Cottle and Lowry in pilot of "Your Week" for PBS

Michelle Cottle and Rich Lowry, pundits from opposite sides of the partisan aisle, came together to host a pilot for PBS. (Screen grab: WETA.)

To get that feedback loop thing going on

Reddit.com, opinion mags join WETA for Your Week

Originally published in Current, June 9, 2008
By Jeremy Egner

Take two political journals that don’t agree about much, add one social bookmarking website, an 18-year-old bedroom music producer and a hyperactive chroma key. Seed with CPB cash and stimulate with the opinions of thousands.

If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for public TV like Mom used to make — well, that’s kind of the point.

Your Week is a half-hour TV newsmagazine and website now being developed for national consumption by Washington’s WETA in partnership with the conservative National Review, the more liberal New Republic and Reddit.com, a social news site that, like Digg, allows users to share links and vote the most popular ones to higher prominence on its home page.

The producers finished a pilot last week, will focus-group and tweak it over the next few weeks and will launch the project nationally in October if PBS picks it up, says Dalton Delan, e.p. for WETA. The video pilot will go online later this summer.

Meanwhile, producers have already launched a show blog (www.yourweek.org) and a website on Reddit (www.reddit.com/r/yourweek) to promote the show and seed what they hope will be a fertile source of ideas for and reactions to what ends up on air. The program will incorporate stories that bubble up on the related social-bookmarking site, which was already humming last week.

“We’re trying to crack the nut of how you integrate a television program with the Web,” says Rich Lowry, National Review editor and one of the show’s hosts.

"Your Week" logo The series logo

Your Week is the latest public broadcasting entry in the growing transplatform, feedback-loop subgenre, a space mapped out in pubradio by Christopher Lydon’s Open Source and currently featuring projects such as Chicago Public Radio’s :Vocalo and Think Out Loud, a daily radio talk show and website from Oregon Public Broadcasting.

They generally seek to marry on-air and online, giving each platform equal importance and using the community-building and commenting capability of web-based social media to shape and supplement the broadcast component. The on-air content, the theory goes, then spurs discussion that continues online, free of the constraints of a time slot.

The goal is to tap into and enable the sort of crowdsourcing and social give-and-take people increasingly expect from their media, while retaining broadcasting’s big-tent power. (More on technique below.)

“It’s taking what’s best in the web world, the ability for anybody to participate and communicate, and turning that into a broader dialogue,” says Wendy Turner, g.m. of :Vocalo, WBEZ’s spinoff station south of Chicago that heavily showcases user contributions.

Your Week aims to be the first public TV entry into the category. The breezy weekly program features a right-left host combo of Lowry and Michelle Cottle, senior editor at New Republic. It will mix short, newsy segments on politics, pop culture and science with commentary from the hosts and other contributors.

Meanwhile, its main website at PBS.org — the “hub of everything,” Delan says — will host comments, user-generated videos and other content, much of which will either follow up on what was aired or influence what will be broadcast. 

“We’re trying to say the broadcast is the tip of the iceberg” of content and interaction, Delan says.

To signal the collaborative vibe, the producers invited blog visitors to remix the show’s official theme song. The winner, which will be used on-air and can be heard on the blog, was produced by an 18-year-old who goes by the name TurreekK.

The producers hope the partnership with the popular Reddit, purchased by Condé Nast in 2006, will help them reach past the “self-defined” audience for PBS and the journals to bring in new blood, Delan says. “The goal here is for public TV to reach out to as many possible viewers and users as we can.”  

Which isn’t to say the project is all about drawing new audiences.

“If the research shows this thing is unpalatable to core viewers, it’s either going to be changed or it’s not going forward,” Delan says.

That might comfort station execs who recall that pubTV’s last flashy, high-profile bid for new viewers, Wired Science, was abandoned after a brief run (Current, March 3).

Another potential barrier to success is that stations aren’t keen to give more airtime to serious public affairs talkfests. “It’s not like programmers are saying, ‘Gee, PBS, what’s the next public affairs show you can give us?’” says Delan.

