Judy Woodruff and the future look in TV news
New York — Is Judy Woodruff in the vanguard of future TV news? Recently, there was a stir in network news rooms when it was announced that this chief Washington correspondent for the ''Today'' show had chosen to move from NBC to PBS.
What made the announcement of special interest was the fact that veteran newswoman (since 1970) Woodruff, who had served as NBC News's White House correspondent during both the Carter and Reagan administrations, had decided to join PBS's ''The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour,'' despite reportedly lucrative offers by NBC.
The expanded version of public television's long-running ''MacNeil-Lehrer Report'' will make its national debut under a new format on Monday, Sept. 5, on PBS at various hours throughout the nation (in most cities in the 6-7 p.m. or 7- 8 p.m. slot). News experts believe this show may be the harbinger of extended evening news shows throughout television, despite the fact that the recent expansion to a full hour of Ted Koppel's ABC ''Nightline'' has resulted in lower ratings for that show.
Miss Woodruff lives in Washington and will make that city her base of operations. But until the show starts airing, she is commuting back and forth between Washington and New York to work directly with Robin MacNeil and James Lehrer on setting the format.
''Washington correspondent'' means, according to Judy, ''covering anything and everything in Washington, from politics to agriculture, bills, food stamps, whatever. It'll depend on what I feel the story is.''
How will that differ from what she has been doing at NBC?
''The main difference is going to be the wonderful luxury of having more time ,'' the intense and intelligent Miss Woodruff told me in a recent interview. ''Instead of doing pieces that run anywhere from 60 to 90 seconds, which was the average length of my NBC News pieces, or even the 41/2-minute interviews on the 'Today' show, I'll be doing pieces that can run 10 or 15 minutes. Maybe even 30 minutes.
''It's a chance to go behind the headlines. To look at more than what the commercial networks really have time to do. But more than just time, there will be a different focus, a different style. We're not going to be trying to duplicate what the commercial networks do. We will try to take the story a few steps beyond what they can do. We'll talk to all the people involved in making decisions.''
Will Woodruff ever function as an anchor?
''Yes, I'll substitute for Robin and Jim when they take time off. But Charlayne Hunter-Gault will continue to play an important role as New York correspondent. We'll both be traveling to cover stories.''
Just how will the hour show differ from the half-hour one?
''Instead of one subject, we'll start out with a news capsule, then spend most of the first half-hour on one subject, as it is now. Maybe it will be preceded by a pretaped piece, setting up the story. In the second half-hour we'll either do one or two shorter interviews concerning the second and third subjects. Or maybe a short interview and a taped piece . . . or even two taped pieces.''
Is ''Newshour'' what the commercial networks would be doing if they could expand their newscasts?
''I don't think the networks know yet what they would do with an hour. Some of my colleagues at NBC have told me that they'll be watching, and they hope we do what we do well because then they can learn from our experience. But still, the network mandate will be different, because they will still feel they must cover every major story - fires in Kansas City, bridge collapses. We will deal with those, but probably not in the same way. We will dig deep into why they happened.''
Will ''Newshour'' be an alternative to network news, or a supplement?
''Both. At first, people will probably watch the networks for a few minutes and then switch over to 'Newshour.' We hope that after a time, they'll see that what they've been missing is better than what they've been seeing on the commercial networks. There's really no way of predicting. All we can do is hope we can hold their attention.
''But overall, the philosophy of the show is clearly to be an alternative, to look at the news, to approach the news in a way that the networks don't have the time or inclination to do.''
Miss Woodruff worked for NBC News for almost nine years, and before that she reported for a CBS affiliate in Atlanta. Now she wants to make it clear that, although she has decided to leave network news, she still feels there is a lot right with it.
''Consideringthe time constraints, the ratings concerns, and all the other obvious pressures at work, I think the networks do a pretty good job. I know that in NBC, for instance, there are some very responsible, professional people who want very much to serve the public, who see that as their prime responsibility. But clearly, there just isn't time. In a 22-minute evening newscast, say, there just isn't time to treat the news in the depth that the public needs.
''The networks have gotten a bum rap to the extent that they've been accused of not being an adequate sole source of information. They were always meant to be only one of several sources. People were always meant to go elsewhere to supplement the network news.''
What would make ''Newshour'' a success as far as Judy Woodruff is concerned?
''If we can bring the public information in a way they have not been able to receive it before in television. If we can bring them more of the kinds of stories they've been able to get only in print. But even more important, if we can show some other people in broadcast journalism that there is a way to cover and present news to people that goes beyond conventional form - epitomized by the quick narration, standing correspondent, and three-minute interview on the morning news show.
''If we can show that we can offer more of what the public wants . . . if we can demonstrate that there's a craving out there on the part of a lot of people for news in perspective, for news with depth, rather than just skimming the surface, then I think we will have performed a great service and I will consider the show a success.''