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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag

More, and Less, About NOW

Viewers irritated over the forthcoming cancellation of the weekly newsmagazine series NOW on PBS continued to vent their objections in a heavy flow of e-mails that dominated the Ombudsman's Mailbag for the second week in a row.

PBS officials have not said anything more publicly about the cancellation than they did in a statement issued initially on Nov. 20, which didn't say much and explained even less. That statement was included in last week's Mailbag.

The half-hour NOW on PBS broadcast is hosted by David Brancaccio and has been a steady Friday night presence on many PBS-member stations since January 2002. It is produced by JumpStart Productions, LLC, in association with Thirteen/WNET in New York City. The series has won several awards and probes many tough and controversial issues. Its host for the first couple of years, when it was an hour-long program, was Bill Moyers, and the broadcast originally was called NOW with Bill Moyers. Brancaccio was brought in by Moyers as co-host in 2003 and Moyers left the program at the end of 2004, after which it was cut back to its current half-hour status.

The program, and Moyers in particular, was at the center of controversy at the time involving the former chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who resigned in November 2005, just before a report, which Tomlinson contests, by the CPB's own Inspector General was made public. That report was highly critical of Tomlinson for using political tests in hiring practices and for violating internal ethical guidelines and contracting procedures, one of which included hiring of a consultant, unapproved by the CPB board, to monitor the political leanings of guests on NOW.

So the statement by PBS last month acknowledging both the conclusion of the NOW on PBS series on April 30, 2010, and the weekly, hour-long Bill Moyers Journal, which has been running for three years in its latest incarnation, at the same time next April, marks an important moment in PBS's 40-year history. But it sure didn't have a historic ring to it.

Both programs have devoted followers and critics but both are clearly among the signature public affairs programs on PBS, and on television generally. Moyers is 75 and so it is not surprising that his Journal will end. But the NOW cancellation did come as a surprise.

A Quiet, Historic Moment

I must say that as a steady viewer of these programs, not just as the ombudsman, I find the one and only PBS public statement thus far about the ending of these programs to be puzzling; unresponsive to dedicated viewers and to the high-profile role for public affairs junkies that these broadcasts have played for years on public television. There is no real explanation of why NOW, in particular, is ending or what, if anything, will replace both programs. Privately, PBS officials say they weren't planning to make any announcements last month about the conclusion of these two programs. Rather, they were going to do so in January at the annual "press tour" when new plans are laid out. But the news leaked out, first about Moyers and then about NOW.

Even so, one would assume that when you know, internally, that two leading-edge programs are going out of business, PBS would have been ready with something more substantive to say. Indeed, one can easily understand how the combination of these two particular programs being taken off the air simultaneously could be seen, certainly by many dedicated viewers, as signaling a move away from hard-hitting, controversial programs.

In its November statement, PBS talked generally about "our review and reinvention of the News & Public Affairs genre on PBS" and about its initiative "to revitalize public media." It discussed forthcoming changes to The NewsHour and Nightly Business Report, and then added only that "both Bill Moyers Journal and NOW will conclude their weekly series at the end of April 2010." It said that additional changes to the public affairs line-up will be announced in January that will take effect in May and that because these plans are still in development, "we will not comment on them publicly until January, since it would be premature to do so." So I guess we will have to be patient.

I asked John Siceloff, executive producer of NOW, if he or Brancaccio could shed anymore light on the demise of NOW. He said: "The folks at PBS headquarters are handling all media inquiries about the cancellation of NOW." But he wanted to make one point. "I can say that published accounts that NOW's cancellation was due to financial difficulties are wrong. Of course, the recession made this a tough year for us — as it did for everyone in the news business. But we balanced our budget and got through the year without laying off a single employee. Our funders stayed with us, giving a bit less because of the impact of the recession on their endowments, but committed to continuing support for the tough investigative journalism that has become the show's signature."

So, that leaves an interesting question. If the cancellation of NOW was not due to financial difficulties, as Siceloff maintains, what was the reason?

When I asked PBS officials for more details, they referred to the November statement and said only that the moves are part of the "revitalization," according to Lea Sloan, vice president for communications.

In the meanwhile . . .

Here Are the Letters

I am deeply disappointed in the decision to cancel both NOW and The Bill Moyers Journal. Both programs provide journalistic excellence, thoughtful commentary, and provocative reflections on issues facing our culture and democracy. This decision, and its lack of a credible rationale, is reminiscent of the actions of PBS in the Bush era when Bill Moyers was forced off the air in the previous rendition of NOW.

