph Galloway, and Anthony Heald
("Boston Public") as Jonathan Austin.
resulting effect might be termed "Ye Olde 60 Minutes."
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."
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.
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.
resume reads like the stuff of fiction: printer, journalist, runaway, expatriate, businessman, scientist, mathematician, inventor,
aphorist, philosopher, author, climatologist, loyalist, revolutionary, statesman, abolitionist.
that resume sells him short.
this moment on I intend to live my life as a rational creature," Baker's Franklin says at age 20.
is the first modern man, welcoming change instead of fearing uncertainty.
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.
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.
died in 1790, at the absurdly old age (for the time) of 84. Some 20,000 people attended his funeral.
than two centuries later his memory lives on in history books, on the $100 bill and in his greatest experiment of all, democracy.
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
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
"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.
respect for what you have accomplished, And no small hope that you won't do it again,