Chetwynd wants to build the series from a three-episode season to "a weekly delivery system of slightly uncomfortable news."
Second season by conservative producer
National Desk offers another view of what's pulling the nation apart
Originally published in Current, Sept. 8, 1997
A new independently produced series debuts on PBS next month with alternative views seldom expressed at length on TVviews that differ starkly from what you'd expect in an indie tract.
National Desk, which airs over three successive Fridays beginning Oct. 3, is a spiffed-up and reconceived version of Reverse Angle, a series funded by CPB after public broadcasting came under attack in 1992 for having a liberal bias. The show has been reshaped with an eye toward "making sure it didn't look like equal time for conservatives, which is not what it is," according to Conrad Denke, senior producer.
"Going to National Desk from Reverse Angle is growth," explains Lionel Chetwynd, a busy Hollywood screenwriter/producer who is the program's executive producer. "Trying to win a place in the PBS universe requires a certain amount of learning. It requires an understanding of the differences in the audience."
Both he and Denke say they encountered difficulties taking two installments of Reverse Angle through PBS's editorial process because the inner workings of public TV were completely new to them.
"Two things happened," recalls Chetwynd, "We loosened up and got more intelligent about it ... and the atmosphere within PBS improved, no question." PBS President Ervin Duggan played a key role in helping to redefine the show, along with Sandy Heberer, director of public affairs programs.
"The concept hasn't changed that much, but it appears to have," acknowledges Conrad Denke, senior producer. Instead of looking at topics of the day from a "different angle," the series aims to operate like the national desk of a newspaper, one that goes deliberately after topics that are, as he puts it, "hard to handle" and "eroding that fabric of common culture" in America.
Right off the bat, National Desk takes on the most difficult subject in American society racism. Larry Elder, an African-American radio and television talk show host who has come under virulent attack in Los Angeles for his views on race, walks into a computer-generated "virtual set" as host and reporter of "Redefining Racism: New Voices from Black America."
Elder interviews an array of accomplished black men (and one woman), who offer what he describes as "fresh" views on race relations. They soundly criticize black leaders for failing to develop self-reliance in their communities and for continually delivering messages of black victimization under white racism. Dissenters from mainstream black opinion, such as University of Massachusetts Prof. Julius Lester, dismiss Jesse Jackson as "politically irrelevant," and decry the suppression of diverse political views among blacks. Elder describes the welfare system as "public enemy No. 1" to the black community in the show, and touches on how African-Americans direct racism toward whites.
"I think it's going to be a neutron bomb," says Elder, predicting how the show will be received. "I hope it will have a significant impact on the way people think. I think a lot of black people are sick and tired of being told they should be sick and tired."
Columnist and television pundit Morton Kondracke forecasts a similar response to the third installment of National Desk, in which he reports on the politics behind medical research funding. He acknowledges the topic is is "near and dear to my heart" because his wife suffers from Parkinson's Disease.
In "The Politics of Medicine," Kondracke criticizes the Clinton Administration for allocating a disportionate amount of research funding to "politically trendy diseases like AIDS and breast cancer." Victims of diseases that lack big stars and loud lobbies "get left behind," he told Current.
"The Administration is going to feel it like a cattle prod, which is what I hope will happen," says Kondracke.
Another episode, "The Children of Divorce," airing Oct. 10, challenges conventional morality another way. Fred Barnes, executive editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, reports on how divorce affects children. "There's a social cost to the way we have replaced the ethic of marriage with the ethic of divorce," comments Chetwynd. Parents' beliefs that because their divorce makes them happy, their children are happy is "just not true," he adds. "It's part of the legacy of the '60s."
'Slightly uncomfortable news'
Those working on National Desk behind and in front of the cameras reject suggestions that the show has a conservative agenda. Such a label is "irrelevant," says Chetwynd. "Anyone trying to do that is doing exactly what we're fighting againsteasy pigeonholing of other people's opinions so they can be easily dismissed."
Political labels are "counterproductive and destructive of useful public debate," he adds. "We at National Desk are going to save you from this."
"We'd like to leave the word 'conservative' off and talk about the pathologies that are harming America, those that are pulling us apart," adds Denke.
Both hope National Desk will earn a regular presence in PBS's lineup.
Denke describes the earlier series as a pilot. "National Desk is like the second level. We want to take it to the next level; we're very close to how the show should look now."
"We'd like to be up there with the big boys, P.O.V. and Frontline," says Chetwynd. His goal for National Desk is to become "a weekly delivery system of slightly uncomfortable news."
The future of National Desk, he acknowledges, will be determined by discussions that take place "after the world has passed judgment on these efforts."
The program uses one of the new "virtual sets" created in a computer. When you see it on-screen, host Larry Elder will stride across an extensive set, but he's really sitting in front of a special green screen (above) that will be replaced by the image of the set.
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