KCET to rep BBC newscast, WLIW creating competitor

By Katy June-Friesen

The BBC has signed a new distributor for the nightly half-hour BBC World News newscast for public TV stations — KCET in Los Angeles.

New York’s WLIW, which has syndicated the show for nearly 10 years, will produce a new evening newscast for pubTV. Your World Tonight (working title) will debut in October when the BBC contract ends. Marc Rosenwasser, a former CBS Evening News senior producer, will produce the new show.

KCET will pick up distribution of BBC World News to pubTV stations while WNET/WLIW develops a competing nightly newscast. Pictured: BBC correspondent Katya Adler reports from the Gaza Strip. (Photo: BBC.)

The British pubcaster — which increasingly uses its own platforms, notably its BBC America cable channel, to distribute its productions beyond the sceptered isle — acknowledges it doesn’t want the pubTV newscast knocking heads with its new 60-minute cable newscast. And it wants better promotion of the program to boost the BBC brand in the States.

Michele Grant, v.p. of news and sport at BBC Worldwide America, says the BBC has been concerned about pubTV stations playing BBC World News at a myriad of times, often when the news is up to five hours old, and was worried viewers didn’t know when and where to find the program. The final straw came, she says, when a station accidentally played the previous night’s news.

“Here we have this broadcast that was put together for public television stations, and it’s running all over the map,” says KCET President Al Jerome. “In many cases it’s not fresh product.” KCET’s distribution plan will limit the number of stations carrying the program in a given market and require stations to run it within a certain time period.

The change comes as the BBC invests more in its 10-year-old BBC America cable channel. As Mark Thompson, c.e.o. of the BBC, says, he prefers for people to “watch BBC shows on BBC channels,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

BBC hired Garth Ancier, former president of NBC Entertainment, to run the cable channel last year, and he launched the hourlong newscast BBC World News America in fall. When Jerome heard rumblings about the BBC wanting to change its relationship with PBS, he approached Ancier to make sure pubTV would still be able to carry BBC news. The BBC was clearly committed to keeping news on pubTV and maintaining its reach, Jerome says.

Neal Shapiro, president of the licensee of WLIW and WNET, disagrees. He points to the BBC’s recent ads in the Washington Post and New York Times declaring that BBC America is the place to find BBC news. “It didn’t say ‘Public television is your place for the BBC news in America,’” he says. He thinks the BBC doesn’t want news on pubTV to compete with its own programs.

That’s not surprising for BBC Worldwide America, the for-profit overseas subsidiary assigned to send earnings back to the domestic Beeb, he says. “They’re a for-profit company,” says Shapiro, “They have the right to protect their brand. It’s what for-profit companies do.”

Two paths to world news

The BBC called for proposals in January for a new BBC World News distribution strategy. Grant says WLIW’s response indicated it was pleased with the status quo. KCET’s proposal showed enthusiasm for stronger promotion of the BBC broadcasts, she says.

WLIW moved ahead with plans to produce its own news program and invited the BBC to collaborate. Shapiro says he always wanted to make a joint effort work with BBC. “We asked the BBC about making significant changes to their existing show that we thought would be beneficial to our public television audience, including bringing in additional news sources to contribute to the program,” he told Current by e-mail. “They said they would be willing to produce a big news block for a new show if we produced the rest.”

“We sort of entertained that idea,” says Grant, “and I had conversations with Neal about whether we could make that work, but at the end of the day, I really feel that we’ve built up a strong and loyal audience for BBC World News . . . and we’re pretty convinced that with KCET as our partner we can really build on that loyalty for the future.”

“We certainly respect the quality of BBC journalism,” says Shapiro, “and that’s why we were delighted to distribute it, but we thought we could make a stronger show.”

Your World Tonight, anchored by an American journalist, will use reports from partner news organizations around the globe to be named in coming months. The newscast will incorporate analysis from experts at the Council on Foreign Relations, the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and the United Nations, among other organizations.

“I hope it provides an analysis of what’s happening internationally, from the perspective of a variety of news gatherers, but framed around an American context,” says Shapiro. He wants to include material about America’s history in a region, for instance, and its financial interests abroad.