If PBS is seeking to make its news programming relevant to a younger audience, I would submit that removing gutsy reporting, insightful commentary, and conversation with cutting edge thinkers is not the way to go about it. You don't have to dumb down to be hip. I watch both programs with my teenagers. We end up having great conversations and in the process they are becoming engaged citizens. I thought that was part of the mission of PBS. Please, reconsider.

Lisa Hunt, Houston, TX

Unless NOW on PBS is continued, or a full explanation is provided for the cause of its demise, and a substitute is found for the Bill Moyers Journal, I will have no reason for continuing support for the PBS network.

Lew Amack, Monterey Park, CA

Let me add my voice to the swelling chorus: PBS cancels "NOW" at its peril, especially in the wake of the Moyers retirement. Unless the new news/public affairs lineup to be announced in January contains similarly independent, thoughtful, and serious journalism programs to fill the huge void left by Moyers' Journal and NOW, you shall NOT receive further support from this long-time viewer and supporter. NOW, Moyers, and Frontline are the few programs on any TV stations that are worthy of thinking viewers. Don't allow yourselves to be dragged closer to the shallow idiocy of commercial television.

Glenn Campbell, Lakewood, OH

The news of Bill Moyers' retirement is sad, but not unexpected. But the news of the cancellation of NOW with David Brancaccio and Maria Hinojosa is just dumbfounding! This show is by FAR the BEST news program on television. The most in depth, truthful, unbiased reporting ANYWHERE. It will be sorely missed. What is the reason? I truly hope PBS will reconsider. If not, I hope another station will pick it up. Unfortunately, it will probably have to be a cable station. What is the deal? Is PBS only going to program classical music from now on? Is NOW too controversial? Will Sesame Street soon be considered too controversial, as well?

Amy Peters, Glen Cove, NY

'No Substitute for NOW'

I was saddened to hear of Bill Moyers' upcoming retirement but I've known he could not last forever and at 75 he's certainly earned the right to slow down! I was thinking an expanded NOW with David Brancaccio would be the ideal replacement. Then I read further and literally felt sick as I learnt NOW was being cancelled! For that, frankly, I see NO good excuse. There really is NO substitute for NOW on TV. It is one of the few programs I never miss and which I most frequently suggest to others. I'll probably go back to reading more because without both NOW and Bill Moyers' Journal it'll take a lot of motivation to even consider turning on the TV let alone PBS. It's not too late: an expanded NOW can still carry on where Bill Moyers' Journal leaves off!

John Duggan, New York, NY

Just to add our response to the news of Bill Moyers' retirement and NOW's cancellation. These two shows have been the primary reasons for our PBS membership. If these shows are not replaced with programs of equivalent content and integrity . . . we will be less motivated to renew our membership.

Nederland, CO

I am so sorry to hear that Bill Moyers and David Brancaccio will be leaving! The depth of their programs will be missed. I am pleased that PBS includes Al-Jazeera English as a part of World Focus — their perspective is a welcome addition to the BBC and to U.S. newscasts.

Noel Werle, New Haven, CT

I was really shocked to find out that 'NOW' will be canceled. I strongly feel it is a very poor decision on the part of PBS. Along with 'PBS News Hour' and 'Charlie Rose Show', this has been one of the most informative programs I've seen.

Ken Haruta, Bethlehem, PA

Bill Moyers Journal and NOW should not be taken off-air. They (and Frontline) are what makes PBS still relevant in terms of social and political analysis and commentary. Someone should take over Moyers' show and NOW should continue. In a time of so many problems (War, recession, global warming), these programs are needed more than ever. You do a huge disservice to your viewership by ending these programs.

Rick Anderson, San Diego, CA

$100 Misunderstanding?

I watched NOW last night and afterwards David Brancaccio was soliciting pledges for NOW. I was inspired to pledge $100. Now I find out NOW has been canceled. Why is PBS using NOW to solicit pledges for a show they've canceled? Is there some conspiracy to get rid of all voices that represent peace and community lovers?

Port Chester, NY

I am greatly disappointed about the loss of Bill Moyers and Now. I always watched those programs. Bill Moyers is retiring, which will be a big loss but his choice. But NOW is the only other program I HAVE to watch every week on PBS, since [Fareed] Zakaria went to CNN. I have been a supporter of PBS for 20+ years but I am now reconsidering my support. Why not drop McLaughlin or even Washington Week instead. That news we can get elsewhere. Not NOW and Moyers.

