William Cran's Crossroads film Jihad includes a 1996 interview with Osama Bin-Laden by Welsh reporter Gwynne Roberts (right).
Crossroads goal: coherent 9/11 mosaic with familiar host and fat footprint
America at a Crossroads, CPB’s $20 million 9/11 series that spurred controversy and programmer contempt during its lengthy gestation, will bring a familiar face back to public TV and receive a splashy, blockbuster treatment from PBS next spring, Washington’s WETA, the series’ producer, announced last week.
The series host will be Robert MacNeil, the TV news vet who anchored or co-anchored the NewsHour and its predecessor programs for 20 years.
“These will be good, provocative films,” says MacNeil, who is also weighing in on editorial decisions. “They’re not going to be namby-pamby.”
They’ll certainly be hard to miss. PBS has decided to expand Crossroads’ initial offering to 12 hours airing over six consecutive nights in April, up from the original plan of eight programs spread across eight weeks.
“As we began to see rough cuts, we realized some of the themes within the overall series could not necessarily be crammed into eight hours,” says Leo Eaton, series producer for WETA.
CPB, which conceived the project in March 2004 to spark “a national dialogue” and sought producers’ proposals, hired WETA in January to package the series as completed films began rolling in.
WETA adopted CPB’s goal: to explore the challenges confronting America and the rest of the world, post-9/11. The films — some traditionally objective journalistic works, others driven by strong opinions — survey topics including the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, U.S. troops’ experiences, the tensions between national security and personal liberty at home, the divisions and conflicts within Islam, and America’s battered image abroad.
“MacNeil put it best,” Eaton says. “He said, ‘We’re looking at the background for what happened to America on 9/11, how America reacted and how the world reacted to America’s response.’”
All told, the initial program block, slated to air April 15-20, 9-11 p.m. Eastern, will include 11 of the 18 Crossroads docs funded by CPB. WETA will release the final lineup in December. WETA and PBS haven’t decided how to present the seven films not included in the April series, says WETA’s Jeff Bieber, who shares executive producer credit with Dalton Delan.
As host, MacNeil will introduce and provide a framework and context for the films. He will narrate at least one, Jihad, the probable series opener, a two-hour history of modern-day Islamic fundamentalism produced by pubTV vet Bill Crann.
Other films airing in the series will follow the international terrorism money trail (Muslim Brotherhood, a partnership with Newsweek) and profile Arab musicians (Arab Music: Dissonance and Harmony). See www.weta.org/pressroom/ crossroads for doc descriptions.
“I’ll be providing the linking material and trying, with the help of the producers, to make coherent what is a somewhat disparate group of films,” MacNeil says.
He will also contribute live reports and updates as events warrant—a distinct possibility, he says, considering the volatility of the subject matter
The series has already generated fireworks. During last year’s balance controversy at CPB, observers questioned the inclusion of a profile of neoconservative strategist Richard Perle, produced by a longtime Perle associate Brian Lapping. CPB then commissioned a film to counterbalance the Perle film (earlier article ).
The counterbalance film later fell through. Frontline vet Sherry Jones got the go-ahead from CPB to produce it (though she planned a journalistic report, not an opinion piece), but she later withdrew because of schedule conflicts. The project morphed into Gangs of Iraq, about the Iraqi police, with Martin Smith as producer. Jones and Frontline chief David Fanning are e.p.’s.
Crossroads producers are now more comfortable with the level of balance within the Perle doc. Since taking over the project, WETA has pressed The Perle Program producers to focus more on “honest debate” between the neocon and his critics, Bieber says.
“I’ve seen a number of cuts of that show,” MacNeil says. “Perle was confronted with a lot of very strong opponents.”
The Crossroads project also took some flak from the Public Television Programmers Association, which complained that the project was choosing redundant topics and wasting money that could be better spent to bolster core PBS shows (earlier article). PBS execs also saw redundancies.
“As they’ve told us about the R&D projects, we’ve told them, ‘That could be a good Frontline or Wide Angle,’” John Wilson, PBS’s chief TV programmer, told Current at the time.
So why has PBS now decided to boost the series’ profile within the schedule?
Simply put: the films are very good, Wilson says. “If people can set aside whatever assumptions or preconceived notions they have and look at quality of the content,” he said, “I think they’ll really be pleased with it.”
PubTV programmers have mostly made their peace with Crossroads, says Ron Pisaneschi, Idaho PTV broadcasting director and president of the PTPA. But he’d still rather see the series spread over consecutive weeks to minimize disruption of the regular schedule—something CPB’s own primetime research has discouraged.
