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Media

Is PBS Show 'Need to Know' on the Ropes?

A barrage of negative comments from viewers and concerns by programmers on PBS has 'Need to Know' producers on the defensive.

  When Need To Know, a new public affairs offering described as “a multi-platform current affairs news magazine, uniting broadcast and web in an innovative approach to newsgathering and reporting,” premiered nationwide in May on PBS — and on line at PBS.org — the hybrid effort was met with an outpouring of negative reaction from media activists and public television viewers alike.

Billed as part of an effort to “revitalize public media,” NTK first came under attack simply because it was slated to occupy time slots previously allotted to Bill Moyers Journal andNow, two hard-hitting, independent PBS mainstays that had just ended long runs. Next, after word leaked that Newsweek’s then-editor Jon Meacham was to join NPR veteran Alison Stewart as co-anchor, the media watchdog group FAIR issued an “action alert” slamming him as “a consummate purveyor of middle-of-the-road conventional wisdom with a conservative slant.” FAIR said Meacham’s prominent role on the program sent “a clear and troubling message about PBS’s priorities,” and his “approach to journalism seems to be antithetical to the hard-hitting approach of Moyers and Now.”

The complaints, which resulted in thousands of emails to PBS ombudsman Michael Getler, were in part a cri du coeur from progressives angry at the simultaneous loss of both Now and the ever-iconic Moyers. Getler said, “I can understand the anxiety of those viewers who feel, rightly in my view, that both Moyers, especially in his interviews, and NOW through its choice of subjects, frequently go after issues and personalities that simply don’t get aired elsewhere…” The ombudsman also raised an interesting side issue, noting, “I would think that being the editor of Newsweek is a full-time job, as is the co-host, and driving force, behind a public affairs television program that millions of people will want to depend on.”

It turns out that viewers and media activists weren’t the only ones anxious about Need To Know. As reported recently by Elizabeth Jensen in the New York Times, many public television programmers also had negative reactions, and the future of the PBS newsmagazine beyond June is now in doubt. Jensen referred to a memo sent to the programmers in December by Stephen Segaller, vice president for content at WNET.org, which produces the show, and Shelley Lewis, the program’s executive producer. In it they conceded that the feedback from fellow PBS stations “has been negative, which is never pleasant, but is always useful.” In appraising the co-anchors, the memo said: “It’s fair to say (as some of you have) that Alison is far more comfortable in the anchor role than Jon, and Jon is a far more comfortable guest on other programs than he was (at first) as anchor on his own.”

PBS, which funds the program, recently released a carefully crafted statement, saying its “commitment to ‘Need to Know’ runs through June 2011. As with any renewal decision, we are evaluating the series carefully. No final determination has been made.” In consideration of your own need to know, I present below the entire Segaller/Lewis memo to programmers, which as you will see lays out an equally careful case for the continuance of the program:

December 3, 2010

Dear Programmers,

It has been just six months since NEED TO KNOW launched, and it seems like a good time to update you on the project, respond to some of your comments and suggestions, and look ahead to the next six months, as we plan for 2011.

We’ve been hearing your feedback about NTK both via PBS and directly, in part because we recently reached out to some of you, and asked you to tell us your impressions. Some of the reaction has been negative, which is never pleasant, but is always useful. So we appreciate the frank and direct opinions you’ve offered. Here is our update, and our thoughts on how we’re trying to implement your suggestions and address your concerns.

The elephant in all of our rooms was that Bill Moyers Journal and NOW on PBS both ended production, as NTK began. As you all know, but our viewers seemed not to understand and certainly not to welcome, Bill *retired*. He was not “replaced”, PBS and WNET did not “cancel” the Journal, and indeed he graciously extended his broadcast to a date when NTK could launch. We all share in the responsibility for not making it far clearer that Bill left voluntarily and passed the baton to NTK.

Given that Bill is *irreplaceable*, NTK launched with two anchors who were both new to public television, but not to television – Alison Stewart and Jon Meacham. It’s fair to say (as some of you have) that Alison is far more comfortable in the anchor role than Jon, and Jon is a far more comfortable guest on other programs than he was (at first) as anchor on his own. We continue to work on ways to make “that Jon” the Jon who appears in our studio every week. For obvious reasons – the Pulitzer, the blazing intelligence, the Newsweek tenure, now Random House – he’s a unique asset, and brings talents that are strongly aligned with public television values and content. He’s in the Skip Gates category as a public intellectual, and who else on the PBS roster is? Jon is also an in-demand speech-maker at commencements, in boardrooms etc. – and related to that, he has proven to be a magnet for philanthropic funding of the NTK venture, without which… As you might imagine, PBS and CPB are not funding us fully.