Susan, Kihei, HI

I sincerely hope PBS will follow "Bill Moyers' Journal" and "NOW" with something of equal or greater value and quality. These shows for years have provided essential balance to other media coverage and unequaled depth and would be difficult to match, but it will be an incalculable loss to the public if they are not.

Bill DiNome, Wilmington, NC

I am 92 years old and look forward to Fridays and seeing NOW. Despite my age, it always teaches me something new. Please reconsider your decision to cancel this special program.

John Honey, Rhinebeck, NY

Very sorry to hear about NOW and hope it will be replaced with something similar. I'm sure that Bill Moyers will continue to be a presence if one looks for it. He writes books, after all. The bottom line is that we are all left wondering if it isn't pressure from the lunatic fringe that masquerades as a loyal opposition that is responsible for this. I can buy that Moyers wants to retire, but what's with hatcheting NOW? PBS needs to offer more than the bland and, as you say, rather unhelpful "statement".

Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI

'Be More . . .'

I contribute to MPTV and I don't understand PBS canceling "NOW" in April. It is a flagship show for public television, extremely well done and very popular with membership and non-membership viewers. It is a show for thinking people and for those who want to think. It is just what your "Be more . . . inspired . . . curious" etc., campaign is about. Why would you cancel?

D. Metzger, Milwaukee, WI

It is with utter sadness that I learned of Bill Moyers' decision to retire his program in April of next year, as Mr. Moyers is a true living hero of mine. I understand his decision to move on after so many years of providing the best analysis and critique in any media going, but I remain hopeful that even as he lets go of the weekly format, he will continue to be the best damn journalist out there and will continue to produce innovative special programming for PBS.

Like other viewers, whereas I understand Mr. Moyers' decision, I am very disturbed by the fact PBS has decided to cancel "NOW." Rather than scrapping another of the best programs on television, PBS should be striving to multiply the number of intrepid journalists willing to forgo the unbearable "you must hear both sides of the story" (even when we know one of the sides is lying) platform, and to provide truthful information about issues that affect so many people so deeply. Every time I see Chevron's ads on PBS I cringe. PBS has lost so much of its independence already, and the decision to cancel "NOW" I fear just highlights the network's continuing decline. In thirty years from now, we will most likely wonder why in the world we didn't realize what we were doing to ourselves and to this planet, and it will be too late to turn back the tide. As a media outlet originally designed to be independent of corporate power and to reflect truly important ideas, PBS, in particular, has a moral obligation to awaken the slumbering public at this critical moment in human history. I strongly urge you to keep "NOW," make "Democracy Now" a permanent part of your early evening programming, and do everything you can to convince Mr. Moyers to gift us with a few more programs. Please don't abandon your viewers on the left — we are ready to contribute when you are.

Sarah Aird, San Francisco, CA

Please convey to PBS program decision-makers my vehement opposition to the current decision to cancel the news program NOW. This program is highly informative and valuable, and tackles the kind of subjects that Americans need to know more about.

It is premature to rely solely on the online news coverage option to inform PBS audiences about important issues. That may be a relevant approach in another decade, but right now, it is essential to continue to use the TV broadcast medium to convey to voters the complexity of stories about how Americans are struggling and coping with the recession, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and community concerns.

Bill Moyers' valuable program will be greatly missed. He has been a true public servant. But for PBS to be cutting off NOW from TV broadcast, another valuable public service, has the appearance of a cost-cutting measure, and a foolhardy gesture.

M. Smith, Oakland, CA

I am writing to express my extreme displeasure with the PBS decision to remove "NOW" from its broadcast schedule. Programs such as "NOW" are what distinguish PBS from the myriad of cable and broadcast channels. This is why we watch PBS — not the '60's Do-Wop shows or the wrinkle cream programs. This is the PBS Brand and you are in serious jeopardy of losing it.

San Francisco, CA

NOW is an extremely valuable program, and I am appalled to see that it is being cancelled. How valuable is NOW? I credit it with enlightening me — and angering me — to the extent that I left a successful 25-year career to attend law school so I could work to fight some of the injustices depicted. I recently graduated, and I credit NOW both with motivating me to go to law school, and keeping me motivated through those demanding 3 years.

L. von Biela, Sammamish, WA