Jan 9, 2011

"PBS NewsHour" touts its calm, reasoned approach to the news

Emphasizing its non-ideological news coverage, PBS Newshour tried out a new catch phrase today (Jan. 9) at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena: "Brave enough not to take sides, strong enough not to shout."

"We haven't actually used it before today and we thought it might be a good opportunity to kind of roll that out," said Simon Marks, president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions (left, PBS photo). Marks said that slogan survived scrutiny while others didn't. "At one point, we were looking at 'The original no-spin zone,' but we decided not to go there."

The new phrase is intended to emphasize the difference between PBS news values and those of other news operations. "The environment in which we're operating is filled with organizations that are increasingly taking positions and trying to, in large measure, preach to choirs they've already identified," Marks said.

The calmer PBS approach is gaining favor with more people, particularly online. In a news release, Newshour said the number of daily online visitors to its website had more than tripled in the last year, from 60,000 to more than 200,000. The show melded its on-air and online staffs and coverage a year ago this month (Current, Jan. 11, 2010). While the web traffic increased, the number of broadcast viewers during that time has remained unchanged.

"Masterpiece" is reaching out to enthusiastic fans in two new and unique ways

Now, fans of Masterpiece can become part of the series that's celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. They can join a special trust to help directly fund the program, or literally retrace the footsteps of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and other characters.

Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton (right, PBS photo) announced yesterday (Jan. 8) at the TV Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif., that a "Masterpiece Trust" has been established. That financial support — which would go directly to the show — could go toward replacing some of the funding lost when longtime sponsor ExxonMobil pulled out as of 2005. So far, four couples will be listed as part of the trust in the credits on tonight's presentation of "Downton Abbey" (which, by the way, has been receiving rave reviews: The Los Angeles Times proclaimed the Edwardian drama "possibly the best show of the year").

The trust "is a unique way we have come up with to allow those devoted, loyal Masterpiece fans who want to give money directly to Masterpiece to continue its legacy," Eaton said, adding that further details will be coming later this week. "My feeling is this is the perfect way to acknowledge and tap into people who love Masterpiece and consider it the drama of their lives."

And Masterpiece is betting that those viewers also would like to immerse themselves in the shows by visiting the places where they are shot.

"With so many of our locations, people just yearn to be there and to go there," Eaton said. "So in honor of our 40th anniversary, we are creating the Masterpiece itinerary."

Working with Visit Britain, the official UK tourist agency, the series came up with a tour with 21 stops over a route of 985 miles. In addition, an online contest will send two people on a four-day trip to England in September. Highlights include VIP tours of Highclere Castle ("Jeeves & Wooster") and Blenheim Palace ("The Lost Prince").

By Barry Garron, longtime TV critic and past-president of the Television Critics Association, who is covering the Winter Press Tour for Current. Watch upcoming issues for more.