“Plum Landing,” an all-digital production, is designed to teach children ages 6 to 9 about environmental science — using games, animations, and short live-action videos.
Instead of sitting in front of the television for half an hour, young viewers are encouraged to undertake “adventures” by drawing pictures of wildlife, for example, or going outside to take photos. And the show is accessed mainly by smartphones, tablets, and computers.
Director Fred Barzyk began his career at Boston’s WGBH, experimenting with television and the emerging form of video.
He produced dramas for iconic series NET Playhouse and American Playhouse, as well as a cult-hit sci-fi thriller for PBS, The Lathe of Heaven. From there, his cutting-edge documentaries, dramas and educational programs ran on HBO, NBC, ABC and CBS. He directed an array of stars the likes of Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Dan Aykroyd, Rosie Perez, Matt Dillon, Claire Danes and Lily Tomlin.
Barzyk, who says he never retired from WGBH, he just lost interest in its slate of productions, is having fun — a lot of fun.
He brags that he persuaded TeleMedia’s programmers to run the opening installment of the trilogy, The Journey, his 2011 tribute to Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame, one Saturday in May, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Or, as he says, “over and over and over and over.”
The Kickstarter campaign backs filming of The Waiting Room, a tale of seven fictional characters who come to realize that they don’t actually exist. As with the two previous films, everyone involved in the production — the cast, crew, composer, musicians, technicians, prop wranglers, set dressers — are volunteers, many retirees. The first two installments had been funded by the Chelmsford Cultural Council, TeleMedia and Barzyk himself, but new backing was needed to green-light the closing drama.
If the Kickstarter campaign meets its goal, Barzyk says, part of the funding will allow him to stage a dramatic closing shot involving the release of “1,000 black balloons filled with helium” at the Nashua Municipal Airport in nearby New Hampshire.
But the biggest budget items cover the cost of gas to transport the actors to town, and food for everyone participating in the production.
“He feeds us well,” says Stephen Mann, the cameraman on Barzyk’s first two films. It was Mann who helped Barzyk set up the Kickstarter campaign; Barzyk had never heard of the crowd-funding site until Mann suggested that he try it.
As he writes in an email, Barzyk views the project with a sense of nostalgia: “An Old Timer tries to create the Early Days of ETV!!!!!”
Freedom to experiment
He began working for the Boston pubcaster in 1958, just three years after it went on the air; a massive fire there in 1961 destroyed some of his early pieces. By 1968 he was heading up the station’s experimental unit, later called the New Television Workshop.
The workshop created video art before the genre even existed, and its projects were fueled by “the freedom to do what could be done only by a TV station just finding out what it could really do,” he says. Among his innovative productions was “the first double-channel broadcast,” which presented a single story through simultaneous broadcasts on both of WGBH’s TV channels. One showed comedians Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding appearing to walk between TV sets tuned to channels 2 and 44, trying to find their scripts.
In 1979, he directed The Lathe of Heaven for WNET’s Television Laboratory, a critically acclaimed, surrealistic science fiction film that drew a 10 rating in New York and an 8 in Chicago, according to Nielsen. Twenty years later, its still-rabid fan base persuaded WNET to digitally remaster and repackage the film with additional material for rebroadcast on pubTV stations (Current, May 1, 2000). “I can’t tell you how many people tell me how important that film was to them when they watched as teenagers,” Barzyk says.
Even Barzyk’s mainstream work embodied that early, edgy spirit of public television: He executive-produced Puzzlemania, a live, two-hour, interactive children’s program from New York’s WNYC-TV in 1987 and ’88. He was executive producer and director of Destinos, a 56-episode drama-based Spanish language telecourse that ran on PBS from 1988–92, receiving six academic and production awards; it remains a top-selling Annenberg Media learning series. In 1994, he produced and directed Breast Care Test, hosted by Jane Pauley, which showed women how to examine their bodies for cancer. And The Ryan Interview, an Arthur Miller play starring Ashley Judd that he directed, was the first high-definition drama to run on PBS, in August 2000.
Retrospectives of his work ran in 1997 at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass., and in 2000 at the Haggerty Museum of Art at his alma mater, Marquette University, in his hometown of Milwaukee.
