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Jennings Leaves Project Legacy

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Peter Jennings remains with “ABC World News Tonight” in name as well as spirit, for now.

ABC News said last week it would not immediately take Mr. Jennings’ name off the newscast he anchored for 22 years. In addition, Mr. Jennings’ dedication to prime-time documentary programming will most likely live beyond the change of flagship anchor.

Mr. Jennings left long-form projects under his independent PJ Productions banner in various stages of production. The independent banner was launched as part of Mr. Jennings’ contract extension in late 2002. During the Jennings era, the network distinguished itself from competitors with these in-depth projects.

All of the projects were in the pipeline when Mr. Jennings announced in April that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

Under the deal he signed in 2002, the network made a five-year commitment to air at least four hours per year of the award-winning “Peter Jennings Reporting” documentaries. In addition, PJ Productions was allowed to turn out projects for other outlets.

There has been neither time nor appetite at ABC News for grappling with just how to make appropriate use of the PJ Productions material, for some of which Mr. Jennings had begun to lay down sound tracks, and one of which is about health care.

“I can tell you without reservation that [ABC News President] David Westin and ABC News are very committed to continuing the brilliant work of Peter Jennings in long-form documentaries in prime time. That is a part of our DNA and will continue to be,” an ABC News spokesman said.

“I think we all feel an enduring commitment,” said Tom Yellin, president of PJ Productions as well as executive producer of last week’s tribute, “Peter Jennings: Reporter,” which won its two-hour time slot with an average 9.4 million viewers.

More than 16 million people saw “Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Jesus” in 2000, making it the most-watched of the “PJR” programs, Mr. Yellin said.

On the PJ Productions Web site, Mr. Jennings is quoted as saying, “The best television is challenging television. Smart television.”

Many in network news divisions wonder if there ever will be another anchor with the clout and public following to extract a contractual commitment from a major network for serious documentaries in prime time.

Even Mr. Jennings wrote on the PJ Productions Web site, “These days in network television … there is less time for our kind of documentary.”

Mr. Yellin, however, is optimistic that “Others will come and will follow who will do great things.

“It is a tradition that won’t end with Peter,” he said.