WNET: turning a big ship in a small river
The station that was long regarded as the "flagship" of public TV has begun to turn itself around after a period of low morale and slumping production.
At the wheel are Ward Chamberlin, former longtime president of WETA-FM/TV in Washington, and Chamberlin's cultural programming chief from WETA, Tamara (Tammy) Robinson.
And on board are a cargo of new national programs and projects, including splashy limited series like the proposed Stephen Hawking's Universe, a BBC coproduction now seeking CPB aid, and projects from Jac Venza's arts unit, such as Inspired by Bach with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
WNET is bidding to increase its production stability by adding regular programs such as Travels, a new series of "extraordinary journeys for ordinary people''; Imaging America, Fred Noreiga's proposed eclectic magazine-format reporting on underreported topics, and a weekly religious-news program in development with former NBC newsman Robert Abernethy.
George Page's colleagues are meanwhile spinning off children of Nature: a celebrities-and-animals program In the Wild, starting with three outings next month, and Fred Kaufman's youth-in-nature series Nature Trail, now in the fundraising stage.
Locally, the station launched new shows including a stylish cultural magazine, CityArts, field-produced with Hi-8 camcorders and soon to start its second season. Chamberlin hopes to keep the series going by geographically expanding its subject area and broadcast reach to the whole Northeast.
Though it's early to say that WNET can secure its stature as one of the Big Two program providers (with WGBH), insiders and Chamberlin himself say the New Yorkers have reestablished momentum.
WNET President Bill Baker asked for Chamberlin's help in early August 1994 when the chairman of the American Playhouse and P.O.V. production companies was in his early 70s and already retired from WETA. Baker's chief operating officer, George Miles, was leaving town to run WQED-FM/TV in Pittsburgh. And when programming chief Harry Chancey Jr. resigned suddenly last October, Baker announced that Chamberlin would oversee the area.
The idea appealed to Chamberlin because two decades earlier he had helped build WNET out of the former National Educational Television production center. "I took a deep breath and said 'yes'.''
To Chamberlin, making programs is the interesting part of the public TV business. "The rest of it is torture--you have to go to CPB meetings and the rest."
"The program situation was at a low ebb,'' Chamberlin recalled. "We came here when everything was dead. The on-air look of the station was dead, the creative energies were smothered. They hadn't been given encouragement for years."
In March, Chamberlin and Baker brought in Robinson, whom he calls "the best, most effective program executive in public television," to manage national production while he runs the broadcast center. Both are shepherding specific national projects. The station also hired Bill Grant, former executive editor of WGBH's Nova to work with George Page in the science/nature/travel unit.
Chamberlin commuted four days a week from D.C. at first; now he comes in four days a week from his home near Fall River, Mass.
Head-to-head on Truman
WNET now has so many projects in the works that it's going head-to-head with other producers on at least two topics. Robinson thinks WNET's 10-part New York City series, to be co-produced with David Wolper, will be complementary with and different from another 10-parter on the big city by indie Ric Burns. But in the case of the two proposed Truman bios, there's genuine competition.
Chamberlin has been working with indie Charles Guggenheim on WNET's, while WGBH's American Experience is developing a similar bio with David Grubin. "Both projects started moving ahead almost simultaneously, and both have superior filmmakers attached to them,'' says Robinson. The two stations discussed marrying the projects but couldn't. She expects both will go to the National Endowment for the Humanities in January and the one that arrives with more production money in hand will have an edge to get NEH's. "We hope the best proposal will win."
Chamberlin is feistier. "I don't mind being competitive with WGBH. I admire that station enormously, but I believe in competition."
He takes delight in a second-hand story: a WGBH executive saying recently that lately he's not as comfortable with WNET as he had been.
Though the New Yorkers had run the leading producing station 10 or 15 years ago, Chamberlin said, WGBH "walked all over us for five or six or seven years."
WNET had maintained its franchises with Great Performances and Nature but failed to keep regular PBS support for its travel series and American Masters. Its weekly contemporary culture series, Edge, lost PBS's confidence after only a few episodes in 1992. And last year WNET lost most of its involvement in Charlie Rose, which moved to other studios, while the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour announced it would start consolidating its operations in the D.C. area. [WNET remained the "presenting station" for Rose.]
John Grant, former senior v.p. of programming at PBS, recalls that WNET's output was down, which concerned the network. All the other producing organization were also hobbled by underwriters' cutbacks, though WGBH was hurt less because it has more secure ongoing strands of programming than any other station, Grant observed.
WNET was turning itself around, Grant said, but that's not easy. "It's a big ship in a small river.''
For a couple of years, Chamberlin said, the station had focussed on building up its educational services division under Ruth Ann Burns, "but had put really no money or effort into improving the local station or any real money into developing new national programming.''
