After the Sept. 11 attacks
Crisis spurs PBS bid for timeliness
Originally published in Current, Sept. 24, 2001
By Karen Everhart Bedford
Breaking news has never been the forte of public television, but when terrorism hit the East Coast at the end of the Sept. 11 morning news cycle, PBS's push to become a more timely and relevant viewing alternative for American audiences took on an unexpected urgency.
The attacks and ensuing uninterrupted news coverage by major news networks galvanized PBS, producers and stations to reconsider their plans for the days and months ahead. PBS not only added hours of America Responds programming in the evenings, but late last week was pursuing program changes that otherwise might have taken years to put in place.
"We don't have a homeother than the NewsHourfor thorough analysis and perspectives and current affairs conversations all through the yeargood times and bad, but especially in times like this," said PBS President Pat Mitchell. PBS and CPB drew on their contingency funds to commission the special coverage and may pull back or postpone funding to other programs to pay for some combination of new nightly or weekly series.
"Just what that will be depends on what money we have and what ideas everyone feels are best."
Moyers in Conversationhalf-hour segments paired with nightly Washington Week episodes in PBS's first package of news specialsis likely to continue as a weekly program, according to several sources. "We would benefit greatly by putting Bill back on on a weekly basis and letting us discover those people who can give us some sense of order again," said Mitchell.
Producers at Frontline revised their fall line-up substantially to add new documentaries on repercussions of the attacks. In the season opener on Oct. 4, Lowell Bergman and the New York Times report on the intelligence failures that precipitated the attacks, and the roots of the hatred that Muslim fundamentalists direct at the United States. An Oct. 11 documentary goes back to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis to examine how divisions in the U.S. national security apparatus have hampered American responses to terrorism over two decades. An Oct. 18 co-production with the New York Times reports on U.S.-China relations, exploring how China's support for some Islamic states, and simmering issues over Taiwan's independence, factor into the U.S. crackdown on worldwide terrorism.
PBS's first response to the terrorist attacks was to stay with regularly scheduled children's programs. "We had to look at what PBS could do best, and breaking news on a moment-to-moment basis is not what we do best," said Jacoba Atlas, co-chief programmer, explaining PBS's decision. "What we do best is analysis and getting other voices on the air."
Mitchell acknowledged that both she and Atlas, who were colleagues at CNN, were initially frustrated by PBS's inability to switch promptly to live coverage. Journalists instinctively would want to swing into action. "We both experienced a little of that," she said. After considering that PBS was providing a safe haven for children from disturbing news footage, "I recognized that that was what we needed to be doing."
"I had complete confidence in the NewsHour to be up and running as they were, and covering it with the complete thoroughness and skill and expertise that they deliver," she said.
The NewsHour and Washington Week produced four hours of special coverage for primetime on Sept. 11, and for several nights PBS paired daily installments of Washington Week aired with Moyers' conversations from New York's WNET. Producers at Frontline rushed to update a 1999 documentary on Osama bin Laden, and delivered it for broadcast on Thursday, Sept. 13. The NewsHour also produced special weekend editions.
PBS backed two additional specials under the America Responds banner. These programs tested many ideas for the lively public affairs coverage that Mitchell favors, such as national/local collaborations with stations, showcasing PBS's on-air talent, and blending commentary and analysis.
Moyers' contributions served as post-traumatic therapy for viewers. He discussed the nature of evil with a humanities professor from Columbia University, queried a pair of mental health professionals about the grieving process, and spoke with Muslims repulsed by the views of bin Laden. "How we deal with and think about fear is going to be crucial," said New York Daily News Columnist Pete Hamill, during a Sept. 14 broadcast. "I hope we can deal with it in a stoic way, but then go home and play Billie Holiday, man, play the blues, play the music that comes from grief, and use it to exorcise feelings of vengeance."
"We weren't trying to compete with other journalists or political analysts, but to offer something more soulful and consoling," said Steven Segaller, director of public affairs at WNET, describing the concept for the Moyers broadcasts.
The Sept. 14 America Responds adopted similar themes of coping strategies, calls for tolerance, and reflection in its second hour, which was tied to special editions of Washington Week and Wall Street Week. Gwen Ifill and Charlie Rose co-anchored the special report from Washington and New York; four other stations contributed field segments, commentaries or live remotes. The technical demands of the program were steep, especially for hookups arranged within 48 hours, and this showed on the air.
