Capital campaign kick-starts WNET national program comeback
Originally published in Current, Feb. 2, 1997
By Steve Behrens
WNET's national production operation has sailed out of the doldrums, with expectations of doubling its output between last season and next season.
The key was a $65 million capital campaign led by financier and board Chairman Henry Kravis, which began in 1992 and will end soon. "Virtually 100 percent" of campaign proceeds will be invested in programming and education services, instead of physical facilities, says WNET President Bill Baker.
Some of the money was spent outright to jump-start productions and the rest will create a continuing flow of capital for future seasons. Funds from underwriters, CPB, the National Endowment for the Arts and British co-producers filled out the budgets.
Baker credits production chiefs Tammy Robinson and Ward Chamberlin for choosing and overseeing the slate, which included Marsalis on Music and Savage Skies last season, and Going Places, Knife to the Heart and Imaging America for this season.
Counting only new titles for national distribution, WNET is boosting its volume from 14 hours in 1995-96 to 29.5 hours this season and an expected 87 hours next season.
Investment in the new titles also grew--from about $5.7 million last season to almost $40 million next season.
The largest single contributor to next season's new output will be a new weekly newsmagazine on religious topics planned to launch this summer with 39 half-hours.
This is all on top of WNET's stable of signature series--American Masters, Great Performances, Nature and others--which account for about 50 hours of programming a year.
Including both the new titles and those perennials, total production will be doubling from about 70 hours last season to almost 140 next season, if all goes as planned.
Baker says production in recent years has slowed during what he calls "Operation Pause," a period of financial regrouping, cost-cutting and rebuilding.
He brought in Chamberlin, retired president of Washington's WETA-FM/TV, to revive the production shop in 1994, and Chamberlin recruited Robinson, former WETA colleague, who became v.p. for national programming in 1995.
With 350 staffers--about half the number it employed a few years ago--WNET is relying more heavily on independent producers and leased facilities, says Baker. Both are in such good supply in New York that they are available at good prices.
"I think some of the best things on public television have been done by independents," says Robinson. Going Places (see story, this page) is co-produced with the independent producers Engel Brothers Media, located in WNET's building, while Land of the Sun, a series about Africa, is being developed with former PBS executive Jennifer Lawson, down in Washington.
While Robinson manages the overall production shop, Chamberlin takes special interest in such projects as Ardent Spirits, a four-parter on the uses and abuses of alcohol, for 1997-98, and a three-hour Harry Truman bio by indie Charles Guggenheim, Robinson says.
Robinson says she talks several times a day with WNET's development officers and consults them on all new projects to be sure that they have fundraising potential and that "everybody is invested in the project."
To Current's home page
Earlier news: Chamberlin and Robinson assigned to bring back WNET's national production operation.
Related news: Research, economics and technology shape WNET's Going Places travel series.
Related news: WNET preparing religious news series for PBS schedule in summer 1997.
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