Programmers critique: NewsHour and the W’s:
low on ‘engagingness’
Critiques of PBS's longstanding public affairs shows by station programmers have faulted three of the four series for lacking a quality that they call "engagingness."
The term, which may puzzle observers not directly involved in the Public Television Programmers Association's Screening Project, describes how well programs interest or appeal to viewers. It is one of several criteria that programmers consider in a series of critiques of signature PBS series that PTPA initiated last year [related article on screening project].
To some, "engagingness" has a suspicious ring: it sounds like a euphemism for the dumbed-down, lowest-common-denominator television fare found on so many other channels. To others, it is a program quality that public TV desperately needs to cultivate if it is to speak to new generations of viewers in fresh, innovative ways.
The programs criticized for lacking this quality in evaluations by PTPA members were the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and the Friday-night W's, Wall Street Week and Washington Week in Review. Together, they fill six hours of public TV's most valuable airtime each week. The programmers found that Frontline, the fourth public affairs series evaluated, was more engaging.
The PTPA critiques were far from a condemnation of the programs. They got high marks for in-depth content, credibility and several mission-related qualities. In summaries provided by PTPA, comments from unnamed programmers showed great respect for the NewsHour's virtues, in particular.
"It's still the best at what it does," one NewsHour reviewer wrote in accompanying comments. "A jewel in PTV's crown."
But there was a persistent streak of criticism in the programmers' comments:
- The NewsHour: "It is slow and plodding. It contains little humor. It is too predictable, causing it to lack energy. A viewer would have to be highly motivated to stay with the overly long studio interviews."
- Wall Street Week: "I did not find much of it particularly engaging. ... Opening segment was too long and filled with information of questionable usefulness. The guests did not give any hint of enthusiasm that would have encouraged the viewer's interest."
- Washington Week in Review: "The first half of the program had good pacing and moved. Then, it bogged down and became dull. The overall pacing needs to be picked up."
Exactly how many programmers agree or disagree with the findings of the critiques is difficult to assess. The criticism is not unanimous, judging from evaluation summaries.
Some PTPA members who had been most critical of the shows softened their views after going through the evaluation, according to Tom Holter, program director at KTCA, Twin Cities. "I think when programmers were forced to sit down and watch entire shows, they found some value there that they might not have been aware of."
Holter said the critiques accurately reflect how the programmers feel about the programs. But another programmer with a background in news, who requested anonymity, said the programmers' views on these shows are actually much stronger than reflected in the critiques. During face-to-face sessions with the series' executive producers, "everyone is exceedingly polite." PTPA is frustrated because it has "created a forum for constructive reviews and it has no effect."
Outside the circle of PTPA, producers and programmers who have not been privy to the critiques share similar concerns about the vitality of these PBS series. Several said plainly that the shows in question were "tired." Their candid observations also recognize the value that these programs, particularly the NewsHour, bring to the schedule.
Programs "doing their job"
Programmers may be saying, "We've seen these shows for a long time and we're tired of them," said one senior programmer with a long interest in public affairs. "A lot of television has changed" since these shows began, as long as 27 years ago, yet they remain basically the same.
This is to the credit of producers, in the view of partisans of the programs. The producers have steadfastly maintained standards of serious journalism. "We have the courage to be boring. And nothing is boring to the people who are interested in it," longtime NewsHour coanchor Robert MacNeil, now retired, told Columbia Journalism Review in 1995.
A senior programmer praised Washington Week in Review for resisting "the push towards the food fights that are characteristic of other shows. If its job is to shed more light then heat, then it's doing its job."
"I think the NewsHour brings viewers to the set," the programmer continued. "I think it does an adequate job of holding viewers who are predisposed to watch it to begin with."
"It gets back to what are these shows supposed to be," the programmer continued.
"These shows are so important, the talent in many cases is so good," said Jim Russell, executive producer of the popular public radio business series Marketplace. "They need more than a facelift--they need a way to confront how to speak to today's audiences."
Russell insisted that he was not proposing that public TV's journalists begin reporting "stupid, banal" stories found on commercial channels or in grocery store tabloids. "I'm talking about the best material that can be presented in a way that reaches and engages an audience." Figuring out how to do that will require an intensive examination of "the visual and aural cues that people ... are getting in their daily lives that they're responding to."
Public TV may even have to do what public radio did 25 years ago, Russell added--"alienate an audience to acquire a different audience."
"The NewsHour is successful as a magnificent journalistic endeavor," said Alvin Perlmutter, longtime producer of public affairs series for PBS. "It is not the most engaging program, but it is the most in-depth and substantive program."
