Pasadena, Calif. — "Masterpiece Theatre" leaving Sundays? Unthinkable.
What'll they move next, church? The truth is, however, that PBS' second most-famous series (after "Sesame Street") will be up against "Monday Night Football" when it starts its 31st season Oct. 8 with a new production of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."
Executive producer Rebecca Eaton told TV critics this week she was "cautiously optimistic" about the move. "Sunday night has gotten to be a hard place to be, because there are so many other miniseries and movies that premiere then," she said.
Eaton added, "Millions of dollars of publicity are thrown at them, and they get the press. I am really happy to be dodging the bullet of (the World War II miniseries) 'Band of Brothers,' which is going to be on HBO on Sunday night. We also have a very strong lead-in on Monday nights in the form of Antiques Roadshow."
To reinvigorate Sundays, PBS will air nonfiction programming, including the "American Experience" specials.
Other "Masterpiece Theatre" presentations scheduled for next season include a dramatization of Eudora Welty's "The Ponder Heart," directed by Martha Coolidge and starring Peter MacNichol, and "The Cazalets," a six-part series in the tradition of "The Forsyte Saga" (a new production of which, Eaton said, is in the works).
PBS also previewed "Local News," a five-part documentary that chronicles 9 1/2 months in the life of a Charlotte, N.C., TV news operation that's trying to drag itself out of the lead-if-it-bleeds rut and still be competitive. If the episode screened here goes on air uncensored, it will be the most profane series on TV this side of "The Sopranos."