New York’s WNET will pilot a new public affairs series calling attention to investigative reporting by American journalists. The series of half-hour documentaries, tentatively titled Airtime, debuts on PBS in September with a 12-week pilot season.
[The series was later renamed American Investigative Reports or A.I.R. and added to PBS's fall 2006 schedule.]
The series will report the findings of investigative journalists working in print, radio and online as well as for think tanks — work that typically reaches small audiences, says Stephen Segaller, creator and executive in charge at WNET. Episodes will also capture the story behind the story — how journalists got their scoops.
He wants the series to bring “a dozen consequential stories” to viewers, along with war stories of the kind that journalists enjoy telling one another but rarely share with civilians.
“In a way it owes a little bit to the popularity of forensics on television,” Segaller says. “The Law and Order and CSI of how journalism gets done in America.”
The approach owes some inspiration to WNET’s successful revamping of the annual special on winners of the duPont-Columbia Awards for broadcast journalism. “We converted it from an awards show into a documentary about how the stories that won the prizes were captured,” Segaller says. Carriage of the special, which had been languishing, topped 80 percent for the 2006 program, he says.
Airtime will feature high-profile, award-winning investigations as well as “stories that were powerful but largely unnoticed,” Segaller says. “The trick will be to find unnoticed stories that were not unnoticed for a good reason.”
“We’re hoping the show is going to register in the public mind that investigative journalism has an important role to play and it’s a public good,” Segaller says.
Each half-hour show will cover one investigation in an energetic documentary style without too many talking heads, Segaller says.
Tom Casciato, a veteran of network newsmagazines and Bill Moyers’ Public Affairs Television, is e.p. of Airtime, and Scott Davis, a producer in Segaller’s news and public affairs unit, is senior producer. The Center for Investigative Reporting, the Berkeley-based nonprofit that has produced investigative reports for network news programs as well as Frontline, Now and NPR, is a co-production partner.
WNET will deliver the first 12 programs as a pilot season, testing the concept and the appetite for more shows without exhausting funds already raised for Airtime.
“It’s not my intention to make 12 and just stop,” Segaller says. The pilots may also attract additional funders. “I’d love to be back in production in January.”
PBS will feed Airtime at 9 p.m. Fridays beginning Sept. 1. The series won’t be designated for common carriage, but Segaller hopes stations will pair it with PBS’s Friday night staples, Now and Washington Week.
The network has also picked up another WNET show for Friday nights. Roadtrip Nation, about college grads seeking their paths in life, will deliver a new season of 12 programs at 9:30 Fridays. Previously distributed by American Public Television, the show gained strong station carriage and corporate aid from companies such as State Farm Insurance, Starbucks, J. Crew and Microsoft, says Segaller.
“We want to give it a shot at national distribution through PBS that will help us build a bigger franchise so that we can raise more money and make more programs,” Segaller says.
Web page posted July 26, 2006
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