These late summer weeks have been prime time for big, splashy media launches. In sports, Fox Sports 1 debuted to great fanfare as the first real competition to ESPN in the sports cable arena, while on the news side, Al Jazeera began its bid for the US market in earnest, against the established behemoths of CNN, Fox, and to a lesser degree, MSNBC. Meanwhile, the much-hyped launch of Fusion, the hispanic- and millennial-targeted ABC-Univision venture, is still forthcoming.
Comparatively unheralded was the launch this past weekend of a new edition of the very much established, and venerated, PBS NewsHour. NewsHour Weekend, hosted out of New York by Hari Sreenivasan, is one half of a the most significant set of on-air changes to the program since Jim Lehrer eased himself out of nightly anchoring two years ago (the other half is the introduction of Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill to permanent co-anchor status on the weekday edition). The weekend edition represents the first expansion of the NewsHour into the weekend, and with it, a scheduled news presence for PBS seven days a week. The NewsHour has been buffeted by funding and ratings troubles over the years, and has been pressured to modernize what some see as an outdated program. The weekend expansion represents a prime opportunity to make some adjustments and win back viewership
The new edition could not have picked a better weekend to try to demonstrate its ability to swim in the swift, unforgiving currents of the news cycle. With continued rumblings of military action on Syria, NewsHour Weekend led off with the tense situation on both nights. The Saturday lead, which included both a short summary of the Syria developments from Sreenivasan and a four-minute report from inside a refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan, was much stronger than the Sunday lead.
Sunday, the program opened with a phone conversation with Charlie Rose, who had earlier completed an interview with Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. While it would have been foolish for PBS to not play up its own semi-exclusive interview—Rose’s other employer, CBS, also got access to the interview—the quality of the line was often scratchy.
The report from the refugee camp on Saturday was followed by an interview with foreign chief correspondent Margaret Warner, who was reporting on Syria from Egypt, and the interview cleverly squeezed in a brief discussion of how the situation in Egypt itself was being overshadowed by the current developments. After a short, two-minute news summary, consisting of items (Australian Elections, IBM retiree health insurance cuts, etc.) that clearly would have gotten a deeper treatment on the weekday edition, the “signature segment,” the longform report of the night, ran.
The “signature” reports on both nights were strong pieces of original reporting. Saturday’s piece, by Martin Fletcher, focused on the discovery of offshore natural gas reserves off the coast of Israel, and it managed to explain the changed regional and domestic dynamics well. On Sunday, arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown profiled composer Stephen Sondheim in a segment that took up a similar six- to seven-minute block.
However, what clearly was the best segment of NewsHour Weekend was followed by the weakest, “The Connection.” At 23 minutes past the hour, it was the final real segment of the newscast before an abbreviated recap, and on both nights it had the feel of an incomplete thought, or a brainstormed story pitch the producers were too lazy to properly report out. The Saturday segment, a brief overview of medical Marijuana regulation (which featured the usual terrible wordplay) was not nearly as flagrant in this regard as the Sunday piece on homelessness, which meandered from anecdote to anecdote, and concluded by musing, over B-roll of homeless people sleeping on benches, “That got us thinking about the all the others still out on the streets. What are their stories? How do they get home?” Maybe they should have gone out and asked some of them.
Still, the presence of this segment calls into question one of the stated innovations of Newshour Weekend: the local news window. The part of the program where “The Connection” ran was the segment designed to allow for local stations to put their own local reports. However, many PBS stations in some of the largest markets, including New York’s WNET, where the national broadcast was produced, broadcast the program untouched.
The Sunday telecast was also a reminder of the squeezed resources of the current NewsHour. the discussion on Syria featured an extended interview with a USA Today reporter on Obama’s chances in the congressional vote, and later featured a three-minute interview with the NewsHour’s political editor on the non-Syria Congressional agenda, meaning that on Sunday, the segment profiling Sondheim was the only real field report that edition; everything else was either Sreenivasan reading over tape gathered by others or interviewing reporters via satellite.
So is the NewsHour Weekend worth watching? Well, it does have a sense of urgency and pacing forced by being half the length of the weekday program. The “signature segments” are strong enterprise reports worth watching, and the increased focus on arts, if the Sondheim profile is any indication, is welcome. However, the same cracks in the foundation are visible as on the weekday program, and a new time and spiffed up presentation can only go so far to compensate for a stagnant pool of financial support.