Right-tilting shows join public affairs options
But do viewers want partisanship?
Does PTV want more public affairs?
With PBS now airing two new public affairs series that showcase conservative commentators, viewers can see for themselves how these new programs extend public TV’s range of viewpoints.
Journal Editorial Report, rushed to air Sept. 17 , six weeks after PBS announced its broadcast commitment, is a weekly roundup of news analysis and commentary by the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered, which debuted in June, mixes humor-laced commentary by the CNN Crossfire co-host with debates and interviews that cross the ideological spectrum.
Press coverage of the new shows generally follows the thesis, developed by New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta in June, that PBS picked up the shows under political pressure. PBS President Pat Mitchell and her programmers deny they’re “balancing” the schedule, saying repeatedly that they aim to broaden the range of viewpoints found on PBS.
Both shows received substantial CPB aid under a Republican-majority board of directors and former President Bob Coonrod, who publicly assailed the liberal commentaries of a notable Friday-night host, Bill Moyers. PBS and CPB worked together to commission both new series because they saw a need to “bring new and unusual voices to PBS,” said Michael Pack, CPB senior v.p. of TV programming.
When one looks at PBS’s entire public affairs lineup — from these new shows to Tavis Smiley, the NewsHour and Now with Bill Moyers — one sees “a very impressive and wide array of voices,” he said.
CPB Chairman Ken Tomlinson likewise was pleased with the balance of views now represented on PBS. “Our goal is to make sure there is something for every significant point of view in this nation,” he told Current.
Tomlinson, a retired journalist, realized the importance of broad appeal during a visit to Kentucky ETV many months ago. “I found the Republicans thought they had a stake in public broadcasting and the Democrats thought they had a stake,” he said. “Everyone had a buy-in.”
Though political partisans may get excited over changes in the public affairs lineup, for many viewers the new shows fade into a talking-heads marathon that runs from dinner until past bedtime on some stations. Other stations delay the two new conservative shows until the weekend, as they lack the prized PBS designation for common carriage.
Two weeks after the debut of Journal Editorial Report, stations covering 75 percent of the country — half in the top 30 markets — broadcast the new series at some hour, according to presenting station WNET in New York. A publicist for the show did not disclose how many stations carry it in primetime. Pack anticipates that carriage will pick up substantially this month.
Nearly all PBS stations carried Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered after its debut, though mostly outside of primetime, according to producing station WETA in Washington, D.C.
“In general the challenge is that the Friday lineup is ‘good-for-you’ programming as opposed to stuff with tremendous amount of audience potential,” said Mike Crane, programming v.p. at WMFE in Orlando. “Given all the pressures on us, we have to be very careful in striking that balance of ‘good-for-you’ and just plain good.”
To programmers, “good-for-you” public-affairs shows often mean lower-than-average ratings, though Washington Week and Now hover just a point or two below the primetime average.
“There is a feeling among [program directors] that PBS has concentrated on public affairs programs when we’re very concerned about the long-term viability of the National Program Service,” Crane said. “We all worry when we’re seeing money spent on stuff that doesn’t seem to preserve that core service.”
“People in public broadcasting use the word ‘balance,’ and it seems clear that there’s an effort here to balance the ideological mix,” said Boston Globe media critic Mark Jurkowitz. “The question is, how big of an appetite is there for a glut of TV shows that, fundamentally, at their core, are very similar?”
For all the hullabaloo over the new Friday night series, several sources inside and outside public TV declined to comment on the merits of either program — mostly because they have not watched them enough to form opinions. But many questioned PBS’s rationale for adding them.
Balanced: staid v. zippy
Two weeks out from its national debut, Journal Editorial Report resembles Washington Week, a 35-year PBS mainstay. Columnists and reporters for the influential business newspaper discuss the week’s news after set-up pieces introduced by moderator Paul Gigot.
