Two decades after its short run, Newsroom is still the best public-affairs program in Texas history. So why isn’t there anything like it today?
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AN ENDURING COMPLAINT about public television—in Texas and elsewhere—is that local stations are reluctant to fund and air anything innovative and aggressive (unless, of course, you count those annoying pledge breaks). Given the ossified nature of the news and the happy talk and haircuts that continue to define public-affairs programming on the commercial stations, you’d think PBS stations like KERA in Dallas, KUHT in Houston, KLRU in Austin, and KLRN in San Antonio would be rushing in to fill the void. But, inexplicably, they aren’t, even though public broadcasting is desperately casting about for an identity on the ever-burgeoning channel band.
It’s not that there’s anything terribly wrong with the programs on these stations, such as KUHT’s nightly Weeknight Edition, a kind of local Today Show with author interviews, recipes, and the like; or KLRU’s weekly Austin at Issue, whose panel discussions and short documentaries focus on state and local politics; or KERA’s weekly On the Record, a recently minted mix of interviews, roundtable gab, and locally produced features and news reports. These shows are well-intentioned and competently produced, as are the stations’ election specials, and they certainly have more of a right to a place on the spectrum than, say, Jenny Jones. The problem is they’re only as good as their limited ambitions, which seem to be to get on and off the air without being noticed.
Station executives cite predictable reasons for their caution in experimenting with more-ambitious programming: money and competition. Budgets at PBS stations tend to be small indeed. The price of a Frontline documentary or a package of Jacques Pepin cooking shows consumes most of what’s available, and if there’s anything left, it’s not enough to bankroll a nightly local news program. “To mount a nightly news program that could compete with the commercial affiliates would be prohibitively expensive,” says Jonnie England, KERA’s former vice president of corporate communications.
Maybe so. But public broadcasting has always had money problems, and its game—when successfully played—has never been to vie directly with commercial TV; it augments, provides an alternative. And, anyway, there’s a precedent in Texas for producing local public-affairs programming on the cheap. The evidence is sitting right there in KERA’s videotape library. The show was called Newsroom, and for a six-year stretch in the seventies it managed to do on a shoestring precisely what isn’t being done today. I say this not merely as a fan of the show but as a former staffer. I was one of its on-air political correspondents for more than a year, from August 1972 to October 1973.
Created in 1970 by Jim Lehrer (then a former city editor at the Dallas Times Herald, now the anchor of PBS’s nightly Newshour With Jim Lehrer) and funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, Newsroom was loosely based on a show of the same name on KQED, San Francisco’s public broadcasting affiliate. Like that show, Lehrer’s Newsroom was a kind of anti-newscast—an almost self-consciously unpolished and contraconventional nightly roundtable of information and opinion from a motley crew of six to ten reporters, only some of whom were journalists. At various points there was Lee Cullum, the daughter of supermarket mogul Charles Cullum, who is now a columnist for the Dallas Morning News and a regular commentator on Lehrer’s Newshour; Bob Ray Sanders, then a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, now a columnist at the same paper; Bill Porterfield, an award-winning writer who had worked for papers in Chicago and Detroit and later wrote a column for the Austin American-Statesman; A. C. Greene, then a former editorial-page editor at the Times Herald, now a revered Texas author; and Martin Frost, then a local attorney, now a U.S. congressman from Dallas. The Newsroom team was multiethnic, multicultural, and multigenerational long before any of that was chic, and there wasn’t a blow-dried strand of hair or a well-modulated vocal timbre in the place.
The show’s name was not an affectation. Newsroom looked very much like one: The original set was a collection of haphazardly shoved-together desks strewn with papers, files, and typewriters from which reporters delivered their stories in a conversational style. Lehrer, the moderator, would frequently interrupt to ask that a fact be clarified or amplified. If a reporter didn’t know the answer to one of Lehrer’s questions, he was politely—or, at times, not so politely—asked to fill in the blank the next night. If one of us made a mistake in a story, it too was promptly corrected. Lehrer’s conceit, he said, was to create a “newspaper of the airwaves,” so we avoided sensationalism as a matter of policy, preferring instead to risk boring our viewers with important, if difficult-to-digest, details. We didn’t do auto wrecks and we didn’t do weather. We were guided by the facts, though we were encouraged to offer our opinions as well.
We worked the typical beats—city hall, the courthouse, the school district, the state Capitol—as well as new ones, such as the environment and consumer affairs. And we worked them in the most traditional way: day in, day out. After exploring our beats, we arrived each afternoon for an editorial meeting at which we tossed out what we thought was newsworthy and crafted a program on the spot. “The key to the show was its spontaneity,” recalls Lee Cullum, who took over as the show’s moderator in 1972 after Lehrer took a job with PBS in Washington, D.C. “No one, including the staff, really knew what was going to happen next. Some people may have seen it as amateurish, but it’s what made the show lively, and it’s why people trusted us. They really were looking at the gathering of news in process.” This nightly beat reporting was supplemented by a variety of features that filled the remainder of the hour. Guests were brought in for a fifteen- to twenty-minute grilling: Generally they were local political types, though as the program gained notoriety, Newsroom welcomed well-known guests from Lloyd Bentsen to—believe it or not—Muhammad Ali. Quirkier fare was provided by essayists like Porterfield and photographers and filmmakers who, in concert with reporters, shot slice-of-life pieces on subjects ranging from a day in the life of an ambulance driver to the rantings of a local Klan member and profiles of local night spots and their clientele (a series I, ahem, undertook in my spare time).