He and Robinson now have $300,000 a year for new program development--a sum he thinks is still much too small. "You could use a million without any problem."
He said they've had the help of perhaps $200,000 from WNET's capital campaign, which allows donors to earmark money for production.
Some of the series that are part of WNET's resurgence were proposed or planned during Chancey's reign, says Bruce Mundt, a former PBS programmer who worked at the station for two years.
Insiders disagree about Chancey's role in WNET's recent malaise.
"I don't think it's anybody's fault that we haven't had good projects,'' said a senior producer last year. "Mini-series have been difficult to fund,'' and the station was less willing to risk starting production without guaranteed funding, he said.
Another senior producer said that Chancey had the authority to make the production operation successful, and he failed. Chancey was not available for comment.
Mundt--now director of the New York office of a Dutch-American television firm, TV Matters--remembers WNET as a grim place in 1993 and 1994. To avoid red ink, the station had cut its costs with rounds of layoffs in 1991--when Chancey was given Arnold Labaton's job--and again in 1993 and 1994. Mundt cut his staff in half over two years and then lost his own job in the layoffs last year.
Worked to keep the studio
In July 1994, word had gotten out that the station might close its one remaining studio. "I thought that was nuts," said Chamberlin. "How can you be a leading public television station and not have a studio? It creates an entirely different creative atmosphere if you have to go somewhere else to produce.''
"Ward put all of his energies and resources behind a major stand-on-the-brakes on that," says a staff producer. Ken Devine, brought in by Baker as managing director of facilities marketing, engineering and broadcast operations, invested in upgrading its postproduction facilities, turned a conference room into an additional studio that could house MacNeil/Lehrer and brought in new revenue by renting out the bigger studio to The Montel Williams Show three days a week.
Chamberlin gained the confidence of many staffers by holding a series of biweekly drop-in roundtable meetings, where any staffer could ask questions, or make suggestions or complaints.
"I wanted to get to know people," said Chamberlin. "I wanted them to have someone in top management they could talk to and get a straight answer.''
Staffers were relieved to hear him respond forthrightly when they expressed frustrations, according to a producer. "There's nothing we said to Ward that hadn't been said to the managers all these years. It's just that an outsider doesn't have the vested interests.''
Over the years and through the layoffs, staff members had developed a feeling that WNET had betrayed them, recalled another producer who declined to be identified. But Chamberlin listened, asked the right questions, and read what producers sent to him.
A physical problem for the staff is that the station is housed in former hotel space, said Chamberlin. "This building we're in here couldn't be a more awkward place to communicate with people. Everyone is in their own little hotel room.''
When Chamberlin first spoke to the staff, one staff producer remembers, "he used words like 'lively local production.' ''
"Those of us who cut our teeth in show business heard that and our eyes would fly open," said the producer. "I felt we were getting a blood transfusion. They jumped on the chest and hit us with the electric paddles.''
Charlie Rose will go it alone with his weeknightly talk show [in September 1994], producing the PBS series in facilities run by Bloomberg News, a business news organization with studios and news bureaus around the world.
The switch will end Charlie Rose's production at WNET, New York, which continues to license and present the series. It also means layoffs for some members of the 12-member production unit who were paid by WNET.
Rose's redefined relationship with WNET reduces costs borne by the station, which is still evaluating whether to close down its production facilities altogether. When WNET informed him of that possibility and suggested he consider alternatives, Rose said he "immediately began to look" and found that Bloomberg's extensive facilities provided much more flexibility.
"It was a confluence of things for me,'' he explained. "I was renegotiating my contract with WNET and wanted to structure it in a different way." Also, the logistics of sharing a studio with the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour prevented his series from gaining "maximum access to the best guests.''
All parties were looking for "ways to do this better and more efficiently, so everybody comes out better," Rose added. "I think they do, in terms of the program."
He plans to bring more than half of his staff with him to the new facilities and hire "a very good business person to make sure I do this right" and a executive producer. "It scares the hell out of me," he acknowledged. "All of a sudden, I'm responsible for paying the salaries of people."
"I think we've just begun to tap our potential here. My long-term goal is for this program to be a permanent part of the broadcast day of public television."
Rose's PBS funding pact expires at the end of December; he expects to talk about renewal soon with network programmers.
The huge oak table that graces his set in WNET's studios also will go to Charlie Rose's new home, although changes are in store for the look and feel of the program. Rose plans to split each show into two very distinct 30-minute pieces. The first will be an "exploration of the most important, interesting or provocative news stories ... of the day" whether they be about the baseball strike, a medical breakthrough, or a cultural event with multiple guests and, often, around the table. The second portion will be a one-on-one interview that may or may not be related to the earlier discussion.
"I think it's going to be an important combination of the front page and the back page, the event and the personality," said Rose. "Bloomberg gives me the opportunity to do that."
Web page posted Feb. 2, 1997
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