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The Little Picture: Nation needs a public all-news TV network

Apr 8, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Good luck to Don Hewitt in building support for his noble and timely proposal to merge the three network nightly newscasts. But as long as we’re dreaming, why not really dream?
Why not tilt at something worthy of the name quixotic? Something so foolishly impractical that not even a broadcasting icon would suggest it. Something dunked in romance and rolled in idealism-a dream from our distant past, back when we thought TV might become something more than Murrow’s wires in a box.
Let’s create a second national noncommercial broadcast network. And not “PBS 2,” either. A fully funded news channel with bureaus around the world, accountable to an independent board and dedicated to increasing the understanding of its viewers instead of addling their brains with trivia. A network that need not generate profits or even ratings.
A channel aimed not only at the 70 percent who regularly watch TV news but also the 30 percent who don’t. No insult meant to PBS, but public television has never been able to build a sizable news operation. Yes, “Frontline” and “NewsHour” are solid, and I’m cheering on Pat Mitchell as she tries to woo Ted Koppel to bring “Nightline” over to PBS.
But the PBS model-born out of the Nixon administration’s vengeful budget-cutting, which forced pubcasters to look elsewhere for support-is better suited to entertainment, not news. The underwriter system is set up not unlike a public-radio gift catalog, with a handful of “quality” name-brand programs hand-crafted by individual stations (or in the case of “Frontline,” a collective).
The underwriter system has led to the creation of little fiefdoms; some, like the one Louis Rukeyser is trying to hold together, actually date back to Nixon’s time. No one should be surprised that the producing station of “Wall $treet Week” would suddenly show its popular host the door and accept a takeover bid from AOL Time Warner, which was itching to get its Fortune brand on television.
The problem with fiefdoms, as Koppel and now Rukeyser have learned, is that they can’t compete with empires. The solution, then, is to build an empire.
Let PBS keep its news programs and Ken Burns and Fred Wiseman and Bill Moyers. But a group of far-sighted foundations and billionaires could, with the right amount of courage and capital, breathe into being a new network that does so much more. That reaches audiences unreached by PBS. That does not serve as a vessel, in the words of public TV veteran James Day, for “the questionable commercial values projected by the nation’s dominant broadcasters.”
In short, an independent in-house news service, with noncelebrity anchors, nonbranded stories, and noncommercial values.
And preferably, nondull news. Reese Schonfeld’s original “random-onium” model for CNN is still as viable as it was the day Schonfeld’s successors ditched it. In case you’re unfamiliar with “random-onium,” it’s the name Frank Zappa bestowed on CNN to describe its early-1980s practice of hopping around the globe, from one story to the next, instead of doing one or two “hot” stories to death as it does now.
Dull, however, would not be verboten. After all, it works for the BBC.
There has always been some yearning for an American equivalent of the Beeb, and for good reason. But BBC America already carries many of Britain’s popular entertainment shows. And America has HBO, which in many ways is our BBC. It’s funded by viewers, who in turn demand a steady stream of new product that meets their high expectations.
But HBO will never do news, no matter how many channels it spins off. And even if it tries (“Good evening, I’m Bob Costas …” “And I’m Bryant Gumbel”), there will still be the need for a free, over-the-air network that serves the American public exclusively. Not shareholders or underwriters or member stations or subscribers, but we the viewers.
It would be great for television. It would be good for democracy.
Hey, a man can dream, can’t he?