Why I’ll watch the new World News America

While we wait for Comcast and Time Warner cable to conquer their Al Jazeera phobia, let me suggest an alternative for news junkies who find American TV a little too News Lite: tune in to BBC World News America. And watch it on PBS.

BBC World News America is the smart, U.S.-oriented nightly news program that began in 2007 on the BBC America channel (not to be mistaken for the twenty-four-hour BBC World News channel; couldn’t they come up with less confusing titles?).

Starting Monday, March 28, BBC World News America will move to its new and distinctly American home: PBS, or at least to those PBS channels that choose to air it. (Its former home, the BBC America channel, is going all entertainment, all the time.)

Still with me? There’s more: BBC World News America will air on PBS in a slimmed-down, half-hour, ad-free format, instead of the hour (including commercials) that’s now in its final days on BBC’s own channel. The reasons for all these changes are somewhere in this February press release about a strategic rethink, apparently written by BBC’s corporate suits, not its journalists.

I gave up trying to figure out the strategy, but I know that—barring unexpected changes when anchors Matt Frei and Katty Kay greet us on PBS Monday—BBC World News America will still be my nightly news of choice after the move. Here are a few reasons why:

1. There’s a great big world out there, and BBC’s show reminds you of that, in depth, every single night. If the main news in the U.S. is big enough, it leads the show and warrants some talking-head analysis. But the program always moves on, circling the globe to remind us that Pakistan is still recovering from last summer’s floods, that Laurent Gbagbo is still ensconced in Ivory Coast, that Nepal is still struggling to build a post-monarchy system. Oh, yeah—the Middle East? You’ll see reports from every exploding country, every night—before or after the latest about Japan, where the nuclear disaster is analyzed with great clarity by David Shukman while Damian Grammaticas tells the human stories with power and poignancy.

2. BBC journalists are master storytellers who keep the camera and the script firmly focused on the people they’re covering. On a disaster scene, there are no BBC journalist-doctors treating victims—though a correspondent may lend a more subtle helping hand. Compare the results: here are some of the “participatory” reports of U.S. journalist-doctors in Haiti last year. And here’s how the BBC’s Matthew Price and his crew reported on their role in helping a Haitian woman give birth (hint: if you blink hard, you’ll miss the five seconds when you see the BBC van speeding toward the hospital, film crew and mom in tow).

That’s just one example of the gap between the American news cult of personality and the lower profile reporters on BBC. Some correspondents, like the amazing Orla Guerin, are almost anti-stars. Guerin is intrepid, deadpan, unsmiling—but then the stories she tells so skillfully from Pakistan offer little to smile about.

Guerin’s employer also just doesn’t seem to feel the need to blow its own horn as loudly as U.S. networks. If you watched Christiane Amanpour’s recent interview with Muammar Qaddafi, were you aware that ABC had a “U.S. exclusive,” but not a world exclusive? Amanpour herself did note that she shared the interview with “two British journalists” but ABC’s camerawork, editing, and packaging made sure the competition was barely visible. Yet, in BBC’s version, Amanpour and Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times were clearly shown as sharing the interview with BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen.

3. The tougher the reporting challenge, the more creative BBC correspondents get. Imagine you were Beijing correspondent James Reynolds a couple of years ago, drawing the assignment of covering the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Did Reynolds do a “where are they now” piece about some of the key players? Or a documentary with file footage, recapping the main events? No, he did not, perhaps because we’ve all seen those stories already. More than once. Instead, on June 4, 2009, he took a crew down to the square, and, in two minutes of marvelous footage, told a graphic story about the deep paranoia of Chinese leaders. You see all you need to know here to understand that the Tiananmen anniversary remains the most sensitive date on the calendar for the Chinese regime. (I once showed this clip to some Chinese broadcast journalists visiting the U.S. They tittered the second they saw the umbrellas go up, but stayed silent at the end, too uncomfortable to offer any opinions about it.)

And here’s a piece of pure ingenuity: When BBC’s Sue Lloyd-Roberts got a rare visa for North Korea for the celebration of founder Kim Il-Sung’s birthday, she used every opportunity to look past her minders to reveal glimpses of another regime too paranoid to let reporters show real life. Don’t miss the octopus and bananas on the farmer’s lunch table.

Notice what I have not mentioned: BBC World News America’s coverage of America. In the program’s early days, it didn’t always live up to its title. I recall an evening when the show led with the tale of a plane that went off a runway at London’s Heathrow Airport—and no one was seriously hurt! It ran for several minutes—seemed eons at the time—to an American audience. Yawn.

I haven’t seen that kind of misstep in quite a while, though. The show’s coverage of the U.S. is fine—on a par with what’s produced by American media. But that’s not the reason to tune in. No, you want to watch BBC World News America for the foreign report, drawn from “the best of BBC journalism from all around the world,” as executive producer Rome Hartman describes it in a note to viewers about the show’s move to PBS.

Much of Hartman’s show is not produced originally for an American audience, so it’s not unusual to hear financial amounts given in pounds or see the chyron under Robert Gates identify him as “Defence Secretary.” But for those who want to know what’s happening in the world, those stories are as relevant here as they are to their audiences elsewhere in the world.

The Peabody Awards jury honored the program last year, calling it “a nightly newscast like none the United States has ever had. It places our actions and concerns in a global context.” If your public TV station isn’t carrying BBC World News America next week, send the Peabody quote to the managers and ask them, Why not?

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Ann Cooper teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked as a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and National Public Radio, and was the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Tags: , , , ,