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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag

Farewell to Moyers and NOW

Last Friday evening, Nov. 20, the New York Times posted a brief news item on its Web site reporting that Bill Moyers would end his public affairs program, "Bill Moyers Journal," on April 30. It was also reported that the public affairs program "NOW on PBS," which follows Moyers on Friday nights on many PBS-member stations, was also ending its run on that same date.

The Times quoted Moyers as saying "I am 75 years old," that the program has recently been having "a good run of it," and "so I feel it's time." John Siceloff, executive producer of NOW, said the program, hosted by David Brancaccio, has been "a unique voice at a time when outlets for insightful journalism are diminishing. We're all looking for places to continue that work."

In my column posted Friday, I said that I would be away from the office this week, returning on Dec. 1. That is the case, but e-mails from disappointed viewers began to arrive soon after the report by the Times, and also by the public broadcasting trade newspaper Current early Saturday morning, and I wanted to get at least the first round posted.

These are two iconic programs, unique not just to PBS but to television generally. They have large and devoted followings and generate engagement and controversy — often a testimonial to tackling subjects that usually do not get taken on elsewhere in television, at least with much depth. Whatever one feels about these programs, they bring to public attention issues that are central to a fuller understanding of what's going on, along with interviews with interesting people who also are not likely to show up elsewhere.

At the moment, there is not much more than the early Times report. A PBS statement is printed below, following the e-mails from viewers. But it adds almost nothing to public understanding of this development at this time, except to be patient. Moyers' retirement was not unexpected, but NOW's demise comes as a surprise. I'm sure we will be hearing a lot more about all of these changes in coming days and weeks, and also a lot more from viewers. I will certainly come back to this, but for now . . .

Here Are the Early E-mails

Tonight's (Friday, 11/20/09) "Now," focusing on care of U.S. soldiers with TBI, deserved to be seen by EVERY U.S. citizen. It was excellent, but also heart-breaking. Ironically, later the same night, I read that "Now" is canceled, effective April 30, 2010. What a huge loss to us, and what a foolish decision by PBS. My wife and I are longtime contributing members of WNET-13, now contributing monthly, and "Now" is one of our favorite PBS news shows. We urge you to reconsider, especially with Bill Moyers retirement (his "Journal" is another favorite).

Ed Ciaccio, Douglaston, NY

I am very distressed to learn that both Bill Moyers Journal and NOW are being discontinued. These are about two of the only reasons left to watch that vast wasteland called television. I am VERY unhappy about this decision.

Birmingham, AL

I am bereft at the news: cancellation of "Now, with David Brancaccio" and the retirement of Bill Moyers. The PBS Friday night lineup has been my "must see TV" because it has provided coverage — thoughtful, deep, and honest — of the important stories the frenzied 24 hour cycle news ignores. I would not ask Mr. Moyer to reconsider — at 75, he has earned time off, but I do plead for renewal of "Now."

Lucinda Olasov, Isle of Palms, SC

I am disappointed that Bill Moyers has chosen to retire after April 30th, 2010, but that is his personal decision. I am aggrieved that PBS has chosen to cancel NOW, the only other program from which a viewer can LEARN about the significant issues of the times. I ask for a review of that decision and look forward to the Jan. announcement of your public affairs programming. I am a monthly sustainer.

Gloria G. Karp, Hartsdale, NY

I am dismayed at the news that Bill Moyers is ending his show on PBS. I do understand he has been working on this and other projects for a long time and may need a rest or a change. I am quite disturbed, however, at the news of the cancellation of NOW. I have been watching PBS for 40 years, since I was 7 when I remember watching "The Forsyte Saga." That PBS would cancel a show of such unique quality, integrity and, what I believe is necessity, indicates to me a change in the programming on PBS that is not interested in challenging and informing the viewer. I will be much less inclined to support PBS with my viewership and membership dollars if similar actions continue.

Seth Hoff, Chicago, IL

As I just read CommonDreams.org, Bill Moyers is retiring and "Now" is cancelled. I can understand Bill Moyers retiring; however, I cannot understand the cancelling of "Now." Other than "Frontline" there will be no reason for me to watch PBS. Will you please reconsider reinstating "Now"? Thanks!

Brian Schatz, Tampa, FL

I hear that "Now" will be cancelled come next May. I strongly urge PBS to reverse this decision. I know times are tight throughout the broadcast industry, but part of PBS' core mission is to fill in the gaps left by other broadcasters and television outlets. If you look at today's TV landscape, you can't help but conclude there is an enormous gap in serious, objective, in-depth reporting — just what "Now" provides. Please don't forget why PBS exists.

Joe Ferullo, Los Angeles, CA

I have just heard what I'm hoping is a false rumor, that "Now on PBS" is being dropped. This is devastating! There are scant resources on television for honest, independent journalism, and you are eliminating the best outlet for true journalism left on television. I have faithfully enjoyed watching NOW every week for many years and I sincerely hope you come to your senses and continue to provide this outstanding program.

