Moyers returns in January with weekly hour

By Dru Sefton

The latest incarnation of Bill Moyers’ distinctive brand of talk programming will be the hourlong, multiplatform Moyers & Company, distributed by American Public Television.

The January debut for the program — provided fully funded to pubTV stations — will mark the first time PBS has not been the distributor of an ongoing Moyers program to public TV stations, dating to his first show in 1972. His most recent series, Bill Moyers Journal, left the air April 30, 2010, when he retired.

“Collaborating with APT offers stations flexibility in deciding where a broadcast can best serve their communities and it offers producers greater flexibility regarding the Web,” Moyers told Current in an email. “And we intend a major use of Web and social media.”

Moyers described the new show to pubTV stations in a letter Aug. 22: “There will be a diversity of voices,” he said, “one-on-one interviews with lively minds rich in experience and insight, as well as an exchange of views among people who may disagree on politics, governance, faith, religion and the state of democracy, but who nonetheless agree on the importance of a civil dialogue about their differences.”

The aim, he said, is to give viewers “some different news, some new voices and fresh thinking, and an occasional cultural grace note.”

“I’m happy to have him back in the schedule,” said Scott Dwyer, who programs KQED in San Francisco. “Say what you want about Bill, his shows inspire, provoke and challenge viewers.  To stay relevant, that’s what shows on PBS should do.”

Moyers has left and returned to PBS several times over the years, hosting weekly series under two titles plus numerous limited series. Bill Moyers Journal ran from 1972-76 and from 1979-81; Now with Bill Moyers, 2002-04; and another Bill Moyers Journal, 2007-10.

One pubTV programmer, who requested anonymity because he admires Moyers, said all those stops and restarts are “frustrating” to stations and continually raise viewer concerns that political pressures are influencing program decisions. “I have nothing but respect for him,” the programmer said, “but the on-again, off-again nature of his relationship with PBS is not good for stations or for the system. Dealing with viewer phone calls when he ‘retires’ is a pain for stations in terms of volume, but more importantly because it’s once again seen as some kind of political pressure or bias.”

Also, airing yet another Moyers show “could easily give the impression that we’ve run out of ideas. . . . Public television has to develop new formats and talents in order to evolve into a service that viewers consider relevant and vital.”

Moyers & Company will have a smaller production team than Bill Moyers Journal, yet it will still be led by his wife Judith Moyers as executive editor and Judy Doctoroff and Sally Roy as executive producers. Production begins in mid-September. The presenting station, as with Moyers’ previous PBS shows, is WNET in New York, which will run the show at 6 p.m. Sundays and repeat it during the week. APT’s contract with WNET is for 52 hourlong episodes.

Moyers had been in discussions with PBS in April to carry a half-hour show, Something Different with Bill Moyers, which was backed by a $2 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. But PBS couldn’t promise to boost the use of the program by declaring it part of the common-carriage schedule.

The network was rethinking its Friday night public-affairs lineup, and it has since cut WNET’s Need to Know to 30 minutes and scheduled a series of PBS Arts performances for Fridays this fall.

Moyers ultimately withdrew the offer and, after speaking with programmers, decided on an hourlong format.

“We could not commit to yet another program on Friday night until we worked through what we are doing with the schedule,” PBS President Paula Kerger told Current in May. “But I said, ‘We will definitely take the program and feed it.’ And, frankly, with a soft [not common-carriage] feed to stations, [Moyers] probably would end up with a bigger audience. …That made him nervous because underwriters want carriage, so he decided to step back for a while. He needed us to guarantee that we could give him another common-carriage position on Friday night, and we can’t quite do that yet.”

“I don’t recall it happening quite that way,” Moyers said. “After receiving mixed messages from PBS, we decided the best way for us to have the impact we seek — on screen, on line, and on radio — was to collaborate with APT.” He declined to elaborate.

“Common carriage has been important to journalists and underwriters alike who want to have impact,” he added, “but the world is changing and there are now more ways to reach the public.”

Through his previous pubTV shows as well as his PBS documentaries — including The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell, On Our Own Terms: Death and Dying in America, A World of Ideas, and Healing and the Mind he has become known for his unflinching, in-depth discussions of important, often thorny topics.

But the undisguised politically progressive viewpoint of the onetime Johnson White House aide also reliably attracts criticism, as in Moyers’ commentary after the GOP sweep of both houses of Congress in 2002. He predicted the conservative agenda would “force pregnant women to give up control over their own lives,” use “taxing power to transfer wealth from working people to the rich” and give “corporations a free hand to eviscerate the environment” (Current, Dec. 2, 2002). That prompted outcries from Republicans and their allies, including Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, the Wall Street Journal and the Traditional Values Coalition.

And in the years since, public broadcasting and its congressional appropriations through CPB have become a choice bull’s-eye for the right — not exactly a comfortable moment for any pubcasters leery of rocking the political boat.

But Moyers doesn’t complain that political timidity kept PBS from embracing the new show. “I don’t want to think that any official at PBS would buy that old canard long touted by the enemies of public television in their efforts to divert the public from strong, independent, and credible journalism,” he said. “We base our work on evidence, not ideology, which of course will always cause discomfort to some partisans.”

Cynthia Fenneman, president of APT, said the distributor spoke at length with both Moyers and WNET about plans for the program. “They described a show that’s interesting and diverse and engages guests on all sides of the issues,” Fenneman said. “We think it’s great for public media at this time. We’ve received scores of emails and calls from station managers talking about how thrilled they are. They feel it’s important to have a strong, smart, civil discourse with real thinkers. And they say they’re getting those same calls and emails from viewers.”

In his memo to stations, Moyers also said that his popular series The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell marks its 25th anniversary this year, and he hopes to update it for a March pledge release.

He said he’ll provide further details on his new show in his keynote speech at the APT Fall Marketplace, Nov. 9–12 in Memphis.

EARLIER STORIES

Bill Moyers came out swinging three days after the Nov. 5 midterm elections, and the target of his jabs — America’s right wing — came swinging back. Conservatives charged that he made a hysterical partisan attack on Republicans in his commentary on PBS’s Now with Bill Moyers, Nov. 8, 2002.

READ | WRITE

Producer colleague Howard Weinberg cheers WNET for locally scheduling Moyers outside “the Friday night public affairs ghetto.”

RELATED LINKS

In his letter to the public TV system, Aug. 22, 2011, Moyers explains his desire to return to the air to “contribute to the conversation of democracy” with a new show. “We’re committed to working with stations to distribute the content on multiple platforms — through television, radio, the web, apps, and social media — in order to reach not only our long-time core audience but new audiences as well,” he says.

Moyers’ most recent PBS series, Bill Moyers Journal.

Transcripts from Bill Moyers Journal interviews make up Moyers’ latest book, The Conversation Continues, published in May 2011 by the New Press. Guests include The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, anthropologist Jane Goodall and feminist Barbara Ehrenreich.

Comments, questions, tips? sefton@current.org
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