But the producers aim to court both core and new viewers by spiking intelligent and even-handed, if occasionally counterintuitive, public-affairs features with humor and pointed commentary, perhaps bridging the gap between the NewsHour and, say, The Daily Show.

The pilot, for example, includes a straightforward report on efforts to increase voter turnout among Latinos in California and a lighter news story on why Toyota Priuses might be harder on the environment than Hummers — featuring Cottle, a Prius owner. A feature on the latest version of the hyperviolent video game Grand Theft Auto includes an interview with a Newsweek tech writer and plenty of green-screened carnage.

The show closes with an extended riff by the acerbic Christopher Hitchens, who gives a colorfully contemptuous take on the presidential candidates and their spouses.

The strong opinions and humor are meant to mirror those traits that thrive online; indeed, the format of the entire show, from its modular two- to four-minute reports to its web-influenced video windows and graphics, such as interspersed “loading” clock animations, is designed to signal its hybrid nature.

But it’s the actual online elements that led CPB to seed Your Week’s development. In the video-heavy site — designed to spur unprecedented audience interaction and involvement in a public TV program — CPB sees a future worth exploring, says John Prizer, v.p. for TV program development.

“We’re really excited about this in that it’s a 21st-century show,” he says. “We think it has the potential to be genuinely different.” 

Good give-and-take calls for new habits, some radio oomph

So how, exactly, do broadcasters who’ve spent their careers making one-way media suddenly embrace the audience as a producing partner?

First, they have to start thinking of them as such, says David Miller, online host for OPB’s Think Out Loud, which launched in January. “It’s hard for a lot of people,” he says. “To include them a little bit in the process of production is scary.”

The audience can need some retraining, too. OPB has spent many promos reminding listeners who are still in the scheduled-media mindset that they can contribute online whenever they wish, not just during the related radio show. Producers also have put out the word that the sort of comments that others want to hear are based on personal life experiences, not just strongly felt opinions.

“The message is getting into people’s heads,” he says. “They’re increasingly telling us little stories that we can bring into the show.”

Miller was previously a producer on Open Source, the innovative radio show launched in 2005 that weaved blogger comments into the usual mix of experts. Christopher Lydon, the host, refers to listeners as the “people formerly known as the audience.”

The show was perhaps ahead of its time but is lately resurgent. After it lost funding from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, in 2006 and went on hiatus last summer, it came back with podcasts and a blog since November (radioopensource.org) with a new partner, the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, where Lydon is a fellow. The producers are working on a new broadcasting setup, Lydon says; he can’t give details yet.

No matter how rich the web offerings are, the broadcast remains the best motivation for audience participation, says Wendy Turner, g.m. of :Vocalo. Chicago Public Radio’s ambitious service, based almost exclusively on user submissions, launched roughly a year ago.

Early contributions came almost exclusively from artists, bands and others already creating content. The station more aggressively courted everyday folks by going out into neighborhoods and lending recorders, she says. It also has free call-in lines that automatically record MP3s of the callers.

:Vocalo’s broadcast side will get a boost this fall when a power increase allows the transmitter in northwest Indiana to finally reach into Chicago, Turner says.

Once people realize that if they contribute, they might hear themselves on their car radios, she predicts, that will be “when we start to hear the signature sound we’re looking for.”    —Jeremy Egner

Web page posted June 9, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC

EARLIER ARTICLES

Lydon's Open Source multiplies radio's connections, a commentary by Daniel Fellini, 2005.

Open Source woos webheads for radio's sake, 2006.

Ten episodes in, Wired Science is out, March 2008.

SIDEBAR

For good give-and-take, it helps to have new habits for producers some of that old radio reach.

LINKS

Your Week, WETA-TV, Washington, D.C.

Reddit.com's section for Your Week

Think Out Loud, Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Chicago Public Radio's :Vocalo.org, sister station of WBEZ

Open Source with Christopher Lydon.

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