Marc Rosenwasser didn’t want to hear any more excuses. It was late on a Saturday afternoon in mid-August, the first day of rehearsals for PBS NewsHour Weekend, and the executive producer was adamant about running through a practice newscast as planned.
It didn’t matter that the scripts weren’t printed. Or that the on-screen graphics weren’t finished. Or that — though Rosenwasser didn’t know it yet — nearly every segment was cued up out of order. He wanted to proceed as if these problems were happening during a real show.
“Do me a favor,” he told the production staff with him in the studio control room of New York’s WNET. “Let’s go through this as if there’s a crisis.”
At 4:45 p.m., a young production assistant burst through the door to deliver the missing scripts. But director Wayne Palmer didn’t see her.
“Your director didn’t know he had a script,” Rosenwasser told the staffer gently. “So that’s a problem.”
It turned out to be one of many problems in the news show’s first run-through.
When the clock hit 5 p.m., a new opening sequence, accompanied by the familiar NewsHour theme music, rolled, presenting a montage of cityscapes from around the world. Each dissolved into the next, starting with a nighttime scene of Washington, D.C., home of the weekday NewsHour, and ending with a sunset view of New York City, where producers of the weekend edition have settled in.
Host Hari Sreenivasan smoothly introduced a news package about the latest violence in Egypt, but mistakes accumulated in the next 10 minutes.
Typos showed up on the teleprompter. Interview subjects appeared without lower thirds. Video clips were glitchy. News segments rolled in the wrong order. The team stopped the run-through at 5:15 and began again from the top.
“This is why God made rehearsals,” Rosenwasser said.
‘A sandbox’ for TV news
Fast-forward three weeks to Saturday, Sept. 7: Producers of PBS NewsHour Weekend debuted their new 30-minute broadcast free of the kinks. The only apparent remnants of their trial run were story plans that had been in the mix — editorial choices aimed at setting the show apart from other weekend news programs.
PBS backed the startup of NewsHour Weekend as the core element of a revamped approach to its weekend public affairs programs. It was cast as a platform for experimentation — “a sandbox to play with what’s happening in broadcast television today,” as one promo said.
With enough stylistic continuity to link it to the flagship weekday NewsHour, the weekend edition aims to offer something different. A signature segment of each edition devotes six minutes to “original, in-depth reporting from around the nation and around the world,” as Sreenivasan described the feature.
In the first two weeks of broadcasts, such segments covered recent discoveries of natural gas deposits in Israel, and efforts to harvest tidal energy off Maine’s coast. NewsHour Weekend producers aim to focus these features on new ideas and underreported news.
NewsHour Weekend also features local arts coverage produced by PBS member stations. As the station that specializes in producing arts and performance coverage for pubTV, WNET also spearheads the Major Market Group’s Arts Initiative, which coordinates a production co-op sharing arts coverage of local stations. Early editions of NewsHour Weekend drew on this in-house capacity, featuring a long-form segment about Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim and a report by WGBH’s Jared Bowen taking viewers inside the Massachusetts home of the American novelist Edith Wharton.
And, notably, unlike the weekday NewsHour, the new broadcast includes two-minute cutaways for local stations to insert local news.
NewsHour Weekend also differs from other pubTV public-affairs programs behind the scenes. WNET drew most of its producers from Need to Know, the Friday-night PBS newsmagazine that became financially unsustainable after a three-year run.
Produced by Creative News Group, a nonunion unit of WNET.org, the show hired journalists whose multimedia skills qualified them to work in multiple roles. This approach costs less than hiring crews to perform specific roles in the field and studios, according to Rosenwasser, who shifted from e.p. of Need to Know to supervise production of the weekend broadcast. Roughly two-thirds of the staff joined him.
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, headquartered at WETA in Arlington, Va., co-produces the weekend program. In addition to sharing Sreenivasan, a correspondent and director of digital platforms since 2009, the weekday NewsHour team collaborates daily with the WNET-based unit, a degree of cooperation rare among pubTV producers.
NewsHour Weekend producers will contribute to the weekday show Monday through Friday, and weekday correspondents will produce stories for the weekend editions. One of the first editions of NewsHour Weekend included a report from NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown.
“This is not a brand-new show,” Rosenwasser said. “It’s an extension of an existing show.”
Engaging viewers online
The combination of continuity and change built into Weekend aims to help redefine pubTV’s news and public-affairs presence without starting from scratch, as PBS has tried to do with limited success.
Even with brand recognition and editorial relationships that gave producers a head start in launching Weekend, the program enters the fractured fray of television news.
As the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism reported in its 2013 State of the News Media survey, the weekday NewsHour program “lags well behind the three commercial network evening news programs in viewership.” The show has earned an average household rating of .59 over its past two seasons, according to TRAC Media Services. Need to Know, PBS’s last effort to redefine its weekend news programming, averaged a 0.4 household rating, according to WNET.
But Sreenivasan sees potential for growth and viewer engagement online, where the flagship NewsHour has also gained audience, as the Pew study also noted.
Sreenivasan plans to interact with viewers online before broadcasts and share their input when appropriate. NewsHour Weekend is posting segments online prior to broadcast, and Sreenivasan takes feedback from viewers in Twitter chats using the hashtag #AnchorHours.
NewsHour Weekend, Sreenivasan said, has a role to play in putting “the public back in public media.”
This article was first published in Current on September 23, 2013.