Originally published in Current, Jan. 25, 1999
WETA announced this month its second major foray into the cable network business — a public affairs channel for the nation's capital area, which may serve as prototype for similar channels in other cities.
Ed Turner, who helped Ted Turner (no relation) start up CNN and was the cable net's executive v.p. until last year, is serving as president of the Forum Network, a joint project of WETA and the Freedom Forum, a $900-million foundation active in media issues. The foundation will carry the cash costs of the service.
The partners plan to test their plans in the Washington area, starting service this spring. "As soon as we're comfortable that we can do what we think we can do, we'll think about the prospect of helping it happen in other cities," said Linwood Lloyd, WETA executive v.p.
It's highly likely, he said, that Freedom Forum will be one of the initial multicast channels that WETA will offer in its digital transmissions beginning in September.
The Forum Network will carry "programming for grownups," which is now lacking on cable, according to Turner. "David Brinkley said, 'News is what we say it is.' ... It doesn't have to be a fixation on Monica and Princess-Di-is-still-dead," said Turner. "It does not have to be that way."
CNN and other cable networks "have more or less evolved into one- and two-story formats," he told the Washington Post. "There's a lot more going on in the world."
"You have lots of news broadcasts of live events, but in terms of explaining what it means and its relevance and importance, you don't have much of that," Turner told Current. "We are not going to have a big audience, but I hope we are going to have an important audience."
Though the new network won't be reporting news, it will put a premium on immediacy. "I learned at CNN that to be successful in commentary, analysis, debate of public policy, you need to be booked as close to breaking events as you can," said Turner. Lloyd calls it "breaking analysis."
The schedule will mix local, regional and national public-affairs topics. Forum will discuss local issues in its daily morning program, and will zoom in on major Washington-area jurisdictions during a half-hour weekday strip in the afternoon, according to Turner.
The channel also will use a third to a half of its schedule giving desirable repeat airtimes to PBS public affairs programs, including WETA's own NewsHour with Jim Lehrer as well as Frontline, which he regards as one of the strongest strands in public broadcasting." The channel also will carry some public TV series that WETA doesn't currently air, said Lloyd. A major WETA contribution to the partnership will be cable rights for the public TV programs.
Some original Forum Network programs also will be produced at WETA, Lloyd said, while others will be made a few miles away at the Freedom Foundation's studio at the Newseum, a journalism museum in Arlington, Va.
WETA's studios are covered by union agreements but the foundation is not. "We will certainly be respectful of our employees," said Lloyd. "We'll make sure this advantages everybody at WETA."
The new network will nevertheless have to control its costs," said Lloyd. "The biggest thing in cable production is, if you can't keep the costs down, you just can't play the game." One method will be carrying a lot of repeats.On the learning curve
The Forum Network partnership evolved after WETA began exploring the cable networking business and planning its first cable venture — Fanfare: The Classical Music Channel, announced Dec. 2.
An MTV-style video service for classical music fans, with Dick Cavett as lead host, is planned for launch on Thanksgiving 1999.
WETA began working on the Fanfare project three years ago and quickly determined that it would have to be commercially supported. Longtime cable exec Jack Clifford and other investors are initial partners with WETA. The station is talking with major cable system operators, who could provide both capital and carriage; he expects to make further announcements within weeks.
"In the industry today, cable operators are looking to be involved in more of the programming they have on their systems," said Lloyd. "They clearly want to be involved in channels that will enhance the attractiveness of their delivered service."
Most Fanfare music videos will be provided by record labels. More than 200 are available, Lloyd estimated. WETA also will seek financial assistance in clearing rights to use segments from its own performance programs such as the Kennedy Center series.
WETA's cable chief, Ralph Malvik, encountered the first major Fanfare partner, Jack Clifford, just last spring at the National Cable Television Association convention, according to Lloyd.
In developing Fanfare, WETA learned a lot about the cable industry that helped lead to the Forum Network, said Lloyd. WETA's objective was simply to become more active in public affairs programming--a category that was weak in audience and airtime. Lloyd and Neal Freeman, producer of the national series Technopolitics, began talking about the opportunity, and Freeman tried the idea on friends at the Freedom Forum. Talks with the foundation began last May.
When Ed Turner arrived at the Freedom Forum as a fellow during the summer, he welcomed the assignment and became full-time president of the new network. He's now hiring and equipping the production facility.
Turner, now 62, had become a prominent TV newsman even before he joined CNN 20 years ago. In the late 1960s and early '70s, he had developed the trendsetting 10 p.m. newscast at Metromedia's station in Washington — a precursor to Fox News, where Connie Chung, Maury Povich and Bob Schieffer got their starts. He later produced the CBS Morning News and headed news at the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City before signing on as managing editor of Turner Broadcasting's CNN startup in Atlanta in 1979.
The board of the WETA-Freedom Forum partnership includes columnist Carl Rowan, author Bette Bao Lord, Freedom Forum Chairman Charles Overby and President Peter Prichard and Vice President Jack Hurley, WETA Chairman J. Roderick Heller III, and Anne Wexler, once press secretary to President Carter, as well as Freeman and Lloyd.
The well-endowed Freedom Forum, dedicated to free press and other journalism-related concerns, is the former Gannett Foundation, reorganized and separated from the parent company in 1991 by maverick USA Today founder Allen Neuharth, though still located next door to Gannett headquarters in Arlington. The foundation also operates the Newseum at its headquarters, the Media Studies Center in Manhattan, and operations in Nashville, San Francisco, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, London, Buenos Aires and Cocoa Beach, Fla. (Neuharth lives nearby).
Web page posted Jan. 23, 2004
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