‘Now’ or Never for PBS Series

Feb 23, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Though Bill Moyers will depart as host of “Now With Bill Moyers” in November after the presidential election, PBS is looking at ways to keep the show on its schedule, especially with plans under way to create a new public affairs channel.
PBS spokesperson Lea Sloan said Mr. Moyers will be hard to replace, because hosting “Now” requires a lot more than to simply be a talking head. “[The host] has to raise money for it,” she said.
The 69-year-old Mr. Moyers, who has spent 30 years in television, said last week he is leaving to write a book on President Lyndon Johnson, for whom he once worked as press secretary.
Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of PBS, lamented Mr. Moyers’ decision in a prepared statement. “Bill Moyers is one of America’s most respected journalists. Bill and Judith Moyers have produced some of public television’s path-breaking television, including `Bill Moyers’ Journal,’ `Creativity,’ `Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth,’ `World of Ideas,’ `Genesis,’ `Healing and the Mind,’ `The Public Mind’ and most recently, `Now.’ The list goes on and on. PBS would like to thank Bill for his marvelous contribution to `Now’ and wish him well as he moves into this next phase of his work. We are in discussions with the executive producer, John Siceloff, about `Now’s’ future in the new year.”
Those discussions include keeping “Now” on the air on Friday nights but cutting the show to half an hour from its current one-hour format, sources said. David Brancaccio, the former host of Minnesota Public Radio’s “Marketplace” business news show who has been doing some co-hosting on the program has been mentioned as a possible host.
The problem is that Mr. Brancaccio lacks widespread name recognition.
Apparently Mr. Moyers’ departure has been a possibility for some time. Former PBS program supplier Rory O’Connor, president and CEO of independent producer Globalvision, which produced two of the network’s public affairs series, said Mr. Moyers had told intimates when he began “Now” two years ago that he would do the show for only a year. Neither Mr. Moyers nor his producer, Rick Byrne, was immediately available for comment.
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, called Mr. Moyers’ departure “incredibly sad” and criticized PBS for not having a successor ready. “It illustrates PBS’s failure in not developing a new generation of Bill Moyers-style journalists. PBS is not preparing well for the future in the digital age.”
While Mr. Moyers is widely thought of as being on the progressive left side of the political debate, he is also a solid member of the mainstream journalistic establishment. PBS cannot simply replace him with another famous “progressive” without risking backlash from its major funding source, the quasi-governmental Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Others noted that Mr. Moyers’ departure may come as welcome news to some in the PBS executive suites. “Now” and Mr. Moyers have been frequent targets of criticism by members of the Bush administration. CPB has refused to allocate any funds for the program. Given that history, the timing is opportune, this source said, because the House appropriations subcommittee, which handles appropriations for the CPB, is planning a hearing Feb. 25 that will deal with CPB’s funding of PBS, a hearing that PBS’s Pat Mitchell is expected to address, asking for further funding. “The timing of the Moyers announcement might be intended to send a signal to Congress,” the source said.
Mr. Moyers infuriated the White House on Nov. 8, 2002, when he criticized the Republican Party’s agenda. “If you like God in government,” he editorialized, “get ready for the Rapture. These folks don’t even mind you referring to the GOP as the party of God.”
“Every time I hear one of Parson Moyers’ sermons, it reminds me that he came to public attention as head flack for Lyndon B. Johnson,” the late Robert Bartley, longtime editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, wrote after Mr. Moyers’ commentary.
In June PBS will debut a new public affairs show, a weekly program hosted by Tucker Carlson, who represents the conservative side of the debate on CNN’s “Crossfire.”
PBS is also said to be working on a proposal for a full-time public affairs channel, with the working title Public Square, that could be offered on digital tiers on cable. According to a recent article in the public broadcasting publication Current, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has come up with a $200,000 grant to study the feasibility of such a proposal. PBS programmer Coy Atlas told Current, “We plan over the next five months to identify what the voice of the new channel will be and … come up with one or two distinctive shows unique to this channel.”
Originally, the plan was to develop a two-hour public affairs block on Friday nights on PBS, but that plan fell apart because of funding concerns.