WLIW’s major disagreement with the BBC regarding BBC World News was about carriage and distribution, says Shapiro. “The BBC wanted to reduce the number of stations to whom we could offer it and reduce the hours that we could offer it,” he says. “We thought that was really unfair to all of public television, which deserves a show about international affairs” with wide distribution and a broad choice of time slots. His staff calculated that the BBC’s new plan would reduce the pubTV audience by 60 to 70 percent.

That’s simply not true, say Jerome and Grant. “We’re certainly not interested in diminishing our reach — in fact, we’d like to extend our reach,” says Grant. Under the new KCET/BBC plan, the BBC will license one station in each market to carry the program during the 5–7 p.m. period, Jerome says. KCET is also considering negotiating an 11 p.m. time slot for the program and updating the broadcast as needed for different time zones.

The narrowed window would keep public TV’s BBC World News from airing opposite BBC America’s hourlong newscast at 7 p.m. “It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense for us to put them absolutely up against each other,” says Grant, “partly just from a resourcing point of view — it’s quite difficult for us, to be absolutely honest.” Matt Frei, who has been anchoring the pubTV program, also hosts BBC World News America, but Grant says the BBC may tap a new anchor for the pubTV bulletins.

Yet audiences for BBC America and pubTV don’t overlap much — the BBC channel’s audience skews below age 50. Its longer newscast features more discussion, more stories, many international bulletins, longer reports and more U.S. coverage than the BBC news on pubTV, says Grant.

A common goal

As the new distributor, KCET is developing a heftier promotional campaign for BBC World News to get a bigger audience and better underwriting, says Jerome. For stations carrying the BBC, KCET intends to produce customized promos — with BBC anchors, local personalities and possibly jointly promoting the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer — that emphasize a pubTV news block.

“News is one of the most important services that we provide to our audience,” he says. “At a time when most domestic commercial news organizations . . . are cutting back on the resources and underserving those of us who really care about international news, we feel that the BBC is a shining star.”

It makes sense, he adds, for pubTV to take advantage of the largest news organization in the world, with its more than 50 news bureaus across the globe. “We intend to try to grow the BBC World News franchise within public television,” he says.

Shapiro, former president of NBC News and once a colleague of new hire Rosenwasser, also thinks in terms of creating a franchise — for Your World Tonight. “I think the idea of growing a franchise that can belong to public television is something that’s very exciting,” he says. “We should have a show that we can offer to all public television stations and that we can distribute as widely as we can.”

He sees an opportunity to fill gaps in the news market. “On the commercial side, there is just less and less international news — especially in an election cycle, where it gets harder and harder to find anything that’s not about Iran, Afghanistan or the disaster of the day,” Shapiro says. Crowded with ads, commercial TV starts with a shortage of time. “So the news hole starts at 22 minutes on a half-hour show,” he says. “Then you start covering all the domestic news, and there just isn’t that much time left.”

Grant says the BBC is open to adjusting the content of the BBC World News to suit viewer needs, but it needs KCET to be an effective liaison with pubTV stations. “It’s very difficult for us to really get the feedback we need — how the bulletins are going down,” she says. “So we’re really hopeful that we will have a good relationship with KCET, and we’re very happy to tweak those bulletins in response to the feedback that we get.”

EARLIER ARTICLE

WLIW acquires BBC World News for smaller pubTV stations (like itself) in overlap markets, 1998.

LINKS

BBC executives made it “pretty clear that the future of the BBC was not intertwined with public broadcasting,” WNET President Neal Shapiro toldthe New York Times.

New York-based BBC exec Michele Grant says a sticking point in negotiations with WNET/WLIW was that it wanted to combine BBC content with material from other sources, the Guardian reported in London.

BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, and its fiscal 2007 annual financial figures.

Press site for BBC America, the Beeb’s cable channel, which has a digitally remastered run of Monty Python’s Flying Circus coming May 26. Scheduled for June 15: Britain’s Worst Teeth, an “eye-opening documentary” that follows four people in their 20s whose “teeth are so dreadful they have an impact on every aspect of their lives.”

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