NewsHour founders to transfer ownership

WETA in talks to assume editorial, financial control

By Dru Sefton

MacNeil/Lehrer Productions is in early-stage negotiations to transfer control of the PBS NewsHour to its longtime partner and presenting station WETA.

Robin MacNeil, left, and Jim Lehrer have both stepped back from day-to-day management of the PBS NewsHour and now look to ensure the program's longevity with WETA's ownership. (Photo: Matt Mendelsohn)

Robin MacNeil, left, and Jim Lehrer have both stepped back from day-to-day management of the PBS NewsHour and now look to ensure the program’s longevity with WETA’s ownership.
(Photo: Matt Mendelsohn)

The decision by retired founders Jim Lehrer and Robin MacNeil, which has the approval of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions (MLP) majority owner Liberty Media, will secure future journalistic independence for the news magazine, Lehrer told Current.

“We were concerned about the long-term editorial control of program,” Lehrer said. “We wanted it in the hands of a public broadcasting entity with a proven record and editorial standards equal to ours. And WETA is our partner already.”

The relationship among MacNeil, Lehrer and PBS’s flagship station in Washington, D.C., goes back to WETA’s role in producing the journalists’ coverage of the Watergate hearings in 1973. That partnership laid the foundation for national broadcasts of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, which later expanded into the NewsHour.

WETA President Sharon Rockefeller described the impending ownership transfer as “a natural evolution” in that longstanding relationship. “We are joining as partners who will have a new voice at NewsHour, starting now,” she said.

In an Oct. 8 letter to NewsHour staff, Lehrer and MacNeil cited another important reason for the ownership transfer — “the probability of increasing our fundraising abilities” on behalf of the news operation, which produces a weeknightly broadcast and a robust website but has been running up deficits for the past two fiscal years, according to MLP President Bo Jones.

Jones said that PBS provided additional cash infusions to help NewsHour weather the recession, but declined to discuss the amount of financial aid. PBS does not provide budget information on specific programs, according to Jan McNamara, spokesperson.

“All contributions to public broadcasting were hit badly during the recession,” Lehrer said during an interview. “NewsHour was not immune — there were budget shortfalls.”

WETA’s ownership of NewsHour will streamline and bolster its fundraising activities, he said.

WETA already handles much of NewsHour’s restricted program grant money, according to Mary Stewart, WETA spokesperson.

Anne Bell, NewsHour communications manager, said fundraising for public broadcasting “has been changing rapidly over the last several years. We, like other programs, have had to look to a broader variety of funding sources — corporate, foundations, individuals, etc.” WETA’s “large development staff and capabilities” will be an asset for NewsHour in those efforts, she said.

Newsmen Robin MacNell, left, and Jim Lehrer solidified their long partnership as broadcasters with the 1975 national debut of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, forerunner of the NewsHour. The two first paired up as anchors of PBS's live coverage of the Watergate hearings. (Photo: PBS)

Newsmen Robin MacNell, left, and Jim Lehrer solidified their partnership as broadcasters with the 1975 national debut of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, forerunner of the NewsHour. The two first paired up as anchors of PBS’s live coverage of the Watergate hearings. (Photo: PBS)

The NewsHour’s finances have improved this year, according to Jones, who is MLP’s lead negotiator in talks with WETA. “We still have money to raise, but we are in considerably better shape than last year or the year before at this time,” he said.

The ownership plan now under discussion would establish NewsHour as a wholly owned production of WETA. The station, whose studios in Arlington, Va., are home to MLP and the NewsHour, would assume all of the program’s current contracts — including the co-production agreement that recently added PBS NewsHour Weekend to pubTV’s national schedule. WETA would also assume ownership of MLP assets, such as the NewsHour’s massive tape archives.

MLP and WETA haven’t set a timetable for completion of the transfer, according to Jones.

Sharing more than a partnership

In their letter to the NewsHour staff, MacNeil and Lehrer said their retirement from day-to-day management of the news program was the “central driving force” behind their decision to cede ownership.

MacNeil stepped back in 1995, but Lehrer remained as executive editor and chief anchor until June 2012. Under a staff realignment announced in August, the NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill became chief co-anchors and co-managing editors of the production. Lehrer retains the title of executive editor, but is no longer involved in daily production.

But Lehrer and MacNeil share ownership of MLP with Liberty Media, a for-profit controlled by veteran media executive John Malone. Under the original ownership agreement, inked in 1995, Liberty gave full administrative and editorial control of MLP specifically to MacNeil and Lehrer, according to Lehrer.

Liberty owns 67 percent of MLP, as well as interests in other media, communications and entertainment businesses, including SiriusXM satellite radio, bookseller Barnes & Noble and the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball franchise.

Liberty Media is “100 percent” behind the proposed ownership transfer, Lehrer said.

WETA and NewsHour already share more than a partnership, Rockefeller said. “WETA is a very mission-driven organization, and the NewsHour is an extremely mission-driven program,” she said.

“We’re the station that the president and members of the [Office of Management and Budget] and Congress and the Supreme Court watch on a daily basis,” Rockefeller said.

Another issue is whether MLP will continue to exist as an independent entity after the transfer, according to the Oct. 8 letter. MacNeil and Lehrer will consult with Liberty Media in making that decision, Bell said.

MLP was established in September 1981, as a partnership with Gannett, which exited in 1986. MLP operated on its own until 1995, when Liberty bought a majority interest.

MacNeil and Lehrer have expressed their “intention and hope” that WETA will absorb the entire staff of NewsHour.

The NewsHour recently cut 10 jobs and closed two of its western bureaus. It now employs 115 full-time staff, according to Bell, and has two open positions.

Two NewsHour veterans will not be among those joining WETA’s payroll. Ray Suarez, chief national correspondent, announced Oct. 11 that he will resign at month’s end to work on a book. And Linda Winslow, executive producer since 2005, has signaled her intention to retire, although she hasn’t set a date, according to Jones. She was one of the first producers of the original half-hour MacNeil/Lehrer Report, from 1975–78.

Questions, comments, tips? sefton@current.org
This article was first published in Current, Oct. 21, 2013.
  • Bill Recto

    I knew that WETA and WNET owned PBS Newshour but I bet most of the public had no idea that a third group owned PBS Newshour. I knew that PBS Newshour is dependent on the royalties that other PBS affiliates send to them.

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