Barry Howarth, Walnut Creek, CA

I am very upset to hear you are taking NOW off of the air. For heaven's sake, you of all networks should be leading the way, and fighting against cuts in news, and public affairs programming. Shame on you. Reinstate NOW, and do it now!

Chuck Rosenow, Croton on Hudson, NY

It's 'What Distinguishes PBS'

I am mortified and in disbelief to hear that PBS has decided to cancel NOW on PBS. It is a gem of a show that every week skillfully and very often movingly highlights and enlightens us on issues of national significance — unlike the preponderance of the other broadcast networks' newsmagazine programs. Now on PBS is precisely what distinguishes PBS from everyone else and make it relevant and meaningful. Canceling this unique and irreplaceable program is a terrible, terrible idea and must be reversed. What were you thinking?

Steve Brand, New York, NY


Joanna Roy, New York, NY

Removing NOW is removing the best program PBS offers. The only rational reason I can think of is that someone in Washington, DC is tightening the thumbscrews, or perhaps a corporate sponsor — but the tide is turning, so what gives? Why else would you take the truth off the air? (And one of the main reasons I tune in.)

Hoboken, NJ

I'm shocked and saddened to hear NOW is going off the air. Losing Moyers is bad enough but we expected that; but to intentionally and unnecessarily remove NOW from the airwaves is an abdication of your responsibility to educate and inform the American public. Please tell headquarters to reconsider this decision. Yes, news is expensive and yes, times are tough. But once we've weathered this financial rough patch we'll be standing here realizing we have nothing left to rely on for our information.

New York, NY

I woke up to some very sad news today. My three favorite programs on all of TV are the Lehrer hour, NOW, and the Moyers hour. When I read that Bill Moyers will stop producing his show, I thought, how sad, but then he's past retirement age. Then I read that Now has been cancelled, and I could hardly believe it. That is a terrible loss, as there's no other program that regularly does that kind of investigative news and analysis of otherwise overlooked issues. It's simply the best.

Why not consider changing the time Now is shown? Friday nights I am usually doing something social (though I always record Lehrer, Washington Week, Now, and Moyers and then watch the recordings later, on the weekends). Having Tuesdays be science night is such a good concept (I'm a lot less likely to overlook a science program now that I've caught on). Why not make Thursday news analysis night, with special features like those on Now? I can only hope you will do something to rescue Now before it is lost. Now is an important part of what makes PBS an oasis in the news business.

Cindy Lyle, San Diego, CA

Please stand up to the political pressures that be and do not cancel "NOW" from the PBS line-up. It could only be certain political agendas pushing for the cancellation of this program as the quality of reporting and integrity of the NOW's content are upstanding. The kind of reporting that scares the you-know-what out of certain political agendas. Ethical journalism in America has become a very difficult to find these days. As the person responsible for public broadcasting you have a responsibility to provide what the network media has "assumed" is not profitable and therefore not beneficial to its shareholders, regardless of what is best for our society. But, if the cancellation of NOW was part of your agenda then you must be a very happy wolf guarding the vulnerable PBS hen house.

It is thanks to years of decisions like these, made by men like you, that very many Americans have become clueless to the important issues in this world. There are serious economic, social and environmental consequences resulting from the dumbing-down of Americans. Don't you get it? Shame on you. It is sad, but I have to assume that you are just another greedy baby-boomer that wants to get "his" while he can and "----" the rest of us regular folk. We need programs like "NOW" and reporters like Bill Moyers in TV media more than ever! Please prove my assumptions of you wrong and do not cancel this excellent program. Grab a spine while you still can. A very frustrated NOW viewer.

C. M., Kingston

PBS Responds:

"As a part of our review and reinvention of the News & Public Affairs genre on PBS, we continue to carefully examine our approach to this critical content area with respect to our on-air television offerings, as well as the role of online distribution and aggregation of the content. This initiative is undertaken with input from numerous sources both inside and outside public television.

"As discussed at the PBS Showcase meeting in May 2009, our goal for the News & Public Affairs Initiative is to revitalize public media in the context of today's rapidly changing communications environment. The public's evolving use of media is central to the planning of the initiative. At Showcase, we announced two of the first changes viewers can expect to see resulting from this work: On December 7, PBS NEWSHOUR will debut its unified approach to on-air and online editorial content along with a new title and anchor team headed by Jim Lehrer; in January 2010, NIGHTLY BUSINESS REPORT will re-launch with a new host to be announced (replacing Paul Kangas, whose retirement had been previously announced) and a new look. In addition, both BILL MOYERS JOURNAL and NOW will conclude their weekly series at the end of April 2010.

"In January, we plan to announce additional changes to the public affairs on-air lineup that will take effect in May 2010. These plans are still in development; we will not comment on them publicly until January, since it would be premature to do so."