But PBS and WETA want to make a six-night, highly promoted event, just as CPB program chief Michael Pack intended when he set aside $20 million for Crossroads.
“People will be talking about this series in a big way,” Eaton says.
“We want to put these out when the buzz is buzzing and have them there in one place,” Wilson says.
Some stations are already abuzz. Forty applied for CPB-funded outreach grants to finance local productions, screening events, forums and other activities to extend the series’ reach, says WETA’s Delinda Mrowka, and grants of $10,000 to $15,000 will be announced for 16 stations this week.
“I don’t think this a case where station managers will say, ‘Oh, hell, more public affairs shows coming down the pipe,’” MacNeil says. “In this case, the subject is vital enough to all of us that I think it speaks for itself.”
Pack dreamed up Crossroads during his time as CPB’s TV programming chief and shepherded it through the controversy and criticism before leaving CPB in February to return to independent producing. He said last week that he feels “pre-vindicated” by the flashy treatment PBS is giving his brainchild.
“I’ll feel vindicated after the programs air,” he said. “I always said the project should be judged on the programs’ performance and I’m still happy to have that happen.”
It’s been a long wait. CPB launched the America at a Crossroads project in March 2004. Of the 440 proposals received, 34 were given R&D grants. Twenty projects went on to get production grants in January.
By then it was clear that the docs would not be ready by the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the original broadcast target. The grant review process was long and extensive, Pack said, to make sure that the package would reflect diverse perspectives (as with the Perle film) and that “the teams were up to the challenge.”
“It also bears mentioning that there were huge changes in the front office at CPB during this period,” he said. “That always slows things down.”
When WETA took over in January, it ditched CPB’s project advisory panel in favor of a new group of policy experts. Station producers began working closely with producers to “make sure the quality is there,” Bieber says.
The project was planned as an eight-hour series, but as cuts came rolling in WETA became convinced that more time was necessary to offer a balanced look at the polemical topics, specifically the issues within Islam.
“When PBS saw the rough cuts and listened to our arguments, they agreed,” Bieber says.
But isn’t two hours per night, six nights in a row a huge commitment to ask of an audience?
“Oh, absolutely,” MacNeil says. “It’s hard to imagine what kind of hardy souls will want to stay through all 12 hours.”
However, it’s even harder to imagine those souls tuning in for six or eight consecutive weeks, Wilson says, since PBS research has shown worse audience erosion with weekly scheduling.
PBS, which mostly eliminated schedule stunts this fall to more heavily promote core series, will push for a final schedule at least somewhat reflective of the regular primetime lineup.
For example, Gangs of Iraq will air in Frontline’s 9 p.m. Tuesday slot. Wilson will push to put another film he thinks “will resonate well” with P.O.V. and Independent Lens fans in those series’ 10 p.m. Tuesday slot.
“We’ll try and somewhat have it both ways in terms of bringing fresh voices and different ideas but aligning whenever possible with viewer expectations,” he says.
Eight of the first programs to be completed in CPB’s America at a Crossroads initiative will air in a weekly series in spring 2007, the corporation announced last week.
In all, CPB announced 20 shows about the aftermath of 9/11 that are getting production funds.
Some will handle dynamite: The war within Islam. What war is doing to U.S. reservists. Europeans’ dismay at America. What happened when Islam “closed the door on critical thinking” 900 years ago. How to pull off a top-notch invasion.
Others will look at 9/11, and the wars it sparked, through the eyes of the volunteer Army, Arab musicians and comedians, U.S. college students, Spaniards, Indonesians, West Virginians and others trapped on this planet.
In announcing the commissioned programs, CPB also said it hired WETA in Washington, D.C., to oversee the commissioned films and package eight into a series.
Dalton Delan, WETA’s chief programming officer, says he’d been wary of the project during CPB’s recent turmoil, suspecting it would become a minefield of partisan agendas or a dry and wonky endurance test. Based on viewing a few programs, plus the reputations of the funded producers and assurances from CPB and PBS, he now expects the eight-week series will be “worthy, interesting, compelling television.”
Of course, Delan’s job is to make it so. He’ll hire a coordinating producer to shepherd the series to PBS, making sure that it meets network standards. WETA can choose the shepherd from among four producers suggested by CPB, “any of which I would be delighted to work with,” Delan says. He’ll also hire a host to knit the series together.
If the series is as good as Delan expects, CPB will have gambled $20 million and won. Instead of dispersing the funds to aid many unrelated public TV productions—and satisfying more of its constituencies—CPB took a calculated risk. Encouraged by the CPB Board, Michael Pack, senior v.p. for television programming, set aside some of its programming budget to make a serious splash. He has spent two of his three years at CPB on the project.