At one point, Rose read the intro for a field segment after it had already run, while the next guest, Hollywood director Ed Zwick, looked expectantly into a camera from KCET in Los Angeles.
"It was a miracle that the show was as flawless as it was," said Dalton Delan, executive producer for WETA in Washington, who said he and Rose were able to laugh about the goof last week.
Delan and producers at WETA produced a town hall version of America Responds for broadcast last Thursday, co-anchored by Ifill and Moyers with cutaways to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Interconnections allowed studio audiences in those cities to interact with guests and the co-anchors.
"In this case we have 72 hours to put it together," said Delan before the show. The producers scheduled commentaries by Maya Angelou and Moyers, discussions of civil liberties with Cornel West and Alan Dershowitz, and appearances by playwright Eve Ensler and NPR correspondents Tom Gjelten and Ruben Martinez.
"This one will be deeper, more focussed and go more extensively out to Americans to really push the national conversation on how we deal with all the new issues and changes in America and our behavior that were all precipitated by the events of Sept. 11," Delan said.
PBS also offered stations a live feed of the commercial networks' Sept. 21 national celebrity telethon, "America: A Tribute to Heroes," and a special episode of Zoom, "America's Kids Respond."
Media observers and public TV veterans acknowledged they expect viewers to tune elsewhere for coverage of breaking news events, and that they themselves were drawn to other channels.
"It's clear to us that in situations like these, the immediate reaction is not to go to PBS but to the networks or cable networks," said John Carroll, managing editor of Greater Boston.
The weeknightly WGBH series hired extra crews to follow the story locally, and expanded to an hourlong format during the first week of the crisis. "Obviously, we don't have the resources of other local news organizations. We're essentially trying to provide as wide a range of coverage as we can."
He anticipated that viewers would begin seeking "more perspectives" on the story in the days after the crisis. "They'll find something on our show that they won't find on others, because of the length of time we devote to individual topics."
"Whenever there is a big, important breaking story, viewers tend to go to the networks with big news organizations," said John Fuller, senior director of PBS Research. "It's fine to do what we can with the NewsHour, but it's really no match for Brokaw, Jennings and Rather."
In the six weekdays after the attacks, the NewsHour's audience has grown 27 percent, compared with five programs before Sept. 11, according to Fuller's analysis of Nielsen overnight ratings. The news program averaged a 1.1 rating and a 2 share in the days before the crisis, and its coverage through Sept. 18 averaged a 1.4/2. The updated Frontline documentary on bin Laden drew a 2.9/4, a higher rating than for previous feeds in 1999 and 2000.
"The limitations are obvious for PBS" in covering fast-breaking news events, said Tim Knight, a veteran broadcast journalist and trainer. "The financial limitations are always there, and on this sort of thing they always show."
"For really responsible commentary, I think PBS is the place to go," he added. But when viewers want to know, "'Have we gone to war, and are we going to die?,' PBS is not the place to tell you first."
"PBS's news often seems very reluctant to wade into the messy world of video," commented Alison Schaefer, a professor of broadcast journalism at American University. She sampled PBS's coverage of the terrorist attacks and found that PBS had "jumped into the muddy world of letting the pictures tell the story."
"We used as much as we could visually because it was such an enormous story," said Lester Crystal, executive producer of the NewsHour. Ray Suarez reported from New York on a daily basis until last week, when Betty Ann Bowser was sent in to relieve him.
Julia Rodgers, a regular NewsHour viewer in Chicago, sought out the NewsHour as a respite from the "constant replays of buildings under attack and falling down." She recalled trying to tune in the NewsHour an hour early on Sept. 11. "I had hoped for continuous coverage, and was eerily awaiting to see what they would say."
Rodgers, director of external relations for the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, described the PBS coverage that night as "a little less alarmist, a little more grounded" than what she found on the networks.
Stations and PBS publicists reported floods of e-mails and viewer calls responding to the special coverage, particularly the Moyers programs, and heavy traffic to the America Responds website that PBS Interactive launched late on Sept. 12.
