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Scheer with beard, Huffington with mousse, Miller in sweatshirt, Frum in inset shuffling papers at desk

PBS borrowed panelists from KCRW's Left, Right and Center for a pilot (from top) Scheer, Huffington, Miller and Frum. (Photos courtesy of KCRW.)



Friday nights, PBS has balance on its mind

Originally published in Current, April 7, 2003
By Karen Everhart

PBS has initiated fast-track development of a new 10 p.m. public affairs series to supplement its two-hour Friday night block. The half-hour show — to be chosen from proposals submitted last week — will debut by July.

Coby Atlas, the network's co-chief program executive, already has commissioned a pilot adapting a pubradio series — KCRW-FM's weekly Left, Right and Center. She expects to ask for minipilots of up to four proposals before green-lighting the winning concept next month. CPB, which is jointly funding the new series, is also "in the mix of decision-making," she said.

The objective of the new show, according to Atlas and station execs, is to extend the range of political views expressed on PBS. "It was described to me as, 'If it were the only Friday night show left after everything else, it could stand on its own and have integrity and balance,'" said Larry Rifkin of Connecticut Public Television, one of at least six stations that proposed concepts to PBS.

"The aftermath of 9/11 focused us on the need to do more public interest television and have more venues for reasonable conversations about very contentious subjects," said Atlas. "There's a lot of screaming, angry people on television with a lot of name-calling. We want to have the same discussion going on, but with people from very different points of view who are able to talk to each other in a reasonable and thoughtful way."

PBS added Now with Bill Moyers to Friday nights in January 2002 as a venue to discuss politics and culture in post-9/11 America. Conservatives have attacked the show as a lefty platform, but its producers and PBS defend it as a journalistically sound, hard-hitting take on controversial subjects.

Atlas denied that the new series is to be a conservative counterbalance to Now. The Moyers series is "a very balanced, considered, intelligent program," she said. "I don’t look at Now like that. I don't think there's anything in it that needs to be balanced."

But congressional Republicans and others have been calling for balance in public TV. In November, the CPB Board, whose members are appointed by the White House, renewed its commitment to balanced treatment of controversial subjects in a unanimously approved resolution (Current, Dec. 2). The issue came up again in a March 11 congressional hearing, when Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over CPB, questioned CPB President Bob Coonrod about public broadcasting's pre-war coverage. Regula wanted to know why so much of it focused on anti-war protests. Coonrod responded by describing NPR's editorial guidelines.

Balance in public broadcasting programs is a recurring complaint of moderate and conservative Republicans, according to APTS President John Lawson, and it always comes up during reauthorization of the Public Broadcasting Act. "It's more a question of balance, not objectivity," he said. He's aware of no direct pressure to influence program decisions, as occurred during the 1992 CPB reauthorization.

"It boils down to a need for a balance of voices," Lawson added. "That's how I interpret what I hear on the Hill."

"Like it or not, we lost a whole group of people to Fox, and I don't know if Bill [Moyers] is the problem," said David LeRoy, co-director of the public TV research firm TRAC Media Services. Older men who regularly watched PBS went to the Fox News Channel immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and never came back, he added.

TRAC discovered these disaffected viewers during in-depth interviews with lapsed PBS members, said LeRoy. "They believe that there's no spin on Fox" and that "their point of view isn't represented on the NewsHour," the nightly PBS news program famed for its meticulous attention to political balance.

"The political middle has contracted and the right is further right," commented LeRoy. "It used to be that I could say that all points of view are represented on public television" over time, but not necessarily within a specific program. He senses that viewers on the right are impatient for their views to be represented on TV.

Pilot ordered: Left, Right and Center

"There is a liberal constituency that has been quite vociferous in their feelings that somehow public radio is their province, that commercial radio belongs to the right and public radio is the liberal stronghold," commented Ruth Seymour, g.m. of KCRW in Los Angeles.

Seymour developed Left, Right and Center seven years ago because she "thought it was important to get conservative thought on the air."

At first, listeners and subscribers flooded KCRW with complaints, mostly directed at panelist Arianna Huffington. "Now she is the flavor of the month and has been for quite a long time," said Seymour. The show has acquired a loyal following.

Huffington's fellow panelists are former White House speechwriter David Frum, author of the first insider book on the George W. Bush presidency; Matthew Miller, a centrist writer and commentator who was a senior advisor during the Clinton administration; and Robert Scheer, a leftist writer and lecturer at the University of Southern California.

The series, now carried by more than a dozen public radio stations, is not a roundtable format, said Seymour, "it's really smart political ping-pong." Each program airs live and the dialogue is "very fast and many, many times it's inadvertently funny."

Atlas, who can hear KCRW in the Los Angeles area where she lives, approached Seymour about trying out Left, Right and Center on PBS. She asked Marley Klaus, executive producer of the statewide newsmagazine California Connected, to tape the pilot. "This is an idea that came from Coby," said Klaus. "What's fun about it is they're all talking about the substantive issues of what's going on in the news, and they come at it from their diverse perspectives of left, right and center, and Arianna is beyond the labels." Klaus will deliver the pilot to PBS on May 7.

Atlas expected up to 10 competing proposals for the new Friday show. Stations proposing concepts include WNET in New York, WGBH in Boston and WETA in Washington. Nightly Business Report, produced by Miami's WPBT, also proposed a show. "The toughest part for us will be to pick one," she said. After reviewing a handful of pilots, PBS and CPB programmers will green-light the winning concept by mid-May.

Web page posted April 9, 2003
Copyright 2003 by Current Publishing Committee


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KCRW's website for Left, Right and Center.