Leaders of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, the company behind the PBS NewsHour, are negotiating to transfer ownership to co-producer WETA in Arlington, Va., according to an internal letter sent Tuesday to staffers.
Program founders and original co-anchors Jim Lehrer and Robin MacNeil wrote that their reasons for relinquishing ownership at this time include "the probability of increasing our fundraising abilities" for the weeknightly news magazine. The New York Times reported in June that the program was in financial trouble and had received infusions of cash from PBS several times over the past year.
Currently, Lehrer and MacNeil share ownership with Liberty Media, which acquired a majority interest in MacNeil/Lehrer Productions (MLP) 18 years ago. Liberty owns interests in various media, communications and entertainment businesses including SiriusXM, Barnes & Noble and the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball franchise.
"The current operation has worked beautifully because our longtime partnership with Liberty Media has been as perfect as any such relationship could be," Lehrer and MacNeil said in the letter. Liberty gave them full control over editorial decision-making and management of staff, they said.
The "central driving force" of the decision to act now, the two wrote, is that they are no longer active in the daily operations of NewsHour. Lehrer retired as anchor in June 2011; MacNeil had stepped away in 1995. In August, longtime anchors Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill were promoted to managing editors and they now run the show. Recently an adapted version, PBS NewsHour Weekend, launched from producing station WNET in New York City.
According to the letter, WETA President Sharon Rockefeller reacted "with delight and enthusiasm" to the suggestion that Liberty and MLP would transfer control of NewsHour to the station, which is licensed to Washington, D.C.
"There are many details that need to be sorted through and agreed to before it can become a done deal," the letter said. "Getting there will be complicated and it may take awhile."
The letter concluded: "What we can say now with gusto and conviction is that our conversations with WETA will be guided by the need to protect the ways and results of our journalism but also to protect you, the people whose hard work and brains have always made it all work for us, the PBS system and our viewers and supporters."