Ten weeks before the air date of Need to Know, WNET announced the executive producer. Seven weeks before, the producing station named the co-anchors. On May 7 the new public affairs series debuts on PBS.
A lot will be riding on the show. For PBS it’s a rare chance to start a potential “icon series” with new styles and substance, demonstrating that folks in “legacy media” can interact and innovate like digital natives.
For WNET it’s an opportunity to establish an ongoing public affairs franchise with a reliable PBS time slot — an asset lacking for three canceled series: the nightly Worldfocus newscast; Wide Angle, which was “locked into” the summer season, and Exposé, which spent its third season as a monthly feature tucked inside Moyers’ show.
WNET announced this month that Worldfocus will end April 2. “We were unable to cover the costs,” says Stephen Segaller, the station’s national production chief. “It launched one week after the collapse of Lehman Brothers into an impossible financial environment.”
The station sent the newscast out 17 months ago to do battle with a U.S.-tailored product of the BBC World Service. (Germany’s equivalent of the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, will step in April 5 with a competing nightly Journal that also succeeds Worldfocus on the PBS World channel.)
Need to Know can take possession of its new Friday-night hour in May because two other PBS series are ending late in April: Bill Moyers’ Journal, as Moyers retires from weekly duties at age 75, and Now, a show that Moyers once hosted, that still shares a family resemblance.
It’s not fair, perhaps, but news junkies, policy geeks and investigative reporting admirers inevitably will compare Need to Know with one of more of the five PBS public affairs shows ending their runs for various reasons — Moyers, Now, Worldfocus, Wide Angle and Exposé.
The progressive press watchdog FAIR didn’t wait to see the new show before judging it. The day after the names of the expected Need to Know co-hosts slipped out in a New York Times article March 9, FAIR urged its supporters to demand that PBS maintain “the hard-hitting, independent journalism of Now and Bill Moyers’ Journal.” Most of the week’s 3,000 e-mails received by PBS ombudsman Michael Getler made similar points.
FAIR objected that one of Need to Know’s co-hosts is Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek and, FAIR alleged, “a consummate purveyor of middle-of-the-road conventional wisdom with a conservative slant.”
The other co-host, not attacked by FAIR, is Alison Stewart, co-host of NPR’s intensively mourned, super-cool Bryant Park Project morning show.
Segaller debates FAIR’s assumptions about the new show. “It’s not called ‘Jon Meacham’s Journal’.” Segaller says. Need to Know will certainly air investigative stories and its staff will include journalists who have worked with Moyers, Now and Exposé, Segaller says.
Ten or 12 staffers — “maybe a third of the production team” for Need to Know — come from the discontinued shows, Segaller says. Tom Casiato, senior features producer was e.p. of both Wide Angle and Expose as well as WNET’s director of news and current affairs. Brenda Breslauer, the senior content producer in charge of beats, was a producer for Now. Scott Davis, senior broadcast producer of the new show, was a senior producer of both Exposé and Wide Angle and was once supervising producer for Now with Bill Moyers.
Several Wide Angle underwriters have also agreed to help the new show, and some Expose funding will be left over.
Shelley Lewis, Need to Know’s e.p., knows the work of both of her co-hosts and certifies that both of them “get it,” web-wise.
She says Meachum is a “go-to” man for historical context. He has written three bestselling historical books, including American Lion, a Pulitzer-winning bio of Andrew Jackson. Meacham came to Newsweek as a writer in 1995, was named managing editor in 1998 and editor in 2006.
Newsweek prints over the weekend, so Friday is a busy day for both his magazine and Need to Know. “Jon will be available as we need him on Fridays,” Lewis says, and “possibly other times in the week.”
Lewis has had her eye on Stewart “as a really bright star” for years, and tried several times to be assigned to produce for her at ABC. “I was delighted to finally land her.” Stewart reported for CBS’s Sunday Morning and 48 Hours, anchored ABC’s World News Now and shared an Emmy for ABC’s 9/11 coverage.