Choices in the aftermath
Stations' and producers' reactions to the events of Sept. 11 were as varied as those of individuals. Most public TV stations stuck with their regular children's programming as the crisis unfolded elsewhere on television, but several picked up live coverage. Ten stations carried the BBC's live coverage of the story, which was offered free to stations through New York's WLIW.
WLIW itself switched between the BBC's coverage aimed at viewers looking for a European take on events and WNBC's signal, for the 25 percent of its audience without cable or satellite. WNBC was one of many New York stations that lost its transmitter on the doomed World Trade Center tower.
WOUB-TV in Athens picked up CNN's coverage. Many viewers in southeastern Ohio don't have cable or satellite, and broadcast signals from network affiliates are weak. "We really felt an obligation to go with the CNN feed," said Carolyn Bailey Lewis, director.
KCPT in Kansas City on Sept. 12 opened its studio to local ABC affiliate for a fundraiser for the American Red Cross. The two-day telethon aired on the commercial station during breaks from its news coverage, raising more than $1.5 million for disaster relief efforts related to the attacks. In Plattsburgh, N.Y., Mountain Lake PBS joined in an American Red Cross telethon that raised more than $285,000 in a special campaign. Members and viewers contributed more than $73,000.
WQED in Pittsburgh staffed its phone bank with trained counselors who took more than 140 calls in two days from people feeling anxiety, depression or uncertainty about what to tell their children.
Producers and publicists also rushed to change plans already underway, sensing the profoundly altered sensibilities of viewers. The new series Life 360 dropped the catchline of its publicity campaign, "You're born, you live, you die," which was planned for a billboard in Times Square. Egg changed the title of its Nov. 2 episode from "Body Parts" to "Let's Get Physical!"
New York, the historical series on the city that began last year and concludes Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 with its last two episodes, was amended less drastically. The series now begins and closes with title cards informing viewers that the programs were completed before the terrorist attacks and dedicating the series to the people of New York, according to American Experience publicist Daphne Noyes. Also changed were brief interview clips in the closing credits. Added were historians' quotes on the city's spirit. Gone are quips from other interviews that now seem inappropriate, Noyes said.
Frontline profiled bombing suspect Osama bin Laden this month and plans three followup programs in October. (Photo courtesy of WGBH.)
Frontline expands portfolio with more episodes, shorter segments
Originally published in Current, Oct. 8, 2001
PBS and CPB are backing the expansion of Frontline from 20 episodes a year to as many as 30, including its first ventures into multisegment hours under the revived title of World, a 1970s forerunner of the series. Four episodes of Frontline/World will break the format of single-topic hours, adding more international coverage to the series.
"I hesitate to use the word 'magazine,' but the segments will be clustered around a single idea or issue," said David Fanning, executive producer. "Ideally, there will be three of varying lengths." He proposed the idea a year ago "in light of the tensions around globalism and the necessity of trying to engage those issues and report on the exercise of American power abroad and where the points of friction are."
"This will infuse a new level of energy into the series and give people a chance to look at the world with a fresh eye," he said. KQED in San Francisco is a production partner, along with the journalism schools at the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University.
Six of the docs will continue Frontline's ongoing coverage of the terrorism crisis. In addition to new titles announced last month (story at left), producers are working on "Trail of a Terrorist," a documentary airing late this month about Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millennium Bomber who was arrested in Seattle in late 1999. "Terror Network" (working title) follows a few of the individual hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, "tracing their journey back through Europe to the Middle East," said Fanning. Hedrick Smith is Frontline's correspondent in this co-production with BBC.
PBS is still developing plans for additional "response programming," said John Wilson, co-chief program executive at the network. "We're having conversations with NPR, WETA, WGBH, WNET, and hoping that together we can form a collaborative to produce something new that would appear on a weekly basis." He described the concept as a "public affairs and cultural affairs journal" that "can deliver sustained coverage of events with contributions from stations." PBS and CPB are trying to create a pool of more than $10 million for the special programming by deferring some costs until future fiscal years, or getting out of obligations to projects that aren't off the ground yet.
. To Current's home page . Related stories: Sept. 11 coverage by NPR and local public radio; effects on New York stations and canceled meetings in public broadcasting.
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