Perlmutter found that PTPA critiques offered legitimate criticism of the shows, however. "They haven't changed, they haven't pumped new ideas and new approaches into their established and successful formulas. I'm not suggesting that each show should re-pot itself, but it does have to keep a fresh outlook."
He pointed to business correspondent Paul Solman's work on the NewsHour as "often very engaging and terrific because of the way he takes a different angle." Robert Krulwich, a former NPR star now working for ABC News, has made similar freelance contributions.
"It's a question of keeping the creative imagination at work and giving it the opportunity to flower," Perlmutter continued. "They get so hung up in their regular routine and standard formats that they don't give themselves a chance to breathe some fresh air."
"I begged that they get Krulwich when he was gettable," recalled Suzanne Weil, former program chief for PBS, speaking of the NewsHour. "I thought if we had a regular business segment in that hour with him, we could do away with Nightly Business Report, which is morphine."
"Sure, there could be a more engaging program about Wall Street [than Wall Street Week], but I don't know if it would make a whole lot of difference," Weil added. "There's so many things to be fixed in public television that that would not be my high priority if I was sitting in that chair."
"The reason that I'm not there, and shouldn't be, is that I still measure things by what happens to my gut when I watch them," Weil added.
What is this "engagingness"?
Some experienced programmers and producers are put off by a new-speak term like "engagingness." Weil, for instance, was highly skeptical. "It was not a word that would have been used during my watch. I would certainly have asked my staff not to use that word. It seems to send all the wrong messages right there."
"The minute you turn away from looking at something as important and good and look at something like engagingness, you've lost it," she continued.
Perlmutter also wondered if the term is being used as a "public broadcasting equivalent of show business, a euphemism like 'enhanced underwriting' that doesn't say what it's supposed to say."
"If it means making programs watchable, then it's an absolutely good term to use," he added.
Indeed, programmers from major-market stations defined "engagingness" along these lines.
"It means whether people will sit and find the time that they spent with us is valued time, that they're pulled into a report, a story in a way that connects with their need to know," explained Holter of KTCA.
"What it means is that we want more people to take advantage of what we think are the best news and public affairs programs on television," explained Kevin Harris, a programming consultant now working with the Boston-based American Program Service.
"It's hard to say there's nothing good about a talking head, if it's a good talking head that has something to say and says it well and it's engaging," said Jackie Kain, broadcast director for KCET, Los Angeles. If NewsHour guests are grappling with an issue, that can be engaging, too.
She described how the NewsHour's "newsmaker interviews" sometimes fall short on this quality. In these regular segments, a government official or business leader of the day is often asked "soft questions" that allow him or her to "speak in press-release language," Kain said.
"What is served by allowing this person to speak in sound bites?" she asked. "There, for me, is engagingness. Unless you are actually willing to push it, what are you truly getting?"
The drive for "engagingness" does not trouble Ellen Hume, a journalist who is exploring new approaches to public affairs programming as the head of PBS's Democracy Project. As long as the word does not imply advocacy, or that a news program is expected to compete with entertainment programming, it is an appropriate quality for public TV news programs to hold, she said.
Hume offered questions that test for the quality: "Is this a program that is relevant to people? Does it engage them in public life and offer opportunities and reference points that are relevant to them?"
"Engaging might not be what it does but how it does it," said the programmer with an interest in public affairs. "If people are saying it doesn't engage, they may be saying the format is tired and needs some shaping to reflect today's realities."
"Ripe for major discussion"
Declining audiences and increased competition are the realities of traditional TV news today. As cable news channels, network magazines and syndicated tabloid shows have proliferated, audiences for the commercial networks' nightly news programs have shrunk 15-22 percent since 1993, according to PBS Research.
Meanwhile, viewership of PBS's primetime line-up also has declined. During the 1995-96 season, the NewsHour's audience was 7 percent smaller than in 1991-92. But the so-called "W's"--Wall Street Week and Washington Week in Review--saw a more precipitous 23 percent drop, from 2.2 to 1.7. The audiences for all three PBS shows are heavily male and their average age is 58-64.
"All news programs are having a moment of truth right now," said PBS's Hume. "They're trying to figure out where their audiences are going."
Several sources see problems in the viewership of these signature series. Ratings concerns are especially high over the "W's," which air back-to-back on Fridays, typically at 8 p.m. In Los Angeles, the block used to regularly earn 3 ratings for KCET, but is now "much more depressed," drawing around 1.5 or less, according to Kain.
The problem is what to do with this "older-skewing" block of programs, according to Harris. It provides limited audience "flow," handicapping the primetime programs that follow.
"Fridays are difficult for public TV because it's one of the lowest-viewed nights," Harris explained. He proposes that the content from the "W's" be concentrated and folded into the NewsHour. This solution would satisfy the shows' small but loyal followings, showcase public TV's best talent, and open up the "public TV community to rethink Fridays" for the first time in decades.