Every show evolves, and must evolve rapidly, once it is a reality. So we have adjusted the separate and joint roles of Alison and Jon, to play more to their strengths (Alison as anchor, Jon as essayist) and we continue to vary the studio format in small and larger ways to continue the improvement of their performance. We’re not there yet – but these things really do take time, especially with a weekly show. It’s worth remembering that six months after Tim Russert was hired as anchor of *Meet The Press*, the NBC affiliates were calling for him to be replaced – and did so for another year. NBC stuck with him, he grew in the role, he occupied the chair for more than 15 years – and when he died so tragically and suddenly in 2008, he had become “irreplaceable”. Time will tell whether Alison and Jon get that kind of reputation – but one of our many goals in hiring them was to move to a new generation of talent that might, if successful, be PBS assets for years or even decades to come.

Another key mandate from PBS was a greater clarity among public affairs offerings, and greater collaboration. The fact that NTK exists today where four different public affairs programs used to compete for airtime, funding, and viewer attention, is a big win for the system. NTK has carried forward the enterprise reporting of NOW, the international coverage of Wide Angle, and above all has expanded the investigative reporting of Exposé. Investigative reporting, branded on NTK as “The Watch List”, is one of our most substantive innovations, since launch. NTK is doing more investigative reporting than any television program in American broadcasting, period.

Collaboration too is a work in progress, but we are doing more of this after six months than some longer-running shows have done over years. We’re collaborating with Newshour on Blueprint America content, and we have a newly created “From Our Colleagues” segment, in which we’ve promoted, so far, Frontline’s upcoming episodes, POV, Nature and American Masters.

Our content choices – under five beats – are intended to be flexible, so that we can always be topical. We hope you’ve noticed that we’re able to deliver well-produced, in-depth reporting on timely issues, and work very hard to be “on the news” every week. Sometimes it’s because we know how and where to source material – case in point being the attempted bombing of two planes from a plot hatched in Yemen. That week, only NTK had a produced, in-depth backgrounder *from* Yemen, with footage you just didn’t see anywhere else. That story came from long-time colleagues we knew from Wide Angle.

Ratings for the broadcast program – well, is the glass half-empty or half-full? Overall, the national rating is a tenth of a point below Bill Moyers Journal and NOW – and similarly, a tenth of a point below Washington Week in Review, a program with a 20-plus year lead on NTK in building a loyal audience. We would love for the rating to be higher, of course. And we intend to build it up over time.

The launch of the show in late Spring, followed by two pledge periods in four months, was a huge handicap. In hindsight, we would all probably have been smarter to launch in September. But happily, the past two months have seen the audience build back steadily. We are using every trick we know in social media and public relations to keep and grow the buzz about the show, about Alison and Jon, about individual stories, segments etc. You can play a big role here. We are now offering localized promos, we want to hear from your producers and web teams about content that we can link to or bring to national audiences.

In sum, we are working flat out to make NTK the new current affairs show that PBS, we and all of you need it to be. And happily, viewer reaction is getting ever better. By late summer, we were no longer receiving angry e-mails about Bill – or very few. By far the majority of the e-mails that mentioned Bill were along these lines:

“I was a loyal viewer of Bill Moyers journal and NOW and was devastated when I realized they would be no more. But I am thrilled with the quality and intelligence of Need To Know. I just want to congratulate PBS for this great new show.”

And this: “Congratulations on an exceptional program and format. I am a long time viewer of the Journal and Now and am very pleased with both your broadcast program and website the entire staff has produced. Great job and keep up the much needed real journalism.”

I hope you find it useful to have our thoughts on NTK at this point. We hope that you will give the venture the room and the time it needs to evolve, improve, and find its long-term place in the schedule and in the minds and hearts of the viewers. This does not happen overnight, especially considering the challenges we started with. And please, above all, let us have *your* thoughts and impressions – positive, negative, and in-between.

NTK is a collaboration, and we’re in this together. Thanks for your
attention.

*Stephen Segaller Shelley Lewis*

*VP Content, WNET E.P. Need To Know*

Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor is the author of "Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio" (AlterNet Books, 2008). O'Connor also writes the Media Is A Plural blog.
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