Friday nights, PBS has balance on its mind

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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

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

“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
, 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.

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