PBS President Paula Kerger

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — You never know what kind of goofy stuff is going to come up during the Television Critics Association press tours. But something goofy always happens.

PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger didn't expect to have to deal with questions about Ian McKellen's nudity, which may explain why she handled them so poorly. But, on the other hand, she didn't expect to be subjected to that line of questioning because it was, well, goofy.

Kerger reaffirmed her commitment to arts programming on PBS and pointed with pride to an upcoming production of the Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of "King Lear," with McKellen in the title role.

"I saw this version of 'King Lear' during its very limited run in New York last year, and it was an amazing experience," Kerger said. "I encouraged 'Great Performances' to have it filmed when it went back to London, and we'll air it next spring."

Sensing controversy, One Intrepid TV Critic immediately leaped, fangs bared, for Kerger's jugular.

"In the 'King Lear' stage production, Ian McKellen does a full-frontal-nude scene on stage. How are you going to deal with that on the screen?" he asked.

Ooooh. Full-frontal nudity. PBS. You could almost see the headlines dancing in Our Intrepid TV Critic's head.

"The film is just being — it's just been shot and — I haven't actually seen the final version yet, and it will be broadcast next year," Kerger stammered. "We're actually going to bring it to press tour in January, so you'll have a chance to see it then."

Not good enough. Unwilling to let those headlines disappear, Our Intrepid TV Critic continued to at least nip at Kerger's heels when he couldn't rip out her throat.

"That's a pretty talked-about moment in the stage production where he's fully nude," he said. "How do you feel about showing that in its entirety?"

"Well, again, I haven't seen the taped version yet, so I can't tell you," Kerger said.

"But would you be OK with that?" he asked.

"About the full-frontal nudity?" Kerger said.

"Yes," he said.

"Yes, yes, yes," interjected a (female) critic. "Say yes."

(What, exactly, prompted that, I can only guess.)

Our Intrepid TV Critic still wouldn't let go, however, unwilling to leave the (non)issue alone.

"Oh, come on. You're familiar with the scene, though, right?" he asked.

Well, she just told us she had. So, "Yes."

"And what do you think about showing that on PBS?" he asked.

"Well, it's not — it's what I think about it and also what the FCC will allow. So we'll cross that bridge — we'll bring it to you in January," Kerger said.

"My readers can't wait that long," Our Intrepid TV Critic said with a straight face.

"Oh, yes, they can," Kerger said.

Goofy, goofy, goofy.

Kerger was obviously unprepared for the question. She should have just said, "Of course we're not going to show full-frontal nudity. The Federal Communications Commission would never go for it. Our stations can't afford the massive fines the FCC would levy."

Of course, Our Intrepid TV Critic would probably have turned to assailing Kerger for bowing to the FCC.

Goofy, goofy, goofy.

SAY WHAT? Kerger told critics that this version of "King Lear" will "mark another example of what I think PBS does best, which is opening new worlds to our viewers, showing them things they may not otherwise have a chance to see."

IT'S NOT OFFICIALLY OFFICIAL, but the odds are that Ken Burns' next project will prominently feature Utah.

PBS will telecast the six-part, 12-hour Burns documentary "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" in the fall of 2009. It will "trace the birth of the national park idea in the mid-1800s through its evolution over the next 150 years," Kerger said. "It's a compelling story, matched only by the dazzling imagery that Ken has captured on film."

We haven't seen anything yet, but it would be a surprise if Utah's national parks did not play a part in the program. (And, unofficially, a PBS official told me they will.)

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