The first shows have had at least three distinct segments — a lead story analyzed by members of the Journal editorial board; briefing and opinion, which includes reportage and another round of panelist responses; and “Tony & Tacky,” a segment that aims for levity as each panelist praises or pans recent newsmakers such as Oprah Winfrey, Paris Hilton and Cat Stevens. Though the journalists still seem uncomfortable and even Gigot, an affable pundit in past PBS broadcasts, appears stiff, the first two editions come off smoothly.
Opinions around the table ranged from moderate to hard-line conservative, with nearly all panelists agreeing that presidential candidate John Kerry is a flip-flopper, although two acknowledged shifting positions are not unusual for a senator with a 20-year record. Dorothy Rabinowitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and staunch defender of the Bush administration, delivered some zingers and summarily dismissed a fellow panelist’s arguments. In the first edition, a junior editorial writer snickered derisively in agreement with a sharp critique of Sen. Kerry.
Journal Editorial Report covered national security in greater depth than the other Friday-night talkfests Sept. 17 and 24. In the debut program, Robert Pollack, an editorial writer specializing in security issues, described Iran’s nuclear weapons program and diplomatic efforts to monitor it. National security correspondent John McWethy laid out the candidates’ records on national security in the Sept. 24 briefing and opinion segment.
“We believe that it takes shows time to find their voice,” Pack said. Public broadcasters, unlike commercial outlets, give new programs that chance. Journal Editorial Report is “in the process of achieving that objective.”
Carlson’s show, produced at WETA in Washington, owes more to the style of cable news, with musical riffs in the background and zippy sound effects. But in trying for faster pace and its own take on stories, it ends up with some insubstantial items and marginal topics. Its Sept. 17 and 24 shows reported on Alzheimer’s patients as a targeted voting bloc for Democrats and included a debate over whether Theresa Heinz Kerry is a liability to her husband’s campaign. Carlson covered meatier news during interviews. On Sept. 17, former Time Editor and CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson defended the credibility of CBS News, and on Sept. 24 a security contractor gave a first-hand account of rising instability in Iraq.
In “Back Page” segments both weeks, Carlson interviewed guests whose views would appeal to red-state thinking: John McWarner, an author who challenges blacks to reject rebelliousness and violence as characteristics of racial authenticity; and Brad Stine, a conservative Christian comedian.
“One thing I like about him is his premise of being unfiltered,” Crane said. “He uses the words he thinks rather than politically correct words, and that’s refreshing on some level, even if I disagree with him.”
“This is a kinder, gentler Tucker Carlson,” Jurkowitz said, comparing the host to his familiar role as combatant with such lefties as James Carville on CNN’s Crossfire. Carlson has gone to great lengths to explain that his show isn’t about ideology or partisanship. “If you look at him on Crossfire and on this program, it’s kind of like ‘before’ and ‘after.’ They’re not the same guy.”
“I think Tucker is terrific,” said Bill Hanley, public affairs production chief at Twin Cities Public TV. “There were a lot of concerns about it beforehand, but I am very comfortable with that program.”
When Unfiltered debuted in the Twin Cities, viewers who complained about it were reacting to “the notion that it was forced on the system by unseen, evil hands,” Hanley said. “I asked them to watch three editions before formulating an opinion.”
“This program is very much in line with public broadcasting and is as thoughtful as any program we have on the air,” Hanley said.
Unfiltered is “not as bad as I thought it would be,” said Dave Kanzeg, p.d. at WVIZ in Cleveland, though the station carries it on Sunday mornings, where its ratings are “underwhelming,” he said. “It’s interesting that something that has a relatively high profile with a well known person would underperform routine stuff,” he commented.
“What I’ve seen of Gigot has a gleeful unctuousness about it that makes me suspicious,” Kanzeg said. “Why are they trying so hard to convince me of something?” He looked at tapes of Journal Editorial Report but hasn’t added it to the Cleveland lineup.