"Everyone acknowledges that each of the programs have been successful in their own way for a lot of years," said Harris. "We're talking about a decade or two of same kind of program. What I'm asking is, is it possible to take the best of all of these programs and stars and combine them?"
Kain agreed that "Fridays are ripe for major discussion." She had pinned hopes on a proposal for a TV version of an NPR newsmagazine, hosted by Scott Simon, which has stalled. "The marriage with NPR--their talent with our air--is terrific. It would skew slightly younger. We've got to perk up the night."
But KTCA's Holter said a push for better ratings is "not the whole story" of why the series received the critiques they did. Programmers want to have the "strongest and best" lineup of shows that offer viewers "a reason ... to sit down and spend time with a TV program."
Stephen Kulczycki, an independent producer and former station manager at KCET, Los Angeles, also noted that of some "really primal forces" were at work over these programs.
The NewsHour is a "uniquely distinguishing program in public television by many people's standards." Programmers look at it, the time it takes in their schedule, the audience and membership it brings, and they yearn for "a dynamic of growth."
"There is a natural force of nature going on here," Kulczycki continued. "I think the challenge for public television is to not always use the usual barometers of growth and change as measures of what ought to be done. It restricts the imagination."
The realities of producing timely programming for public television restricts imaginative juices in other ways, according to Bill Hanley, v.p. of news and public affairs for KTCA. Public TV producers have "this mission to go into great depth and deal seriously with issues," and, in his view, "do a terrific job in general with that."
But news producers are so fearful of making concessions to entertainment value or audience appeal "that we are our own worst enemies," he added.
"We have to understand that the point of this exercise is to get people to watch," Hanley continued. He also described Paul Solman's work on the NewsHour as "tremendously engaging."
"We just need more than that." Both Hanley and Perlmutter said that, rather than substantially overhauling existing programs, public TV should put money into shows that take new approaches.
One challenge Hanley struggles with locally is developing funding proposals that speak to both the distinctiveness of public TV's substantive public affairs programs, and the need to be engaging "or even moderately entertaining."
"We always look for areas where there's a stark distinction and difference in what public television does," Hanley explained. "And when we get funding, sometimes we're more timid to try things that might be more engaging."
He cited KTCA's popular news roundup series, Almanac, as an example. Because the weekly program is funded out of "core money," producers are "much freer to take real risks. The program has real, legitimate personality."
"We don't have to answer to anyone other than the viewers."
Carping or valuable insight?
While the PTPA screenings have given voice to programmers' concerns about one of public TV's most important program genres, it remains unclear what will result from the discussion they've generated.
Producers of the programs in question declined requests for comments on the specifics of their PTPA evaluations. One production executive and a NewsHour spokesman expressed consternation that the critiques had been released to Current, and indicated that they didn't want to disagree publicly with programmers.
"The NewsHour has participated in two PTPA discussions over the past two years, and we welcome the wide range of PTPA observations which covered a variety of topics," said Executive Producer Lester Crystal in a written statement. "Obviously, we accept some but not all of the conclusions which were drawn from three of the past 520 editions of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. This is to be expected in any subjective quantification of an ongoing broadcast that meets the challenges of daily journalism."
In a two-page memo, John Potthast, v.p. of national production for Maryland PTV, which produces Wall Street Week, described the 27-year series as a "jewel in the PBS crown" that offers the "still unique combination of the most reliable information and the liveliest presentation."
In the most decentralized national broadcasting system known to man, producers have quite a bit of latitude to do what they want with this feedback.
In Weil's view, producers are the "lifeblood" of public television. "It's real easy to sit in a meeting around and table and carp, but it's not so easy to make those programs."
Producers will "go through the motions" of responding to programmers' concerns--"they have to--these guys [programmers] are their bosses," Weil commented. But she doubts the programmers will ever use their ultimate leverage by turning down the shows.
"I would look upon comments like this in same way as a focus group, where you gain valuable insights, but you don't change direction on the basis of what people say," said Perlmutter. The purpose of the feedback is to "find out their needs and desires" and "get a nugget of an attitude or a piece of information" that spawns new ideas.
"In my opinion, it's not just programmers, but producers know that they have to constantly evaluate what they're doing," said Hanley of KTCA. "No one wants to be producing 1950s television in 1990."
Hanley believes that producers can make the necessary changes. "It just takes being bolder and coming up with funding language that says we can be engaging without compromising our mission."
The public affairs evaluations were the first from the Public Television Programmers Association, following a focus-group technique used in public radio, 1997.
Web page posted July 21, 1997
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee