Shrinking appetite for serious news

Last summer, the staff at PBS's "Frontline" were sitting around wondering how they were going to mark the end of the Clinton administration.

"We actually were literally scratching our heads, when we heard that [ABC's] 'Nightline' had begun a project to try to take stock of the Clinton presidency. So we gave them a call and talked to them about it," says "Frontline" executive producer Michael Sullivan.

Last week, the two programs announced their joint collaboration, "The Clinton Years," which will appear in January. Both sides say the programming - two hours of "Frontline" on Jan. 16 introduced by Ted Koppel, and five nights of the half-hour "Nightline" Jan. 8 to 12 - would not have been available to the public without a partnership.

Their joint venture comes at a time when some cost-saving approaches by news organizations are being criticized as error-prone and potentially leading to homogeneous news.

Problems last month with the Voter News Service - a consortium created by several TV networks and The Associated Press to save money when compiling election results - led to the networks making mistaken calls about which presidential candidate had won Florida.

While the merits of such large-scale sharing are being debated, outlets such as "Frontline" and "Nightline" aren't shying away from partnerships as a way to reach more viewers and extend resources. The way they see it, working together often makes sense for individual projects in a media environment where fragmented audiences are affecting bottom lines.

"What it allows us to do, at a time of shrinking budgets, is to be more ambitious, to do things we never could have done," says Ton Bettag, executive producer of "Nightline," which has also teamed up with the Discovery Channel and Court TV.

Mr. Sullivan says the question for operations becomes, "How can I both survive and ... also fulfill my ambitions. And that leads almost everybody to partnerships."

For viewers, it means access to programs they might not see otherwise - and possibly to improved journalism. Reporting is expensive, points out Edward Fouhy, founding director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. He applauds news outlets for going out and finding ways to bring viewers more variety and the funds to support good reporting.

But others are cautious about the potential of partnerships. "There may very well be some positive results from this kind of thing, [but] generally speaking, the more widespread the collaborations, the more homogenous the news will become," says Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at New York University and director of the Project on Media Ownership.

That's a concern shared by new PBS president Pat Mitchell, a cable and television veteran who supports the idea of bringing more options to PBS viewers. She says she expects partnership deals will be made "very prudently." In the case of PBS, she says, "We want to be the place where voices that aren't heard other places can be heard."

PBS and its programs, many of which draw on independent producers, have long paired with both public and private media organizations, including other networks. PBS is producing the Tony Awards with CBS for the third year in a row, and in the early '90s it teamed up with NBC for election coverage.

This fall, its two signature news programs - "Frontline" and "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" - worked with NPR on a program for voters about election-related issues.

On the back burner is a project between The New York Times and MacNeil-Lehrer Productions for an evening news program on PBS. It's been in the works for more than a year, but so far lacks funding.

The Times has its toes in a number of television projects, including plans for a science series on the soon-to-debut National Geographic channel.

There are benefits to working with public television, explains Bettag, such as cooperation from sources who favor the end product because it will be seen by viewers of both public and commercial TV. And Sullivan says that because "Frontline" has been critical of the Clinton administration, it might not have gotten the access to White House officials that Nightline did.

It's not surprising to Professor Miller that people would think of partnering with PBS. "[It's] the only place left in our media landscape where you can find anything like serious broadcast journalism," he says.

The results could be good if the thoroughness of PBS journalism rubs off on its partners, Miller says. But he wonders if the flow will go both ways, and somehow the PBS product will take on the more attention-getting aspects used to make news salable on commercial TV and hence attractive to advertisers.

Bettag, who praises PBS's unique, public-service mission, sees it a different way: "By working together, we can help give PBS an immediacy and another arrow in its quiver it wouldn't have otherwise," he says. "We're going to partner with somebody, and the truth of the matter is that we'd rather partner with Frontline and with PBS than with anybody else."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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