Kanzeg expressed doubts that either program has brought “anything new or distinctive” to PBS. “The downside is they’ve brought some partisanship that wasn’t there before.”
Only one of the five station programmers interviewed by Current has picked up Journal Editorial Report so far. Most said they plan to change their Friday lineups when Now with Bill Moyers scales back to a half-hour program in January, after Moyers leaves the host chair.
Georgia PTV did not adopt the Journal program. “I was not sure that it was going to be significantly different from Washington Week,” said Bob Olive, broadcast director. He plans to monitor audience reaction in other cities before deciding whether to add it in Georgia.
“I didn’t feel a need to have a second conservative show in there,” said David Thiel at WILL in Urbana, Ill. Thiel pairs Unfiltered with McLaughlin Group on Friday nights and doesn’t get much of an audience.
PBS hasn’t designated Unfiltered or Journal Editorial Report for common carriage, so programmers can schedule them “where they think it’s right,” said Coby Atlas, PBS co-chief programmer. “I would hope that between Friday night at 8 and Sunday at 8 there would be a place for them,” she said.
Atlas acknowledged similarities between Journal Editorial Report and Washington Week, but she expects the new series will evolve over time. “These are smart people who have interesting points of view and present them in a civilized conversation.”
“One of the things that’s a challenge for producers and all of us as broadcasters is to figure out new ways to do public affairs programs,” Atlas said. “But you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel.”
PBS tackles current events in many different series — Frontline, Independent Lens, Now with Bill Moyers and Tavis Smiley — and adding two more options brings diversity of viewpoints that viewers can tune in for as they see fit, Atlas said. “The whole point is you get to pick and choose who you want to hear.”
But it’s clear that public TV veterans see the new shows as an attempt to balance other programs — namely, Now with Bill Moyers — despite PBS’s explanation to the contrary.
The straight skinny: in short supply
“All of the official word from PBS is that we’re doing this to add more points of view,” said Wisconsin Public TV’s Dave Iverson, executive director of Best Practices in Journalism. “I wish our standard was, ‘Let’s try to do the best job we can and find the best journalists’” instead of choosing on-air talent for their ideological affiliations.
Partisan advocacy is driving too much media coverage, including Fox News, Michael Moore’s punditry and the CBS News reports that gave credence to fake documents on President Bush’s National Guard service, Iverson said. “I think there’s an amazing opportunity for public broadcasting to say, ‘Look at us — we’re the ones to give you the straight skinny’ — to be the journalistic equivalent of John McCain.”
The addition of these two shows doesn’t get at what the audience is looking for, said Kanzeg. Viewers want help “defining the middle ground rather than polarized extremes.”
“I think [Now with Bill Moyers], despite criticism from the right wing, gets closer to that,” he said.
Now has featured iconoclasts such as Wall Street veteran Pete Peterson. The Republican venture capitalist lambasted both parties for short-sighted tax cuts and entitlements that run up the federal deficit and handicap future generations with unfunded liabilities. In the Sept. 24 interview conducted by co-host David Brancaccio, Peterson put dry fiscal policy into a moral perspective.
“It’s as if we’ve morphed into a world of all gain and no pain, all get and no give,” Peterson said, “and it’s politically incorrect for anybody to give up anything for the general good. And what’s really important, win at any cost.”
Kanzeg said an early finding of WVIZ’s Listening Project, a three-year research project with local audiences, was that viewers find it hard to determine where truth lies “in the flurry, the haze of the extremes talking to us from other media.”
“People look to public broadcasting as the place to bring respectful conversation to the fore as opposed to the yapping in the rest of the media,” he said.
PBS delivers straight news on series such as the NewsHour, Frontline and Now,” said Atlas. Unfiltered and Journal Editorial Report are opinion-oriented shows that supplement PBS’s regular news fare. “If we were putting these on as news, it would be a huge disservice.”
“We think there’s a role for straight news coverage and different kinds of opinion,” said Pack.
Web page posted Oct. 11, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee