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New York Times reportedly eager to launch joint for PBS

Adapted from Current, Dec. 4 and 18, 2000
By Steve Behrens

At the New York Times, no less a force than Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is taking great interest in an 11 p.m. newscast for public TV, proposed to be produced with MacNeil/Lehrer Productions.

"We will not be able to meet the goals we established for our 10-year plan unless and until we create and foster a sustained New York Times presence on television," Sulzberger said at the newspaper's annual strategic conference in September, according to a report in the weekly New York Observer.

Signaling the importance of electronic media in its future, the Times has named its Washington bureau chief, Michael Oreskes, to head a new initiative overseeing video, radio and web ventures, including the late-night newscast for PBS. Oreskes, the new assistant managing editor for electronic news, said he'll start work after wrapping up coverage of the long election night.

Lack of funding has stalled the idea for the weeknightly National Report for years, but it appears the Times may help MacNeil/Lehrer seek out funders as well as providing reporting talent, said Gabriel Snyder, media columnist for the Observer.

Rob Flynn, spokesman for MacNeil/Lehrer, said the company is looking for corporate and foundation underwriting and has not yet produced a pilot. "We are enthusiastic about it," he said, "but it will be just a good idea until the funding comes in." He expects the half-hour program would cost somewhat more than the present hour-long NewsHour because it would include more field reporting. The producers probably would aim at a target age group of 35-55, according to Flynn.

Memories of a fling with public TV

Oreskes is a longtime newspaperman, but he actually knows and enjoyed the experience of doing news on public TV. During the long New York newspaper strike of 1978 he reported for Special Edition, a nightly newscast rushed onto the air by WNET with Marilyn Berger as anchor.

The program offered "solid news reporting," expert storytelling and tried to "raise the level of the dialogue," he told Current. He recalled how much better the program covered the newspaper strike itself, for instance. "On the other television news stations the strike was covered basically only in terms of the horserace — are we closer to a settlement … who's up, who's down?," he said, while his reports explained why pressmen were resisting new work rules and how events would affect newsgathering and the newspapers' profitability, among other things.

National Report — the program proposed to be made with MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and WNET and WETA — would likewise be developed in the spirit of going deeper into the news, Oreskes said. Planners will consult with public TV stations to shape the half-hour program, he said, but he already relishes the opportunity of doing a newscast "that really looks forward into the next day," backed with resources from the next day's Times.

The newspaper is also collaborating with ABC's 20/20 and Nightline, with WGBH's Frontline (including the forthcoming retrospective on President Clinton's terms), and with NPR (on a radio spinoff of its "Circuits" technology section).

Oreskes, 46, reported for the New York Daily News for seven years after college, covering education, labor, Albany and City Hall. The Times hired him as a metro reporter in 1981, and he became its chief investigative reporter, congressional correspondent in 1987, city editor in 1991, metropolitan editor in 1993 and Washington bureau chief in 1997. His successor as chief of the Washington bureau is Jill Abramson, the first woman to hold that job.

Is audience available?

Station programmers are genuinely curious about the National Report opportunity, says Dan Soles, programmer at WTTW in Chicago. "Certainly the New York Times being a partner is an encouraging step."

The big question for programmers would be whether an audience is available, says Larry Rifkin at Connecticut PTV, which faces strong local news programs from both Hartford and New Haven at 11 p.m. CPTV pulls 1 and 2 ratings with repeats of PBS documentaries and of its own local programs. The remaining viewers don't want anything serious at that hour, and click directly to sitcom reruns.

An earlier version of MacNeil/Lehrer's 11 p.m. plan, announced in May 1995, involved the Wall Street Journal instead of the Times. Then, as now, the program's journalistic distinction was that it wouldn't dwell on violent crime and fires. There's a substantial number of people, Flynn said, "who feel somewhat inundated by 'body bags at 11.'"


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