“My goal is to do something that will get national attention,” explains Pack. By having a significant debate on the most pressing U.S. issues, he wrote in July in response to Current’s questions, Crossroads “illustrates why public television is unique and necessary in America.” The project “demonstrates that public TV’s work is different in diversity and quality from what commercial TV does.”
“As I look over this list of 20, we are almost certain to fulfill those goals,” he says.
He doesn’t dwell on another missed goal. Last year Pack planned to have the Crossroads programs ready for broadcast near the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Now the first eight will air six months later. PBS has proposed running the series across eight weeks after the March 2007 pledge drives, according to Delan.
“It’s still in the season of the anniversary,” Pack observes.
“I always said this will not be fast,” he adds. As a dispenser of taxpayer funds, CPB must follow “a careful, bulletproof review process,” according to Pack. “Some institutions can make rapid responses; we’re in the many-layers-of-review, come-to-the-right-decision camp.”
Any private producer could move faster, says Delan, but to open its RFP to the broad world of program makers, CPB had to go through many review rounds.
The style of the resulting programs may diverge, like the segments of PBS’s The Blues in 2003. They won’t have the “heavily processed,” consistent and assuring feel of a series from a single producer, says Delan, but they’ll have surprises, which viewers also want from TV.
Pack set out to diversify the PBS producing corps, and was pleased that half of the 440 initial grant proposals were from people who had never asked CPB for money before.
It was a long haul. CPB asked for proposals in February 2004, winnowed hundreds down to dozens with the help of advisory panels, and gave R&D money to 34 finalists between January and June 2005, and lately notified 20 who will get production money.
WETA, which is co-producing two programs as well as packaging the first eight, found the timetable so short that it started production before receiving a written contract, Delan said.
One key producer turned down the production money. When Washington-based documentarian Sherry Jones got a green light on her project just before Christmas, “there simply wasn’t enough time to do it justice,” says co-producer Christina Lowery. Jones was not available for comment.
Pack says he’s still talking with Jones about the program. If she won’t do it, he adds, CPB and PBS are “totally committed” to adding a program “equivalent to” hers.
That’s important to him, because with CPB’s emphasis on politically balanced programming, Pack had sent out an extra RFP asking for proposals of an antiwar doc as counterpart to The Case for War, featuring Republican policy-maker Richard Perle. Jones, who has worked with Bill Moyers and Frontline, planned a critique of Bush administration foreign policy called By Any Means Necessary.
If CPB did much other tit-for-tat balancing, it’s not obvious from the short descriptions of the films. The 20 topics are varied though many fall into two major groupings: Eight films look at aspects of the Muslim world and four feature the rank-and-file U.S. military.
The producers and co-producers are likewise varied. Veteran producers for PBS are well represented, including Jennifer Lawson, a onetime programming chief at CPB and PBS; Frontline veteran William Cran; Calvin Skaggs, who produced The American Short Story and With God on Our Side; Great Projects Film Co., which made Media Matters and The Building of America; the two-time Peabody-winning team of Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, and Brittany Huckabee, a frequent producer for New River Media.
Crossroads attracted conservative figures, some paired with experienced producers. Reagan administration arms control chief Frank Gaffney is working with film director Martyn Burke (Pirates of Silicon Valley). Peter Collier, a prominent critic of political correctness, is paired with experienced filmmaker Bill Jersey (The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow).
The project also welcomed an influx from prominent media companies, including producers connected with ABC News, the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly and Newsweek.
These are the 20 commissioned programs [as of February 2006]. More detailed descriptions are available at cpb.org/grants/crossroads.
The Case for War—Phil Craig and Brian Lapping, Brook Lapping Productions, London—will follow Richard Perle, a Defense Department assistant secretary in the Reagan administration, around the world as he articulates the neoconservative case for an assertive American foreign policy, interventionist when necessary, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Holy War (formerly Jihad)—William Cran, Clive Syddall and Adam Lively of PITV, London—will examine modern radical Islamic groups, the ideas and the beliefs that inspire them and the challenge they present to governments in the Middle East and the West.
Inside the American Empire with Robert Kaplan—WETA, Washington, D.C. and 3BM Productions, London—will follow Atlantic Monthly correspondent Kaplan as he travels with U.S. troops fighting in small-scale, low-intensity conflicts that go largely unreported. He will show how the U.S. military has taken on new humanitarian and intelligence-gathering functions as part of the war.
