WNET’s Startup Artist

When executives at WNET were writing up the job description for executive producer of Need to Know, the New York PBS station’s new Web-TV hybrid newsmagazine, it’s a wonder they weren’t thinking of Shelley Lewis all along. Background in weekly, deadline-driven newsmagazine production? Check. Understanding of how to craft content for the Web? Yep.

“We also needed someone who knew how to launch something from nothing,” says Stephen Segaller, WNET’s VP of content. “Shelley just had a terrific claim on the assignment.”

Through more than 25 years in the business, Lewis has been something of a startup artist, helping to launch several new programs, a video Website and an entire radio network from scratch.

“The opportunity to create something new is always very appealing,” Lewis says. She jokes that there wasn’t even a proper term to describe Need to Know, which she calls both a show and Website. (“Maybe ‘shwebsite?’” she offers.)

Need to Know will attempt to straddle platforms by using its Website, at www. pbs.org/needtoknow, as the first stop for presenting video and text from stories in progress before a selection of them are packaged for the weekly Friday night program. The show airs on more than 90% of PBS’ 356 member stations.

The site, which launched May 3 ahead of the program’s May 7 premiere, looks like virtually every other news Website, with short video clips, articles and blogs. For Lewis and her team, including co-anchors Alison Stewart and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, the difference is strategic; the site will be the primary point of contact for viewers they’re looking to engage through Facebook and site features such as “The Pitch Room,” which solicits story ideas.

“We’re trying to receive as well as transmit,” Lewis points out, “and we’re trying to acknowledge how so many people use media and get their news.”

Back in 1975, when media was considerably less multifarious, Lewis began her news career in radio at NYU. After graduating, she started as a news writer for NBC Radio, and later rose to become news director for NBC’s young-adult network, The Source.

Lewis jumped to TV in 1985, joining NBC News as general manager of its affiliate news service. After landing her first executive producer job atop NBC News at Sunrise in 1989, she helped launch the short-lived Real Life With Jane Pauley.

Lewis then joined ABC’s overnight program ABC News Now—“the most fun you can ever have in television except for the hours,” she recalls. She then produced a number of primetime specials before becoming executive producer of Good Morning America in 1997 and later an executive producer for ABC News Productions, where she helped launch the series She-TV for Discovery Health and Lifetime Lives for Lifetime.

In 2001, Lewis joined former ABC colleague Jeff Greenfield at CNN, where they launched Greenfield at Large. When the show was overtaken by CNN’s rolling post-9/11 coverage, they decided against bringing it back, and a year later, Lewis executive- produced American Morning With Paula Zahn—“another startup,” she notes.

Then in 2003, the prospect of starting something new led her to join in launching the liberal Air America radio network, where she served as senior VP of programming. (Only weeks after launch, Lewis was diagnosed with breast cancer, an experience she chronicled with unsentimental wit in her 2008 book Five Lessons I Didn’t Learn From Breast Cancer; she has been cancer-free ever since.)

In 2006, Lewis was on to a new venture— and a new medium. Along with former ABC colleague Joanna Breen, she launched Howdini.com, a how-to video site aimed at women that drew on her morning TV experience producing countless service segments.

Bringing her TV production experience to the Web venture only strengthened her conviction that the principles of storytelling and good content are platform-agnostic. If anything, Lewis says, the variety of topics and information sources fostered by the Web are perfectly suited to the aims of a good TV newsmagazine.

“We are all media omnivores these days,” she says, summing up the mission of Need to Know. “In the end, we need to provide context, perspective and clarity as opposed to just getting people more exercised about a hot issue, which is something you don’t always get a chance to do when you do television.”