WETA to create subsidiary for transfer of PBS NewsHour ownership

By Dru Sefton

Ownership of PBS NewsHour will shift July 1 from MacNeil/Lehrer Productions to a new, wholly owned subsidiary of WETA, the suburban Washington, D.C., station where the weeknight newsmagazine is produced.

WETA’s board of trustees unanimously authorized the transfer, which does not involve any cash, at a meeting Tuesday night in Arlington, Va. In addition to the NewsHour, MLP is contributing its archives, special projects and documentaries. NewsHour staffers who work for MLP will become employees of NewsHour Productions LLC.

As expected, Robin MacNeil, left, and Jim Lehrer are transferring all assets of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions to WETA. The deal, which does not involve cash, is set to close July 1. (Photo: Matt Mendelsohn)

As expected, Robin MacNeil, left, and Jim Lehrer are transferring all assets of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions to WETA. The deal, which does not involve cash, is set to close July 1. (Photo: Matt Mendelsohn)

“The NewsHour team has been our partner for more than 35 years, and we are thrilled to welcome them into this new, closer relationship,” said WETA President Sharon Rockefeller in an announcement. “Together, we will uphold our unflinching commitment to excellence in journalism, producing the program every night with the same high standards our viewers expect and deserve.”

Rick Schneider, WETA c.o.o., will assume presidency of the new entity. MLP President Bo Jones, who joined MLP in 2012, will retire.

Owners Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil retain ownership of the MLP name. Lehrer told Current that they have no plans at this time for its future. “We’ll just see what, if anything, develops that might interest us,” Lehrer said.

Schneider does not anticipate layoffs. NewsHour employs 111 full-time employees, and WETA has a staff of around 200.

The deal does not affect PBS NewsHour Weekend, which is produced at WNET in New York with support from PBS. The editorial collaboration between the programs will continue.

The change also does not interfere with the ongoing search for a replacement for Executive Producer Linda Winslow, who is retiring soon. Schneider said interviews continue with finalists, and an announcement should come within the next several weeks.

When Lehrer announced negotiations last October, he noted that an important reason for the change was aiding fundraising for the news operation, which has run deficits for the past two fiscal years.

Schneider said the new agreement will “clarify the future” of the show, which should reassure funders. “A year ago, no one was sure where the show would be in the long run,” he said. “That may have had a drag effect on fundraising.”

He also said the program is financially stable for the July 1 start of the fiscal year. “It’s always a challenge, because it’s an ongoing program, so you always have to be raising money,” Schneider said. “But right now the show is in as good or better shape than it has been in years.”

WETA’s involvement with the show dates to The Robert MacNeil Report, which premiered in October 1975 with WETA serving as its Washington base. In December 1975, it was renamed The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and it became The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in September 1983.

When MacNeil retired from anchoring duties in 1995, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer made WETA its production home. In December 2009, it became PBS NewsHour, and Lehrer officially left the anchor chair in June 2011.

MLP was established in September 1981 as a partnership with Gannett, which exited in 1986. MLP operated on its own until 1994, when Liberty Media, a for-profit company controlled by veteran media executive John Malone, bought a majority interest, with MacNeil and Lehrer retaining total editorial control.

Liberty owns 67 percent of MLP, as well as interests in other media, communications and entertainment businesses, including SiriusXM, Barnes & Noble and the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball franchise. Liberty is “100 percent” behind the ownership transfer, Lehrer told Current last October.

“The commitment to serious, long-form journalism has always been at the core of the PBS NewsHour and MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, and we are happy that our production partners at WETA will carry this mission forward,” MacNeil said in the announcement.

Questions, comments, tips? sefton@current.org

  • altfactor@hotmail.com

    This move could open the way for WETA and WNET to merge the weeknight and weekend editions of “Newshour” into a single organization and a single program airing seven nights a week.

    PBS should move the live “Newshour” feeds to prime-time, from 8 to 9 P.M. Eastern.

    America is one of the few countries without a national prime-time newscast on broadcast television; moving “Newshour” to 8 P.M. Eastern time will (at least on the East Coast) rectify this situation.

    It also would open the way for many PBS member stations extend their children’s programming until 7:30 P.M. Eastern time, and to move “Nightly Business Report” to 7:30 P.M. Eastern time.

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