Future of “Need to Know” uncertain; PBS says it’s “evaluating the series carefully”

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PBS has not yet decided whether to renew WNET’s newsmag Need to Know, which replaced Bill Moyers Journal in May 2010 (Current, March 22, 2010). PBS said in a statement to the New York Times that the show runs through June 2011, and it is currently “evaluating the series carefully.”

Stephen Segaller, station v.p. for content, and Shelley Lewis, Need to Know e.p., sent an email to programmers December 3 thanking them for their feedback on the show. Apparently some of those comments had zeroed in on co-hosts Alison Stewart and Jon Meacham. The note, obtained by Current, said in part: “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.” The email noted that Meacham is a “unique asset,” adding, “He’s in the Skip Gates category as a public intellectual, and who else on the PBS roster is?”

Timing has also created challenges for the show. “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.”

“In sum,” the message concludes, “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.”

In a review of the show, longtime pubcasting producer Louis Barbash wrote in Current: “Based on the evidence of its first four episodes, Need to Know can be too deferential to big names, disinclined to probe and press them. …  But Need to Know is also capable of compelling storytelling, able to spot and focus on the small story that illuminates the big one, and capable, too, of thoughtfulness, insight and tolerance.”