Reporting from Pasadena, CA/Jan.5 @ 4:40p PT – On January 4, PBS kick started the first full day of Television Critics Association 2012 Winter Press Tour with an impressive parade of talent and entertainment, culminating in the evening appearance of the B-52’s. For a good hour, the band rocked the house to promote their PBS special airing sometime this March. A joyous room of tv critics jumped out of their seats to dance in the aisles. Even PBS president Paula Kerger joined in the fun and got her boogie on when the B-52’s launched into their 80’s hit “Love Shack.”
A meme circulating among the press (and given credence in a recent NY Times article) is that PBS is mounting a challenge to premium cable supremacy. There is definitely an embarrassment of riches with Masterpiece Theatre dramas like Downton Abbey, Sherlock II, Great Expectations, and the Inspector Morse prequel, Endeavour.
In addition, the popular American Songbook, hosted by pianist and singer Michael Feinstein, returns for three episodes. PBS organized a late afternoon cabaret event with Feinstein playing and singing Gershwin, Bobby Short and more. The decision to intersperse archival clips of the earliest music videos with Feinstein’s live performance was sheer genius.
Yet, PBS doesn’t want to be compared to cable in some respects, especially in the news space.
John Wilson, Senior Vice President & Chief TV Programming executive at PBS, opened the 2012 Election News session and he quickly set out to differentiate PBS from their competitors. “It’s worth nothing that Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism just cited PBS Newshour as having more coverage of elections and government in 2011 than any of the commercial networks’ evening newscasts,” he said.
The timing for the 2012 Election panel couldn’t have been better, with the PBS news team fresh off the Iowa caucuses. Judy Woodruff (appearing via satellite) said she’d left Des Moines just four hours before the start of the session. Also on hand: Jeff Greenfield, Gwen Ifill, Ray Suarez and others.
As the PBS journalists fielded Iowa caucus questions, Jeff Greenfield - an anchor (with Ray Suarez) of the WNET/NYC-produced weekly news program Need to Know - was off to the races with highly quotable zingers like this one: “I hate the caucuses. I hate them. They’re fraudulent. They’re undemocratic. You can’t even vote at night if you’re on the day you work the night shift. They extort money everywhere from the Ames, Iowa, Straw Poll to the ethanol subsidy.”
Then, Greenfield took a swipe at cable news in general and MSNBC in particular: “About a year ago, I was chatting with a U.S. Senator who told me that, at the end of the day, Countdown on MSNBC was the station of choice. I said, ‘Why after 12 hours a day in that hothouse of the U.S. Senate, why do you go home and watch ‘Countdown’?’ And the Senator said, ‘It’s like soaking in a nice warm bath,’ meaning that all the premises of that fight in the day were reinforced at night.”
Ray Suarez chimed in as well at one point, contrasting PBS with CNN: “Let’s be realistic about a media diet where your diet includes watching those minute-by-minute frettings over four votes or 60 votes or 80 votes coming from a particular county or town that we saw in front of the moving map on CNN last night, and the real outcome of huge forces clashing against each other about something like Medicare….who do you think is going to give you a deeper, longer, more careful look at some of this stuff and how it’s going to change the lives of the people who read your columns and read your papers and log onto you online? ’”
Greenfield touted Need to Know’s in-depth story coverage. On Need to Know, for example, Greenfield said he’ll explore the power and influence of seniors in Florida, and visit Nashua, New Hampshire to take the temperature of consumers and retailers. “We’re really drilling down microcosmically into that part of New Hampshire…” he said. “…. I went down to Florida a couple of weeks ago, and I’m doing as part of our Florida coverage not the horse race, but a very lengthy piece on the power of seniors, on how much of our federal money and how much is spent on this increasingly powerful and growing group and why it’s so hard to get entitlement reform.”
Suarez had this to say, passionately, which is why I’m simply printing most of it in full:
If you leave this room knowing nothing else about what we do, know that we sit in a room with no money and try to figure out how to do a lot with a little, and we do more with less than anybody working in journalism today. And in order to make that happen, since we can’t just make money appear out of nowhere, we’ve created strategic partnerships with content creators in all different forms of media, magazines, television, people who have online presences….We ran “The Economist Film Project” for several months. They brought us beautiful little gems of films shot in some of the most obscure places in the world that made you understand what it was like to be at that place and live in that place and look at the world through that place. The Economists came to us because they knew we could deliver to them an audience that they could not find for themselves. They don’t have a TV station. They don’t have a movie theater. We could help The Economists do that. We have partners like Mozilla and National Geographic and ProPublica. They need what we have, and we need what they have. And that’s the way a network with no money covers one of the most important elections in generations. Write THAT.
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