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'Voter's Guide': biggest NPR-PBS joint effort

Originally published in Current, Oct. 16, 2000
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Voters still mulling over which presidential candidate to support come Election Day will get some assistance from PBS and NPR on Nov. 1 [2000], when public broadcasting's top news units deliver a three-hour live election special, "Time to Choose: A PBS/NPR Voter's Guide." The program, originating from five public television stations and accessible simultaneously on three platforms, is the biggest collaboration ever mounted by the field's public affairs producers.

PBS President Pat Mitchell floated the idea this spring for a high-impact election special combining the journalistic assets and local/national connections in public broadcasting. News execs at MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, NPR and Frontline jointly fleshed out the concept based on each other's strengths, said Dan Werner, e.p. for MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. The program will be carried live on NPR, on PBS and on the Web.

"This is an aggressive way to serve the public with an important program about the election," said Werner. He described the special as an issue-focused "national conversation and dialogue" that helps voters "put the campaign in perspective so they can make up their minds."

"It makes sense for us to be working together to provide this service," he added.

The television/radio broadcast will be a live town hall meeting of citizens participating from studios in three cities and via the Internet, talking with campaign reps and policy analysts about major issues in the campaign and the candidates' leadership qualities. The NewsHour's Ray Suarez will moderate an on-line chat while reporting about it on the broadcast. NPR correspondents Tom Gjelten, Julie Rovner and John Ydstie are contributing background pieces comparing candidate positions on foreign policy, health care issues, economics and taxes.

Frontline veteran Steve Talbot is producing mini-documentaries on "what we've learned about the candidates during the campaign" and their core political beliefs, said Mike Sullivan, Frontline e.p. NPR's Alex Chadwick will contribute segments dubbed "Interviews 50 cents" — highly produced pieces exploring how the political views of individual voters intersect with their real lives. "It's kind of an unexpected element in a serious political show," said Sullivan.

NewsHour correspondents Elizabeth Farnsworth and Gwen Ifill, and Phil Ponce of WTTW's Chicago Tonight, will host three groups of some 30 citizens convened in studios in San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago. Juan Williams, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation, is to moderate a panel of political analysts participating from New York; the panel will be a broad group of "thinkers" commenting on the campaign, and not the NewsHour's regular panel of presidential scholars. Also from New York, NPR's Elizabeth Arnold will share her observations as a reporter covering the campaign.

From the NewsHour's studios at WETA in Washington, Margaret Warner will elicit views from the candidates' reps, and Jim Lehrer will anchor the broadcast, functioning as the "glue that holds it all together," as Werner put it.

An extensive web site will accompany the broadcast. Frontline's web team is building upon the web version of "The Choice," pulling all of pubcasting's web-based election content together. "Time to Choose." on the Web will have "extravagant links" to NPR Online, the Democracy Project's site, and the NewsHour Online, according to Sullivan, and include useful tools to help voters match their own views with those of the candidates or with other voters. NPR's online team will add its expertise to production of Suarez's live chat/webcast, which will extend for six hours to allow live participation on the West Coast.

"We're thinking of this as a show you can be watching on TV and using the web tools at the same time," said Sullivan. "We're trying to stream at least audio, and possibly video, on the Web."

Will this make good radio? NPR is working with PBS to "do what's necessary to make it work as a radio program," assured Bruce Drake, managing editor of NPR News. "We're underlining the importance of constantly identifying who's speaking. Produced pieces in the show — whether they're from us or Frontline--are very heavy on narration."

"We haven't done this a lot before, and we're hopeful that the steps we're taking will make it serviceable on radio," Drake said. NPR's recent collaborations with Frontline, most recently for the series Drug Wars, are mostly efforts at "pointing our audiences to each other's programs," he explained. "Our people are not on each other's air."

Sullivan compared recent collaborations to mergers among media companies. Public broadcasting's news units are similarly exploring a "merger of programs to see how we can work together to get the best of it out in front of people. But we have to go through this exercise of learning to work together."

As for the "culture clash" that occurs when companies merge, Sullivan reported, "We're all working together, and getting along. We're learning to appreciate each other's values and not squabbling about how different we are."

. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: Public radio also spoofs the campaigns with a White House run by both of the Car Talk brothers and a series of interviews with the Doonesbury candidate, Duke.
. Later critique: Veteran producer Jerry Landay calls Time to Choose the most impressive piece of politcal journalism broadcast in decades.
. Outside link: NewsHour Online.

Web page posted Oct. 21, 2000, updated Dec. 17, 2000
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