Barzyk remained active with WGBH until 2001. “I didn’t really retire,” he says, “I just wasn’t interested in the shows they were doing anymore.”
“Hell, I want to do drama”
Although Barzyk had lived in Chelmsford since 1971, town leaders “didn’t know who I was,” he says, “and I liked that.”
But by 2004, they discovered that a television pioneer lived in their midst and approached Barzyk about working at their public access television station, located in the basement of Parker Middle School. “I walked up to the school, rang the bell, signed in and had to work my way through all these kids to get to the studio.”
He discovered a subterranean treasure trove of TV gear. “High-def equipment, Final Cut Pro — I could do more shows than at WGBH.” Barzyk started out by producing a behind-the-scenes documentary on the town’s big Independence Day parade. He shot features on the senior center and restaurants. “Finally, I said, ‘Hell, I want to do drama.’”
And so he did. Treasure Hunt, the second short film in the series, premiered in May at the Chelmsford Center for the Arts. In it a soldier returns from World War II and gives local kids a treasure map that leads them to toys. “He disappears, and then they discover he’s already dead,” Barzyk says. “That one was written by a guy across the street from me.”
That’s the magic behind Barzyk’s work with TeleMedia, says Mann, his cameraman. “It’s all pretty much just people from town. Out in the field, it’s not unusual to see 12 or 18 of them, with more behind the scenes.”
Mann says Barzyk’s deep belief that art belongs to the people springs from his many years in public broadcasting. “Nobody actually owns the piece,” Mann says. “Fred grew up professionally at PBS, and ‘public’ is their main emphasis.”
Mann also worked in the system, at KTEH in San Jose, Calif., now part of KQED, some 20 years ago. He runs his own company, MannMade Digital Video, from the nearby town of Westford.
Collaborating with Barzyk “is certainly not what I thought it would be,” Mann adds. “For somebody with his resume, I expected a no-nonsense attitude, someone who wouldn’t tolerate mistakes. It’s exactly the opposite. I’m constantly amazed at how he overlooks screw-ups by the crew — and that happens often, with all the untrained volunteers.”
As Pete Pedulla, a staff producer at TeleMedia, says, “Most volunteers we have to train, but here was one who could train us, in a way.”
Barzyk loves the creative process. “What I have is total freedom,” he says. “And I have all the equipment I need. Most of the volunteers are retired, so I have to make sure they don’t have heart attacks — I can’t push them too hard. And volunteer actors, just like when I started at WGBH.”
Barzyk, Mann and all the volunteers plan to shoot The Waiting Room one weekend in September. The characters “are coming to the end of their fictional lives. They’re all in a waiting room. They all realize they’re not people; they only exist as characters. They eventually go out to catch a plane to God knows where.”
Barzyk is already excited about the trilogy’s closing scene. “Steve built a helicopter camera, and it will take off and fly up into the clouds” as the cast and crew and the volunteers, all dressed in black, release the black helium balloons, he says.
That shot is characteristic of Barzyk’s style, Mann notes. “He loves to end movies with the whole crew in the picture.”
“I have fun,” Barzyk says. “Why do anything, if not for fun?”
PBS is putting together a list of significant national “firsts” for PBS and public media. We already have a timeline covering WGBH from 1946 to 1978, and many entries include national innovations. Now, we’re looking for your recommendations and verifications for more!
Please remember, the following are not yet verified, so add your recommendations, corrections, and confirmations in the comments box at the bottom of this post.
Recommendations (to be verified)
1958: WGBH acquired an Ampex VR-1000A and became the first NET member to use videotape recording techniques. (More.)
1960: WGBH produced A.R. Gurney’s first TV drama, Love Letters. The only recording was destroyed in the fire.
1963: WGBH received its first Academy Award for Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World Fred Barzyk reports that it was the first and only Academy Award to ever be given to an educational television station.
1966: Julia Child was the first educational television personality to receive an Emmy Award.
1968: WGBH produced the first double-channel TV show, What’s Happening Mr. Silver? Viewers were asked to put two TVs six feet apart, tune one to Ch. 2 and the other Ch. 44. Six months after the first broadcast, WNET WNDT (Ch. 13) and a commercial station (Ch. 9) were the only other stations to do the same thing.
1972: PBS pioneers the development of captioning, making television programs accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.
1972: Nam June Paik, renowned video artist, creates the worlds first video synthesizer. During the broadcast of one of his works, Paik blew out the WGBH transmitter. It is now on display in a German Museum.
1974: NOVA, the first weekly science documentary series, joined the PBS lineup.
The Chicken that Ate Columbus
1980: WGBH Workshop and QUBE, the largest interactive service in the country, produced a live interactive drama, The Chicken that Ate Columbus.” From David Atwood: QUBE was launched in 1977, I joined them as Manager of Production and Operations in the fall of 1980 in time (as I remember) to be there for “The Chicken that Ate Columbus.”
1980: This Old House, the first home-improvement program on U.S. television, tackled its first fixer-upper
1987: Created the first digital audio broadcast.
1990: PBS makes television accessible to blind and visually impaired audiences through the launch of the Descriptive Video Service (DVS).
1994-95: Created the first audio streaming server (featured Frontline Waco: The Inside Story) and the concept of the web as the companion to the TV program.
1998: PBS Digital Week features the first national broadcast of a high-definition and enhanced digital program, Ken Burns’s Frank Lloyd Wright.
1998: PBS becomes the first national broadcaster to distribute high-definition (HD) programming to member stations for broadcast.
1999: Created the first live radio and television streams and established a presence on Apple’s QuickTime TV.
Henry Morgenthau’s Negro and the American Promise is first to have an all black discussion on race in America. Featuring James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Dr. King, the interview made the front page of the New York Times when broadcast, and was later made into a book.
Catch 44 was WGBH’s first public access series. Although only broadcast locally, it made the front page of the WSJ and the BBC emulated it, calling their series “Open Night.”
The first environmental documentary was Austin Hoyt’s “Multiply and Subdue the Earth” on PBL.
Vietnam, a Television History, was the first long-form doc coverage of the Vietnam War.
The first coverage of tennis on TV was WGBH’s coverage of Longwood.
ZOOM was the first show created by kids (they supplied the content), for kids (who sent up to 30,000 letters per week).
Did Al Potter and Greg Harney do the first trans-atlantic broadcast for ETV?
The Victory Garden was the first series to follow the planting and growing of a garden in real time.
This Old House was the inspiration for the commercial sitcom Home Improvement.
WGBH was the first broadcast station to air stereo sound on their FM station which was in sync with he BSO concert on Ch. 2. This engineering feat was then taught to other PBS stations by our engineers.
Was NOVA the first PBS station to produce an IMAX film?
PBS’s ongoing negotiations to curb per-hour costs of producing programs and to assert more control over content are increasing friction with its largest producer, Boston’s powerhouse WGBH, according to sources at other stations with knowledge of the situation.
For a period until just four days before the second-season premiere of the gem of this season’s PBS schedule, Downton Abbey from Masterpiece Classic, the approval of PBS broadcast rights for the series hung in the balance as WGBH protested the network’s contract demands.
By any metric, “Downton’’ has hit a home run. Nationally, it has more than doubled PBS’s prime-time audience. Locally, “Downton’’ is enjoying a 5.8 rating, twice as high as “Masterpiece Classic’’ ratings last year. It is too early to know if that translates into increased memberships or pledge commitments for WGBH…
I loved the first season of “Downton,’’ with its obsessive attention to the “law of the entail,’’ which forbad the earl’s daughters from inheriting their father’s magnificent property…
Season two has a phoned-in quality; miracles occur where skillful writing might have intervened, subplots wax and wane randomly. But I am an originalist snob. I’m one of those people who can’t understand why anyone would watch NBC’s “The Office,’’ a show stolen character for character for character and situation for situation from Ricky Gervais’s much funnier British show. But what the heck, it’s television.
Emboldened by the success of the British period drama “Downton Abbey,” one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television, PBS now faces the challenge of translating the buzz and enthusiasm for the show into donations to local stations and public financing. A stodgy pledge drive or traditional pleas for contributions would probably fall flat with viewers. So, PBS decided to fit “Downton Abbey,” which begins its second season on Sunday, into a broader effort to spruce up its prime-time lineup.
Ron Della Chiesa, 73, voice of the BSO, sounds off on musicians from Beethoven to Lady Gaga
Over your 50 years in radio, which job has been your favorite? My MusicAmerica show at WGBH. Starting in 1978, it ran for 18 years. I played an eclectic blend of music, incorporating live interviews with people like Dizzy Gillespie and Andre Previn. I could never have done that show in a commercial setting.
Who was your best interview? Tony Bennett, about his painting, philosophy, the business. He’s a renaissance man. Continue reading →
WGBH Vice Chair (and former president) Henry Becton has been made an Honorary Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
The CBE, presented by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales yesterday, 5/5, at a ceremony in Boston, was awarded in recognition of Henry’s extraordinary service to the arts and entertainment industry.
“It’s a privilege to accept this honor, which belongs to the many people at WGBH who over the years worked with their colleagues in British broadcasting to create great television and radio,” says Henry.
He adds that the Prince was very personable and commented to Henry that the award was long overdue.
British Consul General to New England Dr. Phil Budden, added, “I am delighted that Her Majesty the Queen is honoring Mr. Becton’s tremendous contribution in Boston to the special relationship between Britain and America, and that His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales was able to deliver this honor in person to Mr. Becton today.
“As an Honorary CBE, Mr. Becton is hereby recognized by Britain for his exceptional accomplishments in the arts, and contributions to British culture and society.”
Henry Becton, former President of Boston public broadcaster WGBH, has been made an Honorary Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Mr. Henry Becton receives his honor from His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales at a ceremony at The British Embassy in Washington D.C. on May 5, 2011.
The CBE, presented by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, was awarded in recognition of Mr Becton’s extraordinary service to the arts and entertainment industry.
Mr Becton joined WGBH as a producer in 1970. Under his leadership from 1984 until his retirement in 2007, WGBH was the American co-producer of some of the most prestigious British dramas and documentaries made during that time.
British Consul General to New England, Dr. Phil Budden, said:
“I am delighted that Her Majesty The Queen is honouring Mr. Becton’s tremendous contribution in Boston to the special relationship between Britain and America, and that His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales was able to deliver this honour in person to Mr. Becton today. As an Honorary CBE, Mr. Becton is hereby recognised by Britain for his exceptional accomplishments in the arts, and contributions to British culture and society.”
Under Becton’s leadership from 1984 until his retirement in 2007, WGBH was the American co-producer of some of the most prestigious British dramas and documentaries made during that time.
The UK honours system recognises exceptional achievement and service to the nation, and includes non-British nationals who receive “Honorary” awards for their important contribution to British interests. All British honours are awarded on merit, and honorary awards are conferred by HM The Queen on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.
Mr Becton will receive a CBE medal and may forthwith put “Honorary CBE” after his name.
“It’s a privilege to accept this honor, which belongs to the many people at WGBH who over the years worked with their colleagues in British broadcasting to create great television and radio,” said Becton.
Mr Becton personally oversaw the co-production of many familiar TV dramas that were presented as part of Masterpiece Theatre on American public television, such as The Jewel in the Crown, Rumpole of the Bailey, Morse, Sherlock Holmes and Poirot. Between them, these productions earned several dozen BAFTA and Primetime Emmy awards. Masterpiece Theatre is one of American television’s best known programmes.
Mr Becton also helped establish a new standard for nonfiction documentary productions between US and UK programme makers. This resulted in such ground-breaking documentaries as Korea: The Forgotten War; Rock and Roll; and The Churchills. In addition, under Mr Becton’s leadership WGBH developed a partnership with the BBC and Public Radio International to produce the radio international news program PRI’s The World.
Prince Charles — better known these days as the father of the groom — arrived Tuesday for a busy three-day visit to the nation’s capital….
Before he leaves Thursday morning, Charles will present honors from the queen to three Americans at an investiture ceremony: Folger Shakespeare Library Director Gail Paster and Henry Becton, former president of Boston’s WGBH public televison station, will receive the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE); educator Martin Lancaster will get an OBE.