Newsroom was never a big winner in the ratings game: Only 15,000 to 25,000 households tuned in each night (though the show was loyally watched by whoever passed for intellectuals in Dallas at the time, as well as artsy types, the local political set, and young people). Not surprisingly, KERA’s commitment to it flagged in the mid-seventies, a short while after foundations like Ford began to reexamine the wisdom of funding such ventures. The show went through a series of painful mutations—changes of name, time slot, program length, and ultimately, format—before it quietly slipped away. Conventional wisdom was that it had been an audacious experiment whose time had come and gone. Like other seventies ephemera, Newsroom seemed to be a disposable fad, as meaningless as a pet rock.
But was it really that meaningless? I’ve always believed Newsroom died too soon, that its rebellion against the tyrannical banality of local broadcast news had actually created something memorable. Surfing the local newscasts today confirms my suspicion: Just as Newsroom was ahead of its time two decades ago, it would be today, if only some PBS station could conjure up the money and the moxie to put something like it on the air.
To produce such a show these days would require a good deal more cash than it did the first go-round. The original Newsroom cost about $500,000 a year; now, according to KERA programming executives, a similar show might cost four to five times that amount. By today’s television standards, $2 million or even $3 million a year may not sound like a lot of money, but it would represent almost a quarter of KERA’s yearly budget, according to Yolette Garcia, the station’s executive producer for television production. And potential funders like Ford, Garcia notes, have shifted a lot of their giving away from the arts and toward social projects, leaving only a corporate sponsorship or membership dues to foot the bill. The former might invite interference with content; the latter just doesn’t generate enough dollars.
Of course, money is where you find it, and frequently you have to spend to make it—or in the case of public broadcasting, to raise it. Lehrer somehow found it, and a handful of PBS stations in other cities, from San Francisco to Montgomery, Alabama, have scrounged up enough of it to put on respectable nightly news programs. Executives at KERA lament the fact that while they have been the most watched PBS station in the nation for most of the past year, their ratio of paid members to total viewers is low. Wouldn’t a marquee local nightly news program give the station something new and exciting to peddle during those pledge breaks, perhaps generating more local dollars? Also, inflation notwithstanding, a program like Newsroom is by definition cheaper than conventional news programming because of its lower production values. And the cost of salaries can be kept down by employing, as Lehrer and Cullum did, young reporters, part-timers, and journalists who aren’t in it for the money.
But even if an endless supply of money could be found, there are those who wonder whether the Newsroom format has a place in the high-tech, soundbite-happy world of today’s TV news. “I’m not sure people just want to watch more talking heads these days,” Garcia says, noting that people access information faster and faster today, and from a variety of sources. If something like Newsroom were attempted again, she says, “it would have to be a lot different.” Fair enough. But consider how fresh such a program might seem in the face of the sameness of local news broadcasts. Once you strip away all the satellite uplinks, the Doppler radar, the family friendly stories, and the MTV-inspired graphics, you’ve still got pretty much the tried-and-true elements (auto wreck or drive-by shooting du jour, human interest story, pollen count, sports scores) glued together by insipid and awkward small talk. Even the highly acclaimed and top-rated WFAA in Dallas, while capable of producing the occasional investigative piece, is, night in and night out, a prisoner of this formula. Under the circumstances, something that looks and sounds as different as Newsroom couldn’t help but be noticed amid the nattering of the networks and the clutter of cable; it might even be soothing.
To attract an audience, the particulars would need to be tinkered with. Airing such a program at six-thirty or seven in evening (when Newsroom aired in the seventies) is probably a bad idea, considering the success of its competition in those time slots: Entertainment Tonight, Jeopardy, syndicated reruns of Roseanne, and the like. But there’s no reason a thoughtful local news show couldn’t air, say, during the early morning or even late at night. At those times the market for such a show still might not be any larger than it was 25 years ago, but I suspect there’s a class of local news viewer that desperately wants the one thing the commercial newscasts can’t, or won’t, provide: context. While we have more information at our disposal today than ever before, we often find ourselves adrift on a high sea without a compass; the relative significance or insignificance of different events and their connection to other events is lost in the rush to get on the air first.
KERA’s new weekly program, On the Record, makes as good an argument as any for such journalism. Though the program has been uneven in quality since its debut this past May, there have been moments of near-epiphanous insight during its skimpy ten minutes of roundtable news analysis, particularly the calm, cogent discussion of racial strife between black activists and the Dallas Independent School District leadership—a story that has needed a good dose of context for more than a year. Observing such moments, I couldn’t help but wonder how much richer we’d all be if we were offered such insights on a nightly basis.
Station executives like KERA’s Garcia and KUHT’s program director, Ken Lawrence, seem to agree tentatively in principle, but they can’t get their minds around the problem of funding. “It’s something we would love to do,” says Lawrence. “We’re just not in a position to right now. We’re about to set up a special endowment fund to ensure that perhaps we can do something like that in the future.” Well, while they’re counting their pennies, they might take some inspiration from Bill Hanley, the vice president of news and cultural affairs for Minneapolis—St. Paul’s public broadcasting station, KTCA. For the past three and a half years, KTCA has aired a nightly newscast, Newsnight Minnesota, that is funded largely by grants from two Minnesota foundations. Though the money was hard to raise the first time around and the station is currently in the process of securing funding for the next few years, Hanley says putting a priority on nightly news was worth the extra effort: The program is watched by a respectable 35,000 to 40,000 households. “It’s how we distinguish ourselves,” he says. “It’s our own product. Without nightly local news, you run the risk of becoming invisible, and then you really can’t raise any money.”