Inside the Muslim Brotherhood (formerly The Terror Dilemma)—Steve Hewlett, MSRM Productions, Washington, D.C., and London—will feature Newsweek investigative reporters Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball following the terrorist money trail and uncovering how extremists have used legitimate Muslim political and charitable groups to finance the Jihad.
Islam vs. Islamists—Martyn Burke, Frank Gaffney and Alex Alexiev, ABG Films Inc., Los Angeles—will explore how Islamic extremists are at war with moderates in their own faith. The filmmakers will follow several moderate Muslims struggling to maintain democratic values in the face of the extremists’ threats and intimidation.
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience—Richard Robbins and Tom Yellin, PJ Productions, New York, and WETA, Washington, D.C.—will bring to the screen the fiction, verse, letters and journal entries of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Writings are being collected through Operation Homecoming, a National Endowment for the Arts program.
The Transatlantic Paradox (formerly The Anti-Americans)—Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, Center for New American Media, New York—will explore European anti-American sentiment now and throughout the past two centuries.
Arab Music: Dissonance and Harmony—Miles Copeland and Jonathan Brandeis, Firstars, Hollywood—will chronicle the journey of a diverse group of Arab musicians to the American heartland for an unprecedented concert tour with leading American musicians.
Campus Battleground (formerly Studying Hatred)—Peter Collier, Argus Productions, Nevada City and William Free and Bill Jersey, Quest Productions, Berkeley—will examine the impact of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on university campuses in America after 9-11.
Citizen Soldiers—Calvin Skaggs, Lumiere Productions, New York—will follow the deployment of an Army Reserve unit and explore ways the war on terror has stretched the U.S. military, requiring Army reservists to serve extended tours on active duty.
Homegrown (formerly Religion in U.S. Prisons)—Ginny Durrin, Durrin Productions, Washington, D.C.—will explore the growing allure of religion in U.S. prisons since the 9/11 attacks. How did the war on terror transform the prison population and affect the behavior of released inmates?
Indonesia: Battleground for the Soul of Islam—Calvin Sims and Kenneth Levis, the New York Times, New York—will explore Indonesia’s long history of moderation in its practice of Islam and show how Islamist radicals have made the country a flash point in the global war on terror. The filmmakers will look at how this fledgling democracy, with its moderate Muslim majority, struggles to control religious extremism.
Invasion!—Timothy Smith and Brian Breger, Docere Palace Studios, LLP, New York, in association with Granada America, New York, and the Washington Post Co., Washington, D.C.—will examine the art and strategy of military invasion and occupation, with emphasis on strategies likely to work post-9/11.
The Mosque in Morgantown—Brittany Huckabee of Boston—will chronicle the unfolding drama within a Muslim community in a small West Virginia town. The verite-style documentary will follow Asra Nomani, a former reporter, as she pushes for change at the mosque her father helped found three decades ago.
Security Versus Liberty: The Other War—Jennifer Lawson, WHUT, Washington, D.C., and Lisa Zeff, ABC News Productions, New York—will examine the tensions and trade-offs between security and liberty in the post-9/11 world by following several characters enmeshed in the controversy.
Spain’s 9/11—David Alter and Phil Craig, Brook Lapping Productions, London, and Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin, the Aspen Institute, Berlin—will examine the two-week period after the train bombing in Madrid, referred to as “Spain’s 9/11.”
Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age (formerly Our Turn at the Mic)—Glenn Baker, Azimuth Media, Washington, D.C.—will explore the emergence of Muslim- and Arab-American comedians after 9/11, showing how they use humor to take on stereotypes about Middle Easterners and terrorism.
The Trial of Saddam Hussein—Daniel Polin and Kenneth Mandel, Great Projects Film Co., New York—will show what’s really going on at the trial of Iraq’s former president. In superficial news coverage, the trial seems to be about Saddam’s behavior rather than the evidence of crimes by Hussein’s regime.
The Trouble with Islam—Gordon Henderson, 90th Parallel Films and Television Productions Ltd., Toronto, and the National Film Board of Canada—will feature best-selling author Irshad Manji, who observes that Islam, under which the world’s most learned and accomplished societies once flourished, closed the door on critical thinking at the end of the 11th century. Manji will meet fellow Muslims who are trying to open those doors.Warriors—Karl Zinsmeister; The American Enterprise magazine; Ed Robbins—will profile men and women serving in America’s all-volunteer Army, from private to general. Contrary to conventional wisdom, our military is not predominantly populated by the poor and uneducated but attracts a wide range of competent citizens, many of whom are motivated by idealism.
posted Nov. 13, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee