If news is going to eventually migrate from linear television to digital platforms, WNET's upcoming public affairs program Need to Know, premiering May 7, could offer a litmus test for the viability of ground-up digital news ventures.
The program is designed as a Web-TV hybrid. Stories will be presented online first, where they will be developed throughout the week via multimedia content from staff and freelance contributors as well as a small pool of member stations; audience input will also be in the mix. The Web content will culminate with a linear television broadcast Fridays at 8:30 p.m., co-anchored by Alison Stewart and Jon Meacham.
The show's Web component, says Neal Shapiro, president of WNET.org, will let users experience "how the broadcast is coming together by looking at pieces we've already produced, interviews we've done, notes from producers about what we're thinking, ideas about guests, maybe questions about what we should be asking those guests.
"It's very interactive. We want to make this a continual experience."
There's no question that technology has drastically changed both the process and economics of newsgathering. The contraction has meant a dearth of investigative and foreign news. Commercial news organizations grappling with how to fill gaping budget holes wrought by downturns in viewers and ad revenue are increasingly looking toward the digital horizon for answers. They are saving money by replacing foreign bureaus with one-man-band digital journalists. And while the Web has yielded insignificant revenue, many news organizations, including ABC News, have signaled their intent to experiment with online pay walls.
Whether viewers take to the Need to Know experience remains to be seen. The show has been in the works for nearly three years, according to Stephen Segaller, VP of content for WNET.org: "We've been in sort of a crossroads of producing in the old-fashioned medium of linear television and the expanding unlimited potential for content of the Internet for a long time."
There won't be any pay walls or pre-roll on WNET.org. But WNET, the largest public broadcaster in the country with an annual program budget of more than $160 million, nevertheless has a lot riding on Need to Know's success. The recession has blighted underwriting, which makes up a majority of the station's grant money-$56.7 million for fiscal year 2009-which has led to multiple staff cuts and tough programming decisions.
The rent on Need to Know's Lincoln Center studio is $1 million a year. The show's annual budget is more than $10 million, according to sources. A significant portion of that budget will be covered by grants from PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for at least the first two years, according to Segaller. The remainder of the cost of producing the show will be raised from corporate donors and foundation grants.
The program has been designated for "common carriage" by PBS, which means Need to Know will roll out in more than 90% of PBS' 356 member stations. (Other news and public-affairs programs designated common carriage include WGBH's Frontline and WETA's Washington Week.) The program does not have a corporate underwriter, which is not unusual for news programming.
"The marketplace is difficult for current affairs programming anyway in corporate underwriting," Segaller says. "And the overall economy just makes that much more difficult."
A broad rollout will make it easier to raise money from corporations and foundations once the show is on-air, Shapiro says.
Public broadcasting executives don't live and die by ratings like their colleagues in commercial TV, but PBS stations became Nielsen-rated in October 2009. Thus, PBS may need to grow its graying audience.
Shapiro would not characterize his ratings goals for Need to Know. "We all recognize that this is a new show," he says. "But nobody in the history of television likes to produce things that [don't have an audience], so clearly we're going to be paying attention to that. But we are not going to agonize and say, ‘We're losing audience at 12 minutes after the hour, so we'd better do something different right there.' We're going to take the long view and know that it's a new audience of a bunch of smart, motivated viewers."
It's no coincidence that Need to Know will bow as multiple WNET programs end, a result in part of a paucity of funding during a recession and a diversion of resources to the new program. After only 18 months on the air, Worldfocus will have its last broadcast April 2. The show was launched under Shapiro's watch to replace BBC World News; its cancellation was a direct result of a lack of funding. Asked how he felt about the show, Shapiro says, "I'm delighted by everything expect the fundraising part of it."
Bill Moyers Journal and investigative newsmagazine NOW will have their final broadcasts April 30. Moyers, who is 75, is retiring. He was the original host of NOW before handing the program over to current anchor David Brancaccio.
The cancellation of NOW in particular has rankled the program's core vocal audience, who have inundated WNET with complaints. The network's ombudsman has addressed the imminent cancellation of NOW multiple times on the station's Website. On the final installment of NOW, Brancaccio will offer sentiments from anonymous NOW fans, including the following from a viewer in Connecticut: "Keep up the righteous passion; the people who have no voice rely on those of us who do to raise a ruckus." According to a well-placed source, that "viewer in Connecticut" is Meryl Streep.
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