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