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PBS Ombudsman

No News, Please; It's the Weekend

It has always been so, and I guess it will always be so, but it is annoying nevertheless. I'm referring to the lack of any nation-wide coverage of news on PBS television during the weekend.

So, if you are a devoted follower of the news and of PBS, when horrific stories such as the one that unfolded in Tucson last Saturday, Jan. 8, you must go to the big three broadcast networks or cable for coverage. The PBS NewsHour will get around to it on Monday evening.

It happens, quite naturally, several times a year, by my unofficial accounting, that important stories break on Saturday or Sunday when PBS is nowhere to be found on the television news spectrum. It is especially true during presidential election campaigns, when important, fast-breaking events and turns get put aside for a few days.

Maybe the world is turning away from the tube and onto online news only, but you can't tell that from the people who write to me about all kinds of things. They are television viewers and that's what they depend on and that's what PBS means to them.

There are no doubt impressive-sounding reasons, financial or otherwise, why there is no PBS NewsHour, or something similar, on Saturday and Sunday evenings. But it has always seemed to me like an abdication of duty that also has the side effect of sending regular PBS viewers to other networks. The weekday evening NewsHour is one of PBS's flagship programs and Jim Lehrer is among journalism's most respected figures. So it just seems inconsistent with a commitment to news and public affairs, and to promoting the NewsHour and Lehrer as something special and unique — as PBS officials do publicly to emphasize the importance of public broadcasting — that some new formula can't, or won't, be found to serve the public on Saturday and Sunday as well.

Confusion About a Special

As you can tell, the NewsHour was on my mind, and on the mind of some viewers as well, in recent days. To its credit, the program arranged to have special live coverage of the memorial service at which President Obama spoke in Tucson Wednesday evening. Yet I got emails from viewers who said they never saw it or that it was interrupted or segments were missing. Some of those e-mails are printed below. There is also a response to my inquiries about this from PBS communications official Carrie Johnson.

Finally, the NewsHour flubbed coverage, in my opinion, of the new video message taped by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on Wednesday, the same day that President Obama was scheduled to speak at the memorial service. The program included a short clip from Palin's message in its news summary but didn't deal with the controversy it stirred, something that all the major television networks, and newspapers, covered.

Some of the Letters About the Special

I was surprised that PBS didn't carry the Tucson memorial service live. I did, though, watch the live coverage on C-SPAN. President Obama said what needed to be said, and said it very well, with honesty and not a hint of pretension. It used to be that the TV broadcast networks would suspend regularly scheduled programming to bring a live event of such national importance. Now PBS tells us to go on-line. I think this was a sorry mistake on the part of PBS. Telling us to go online when so many don't have broadband and of those that do, many have crappy broadband service not well suited for streaming video. Who is responsible for this decision?

Cris McConkey, Trumansburg, NY

~ ~ ~

After missing the live broadcast of the President's speech at the University of Arizona tonight, I was delighted to hear Gwen Ifill state that the President's address would be aired in its entirety on the PBS News Hour. I tuned in but noticed an awkward jump about 1/2 of the way through the President's speech. I later learned that this jump was indicative of about 10 minutes of highly motivating content that would help our nation bridge our political differences when reflecting on this event. This is the first time that I have been made to question the PBS NewsHour's words and I was shocked. Please publicly acknowledge this omission on your program and show the missing content or refer the audience to a link to the written text or something of the sort. Thank you.

Emily Brott, Tucson, AZ

~ ~ ~

Tonight on the NewsHour Gwen Ifill stated that President Obama's speech would be seen in its entirety. This was not the case. There was a 5-10 minute section during the second half of the speech that was omitted. I believe on tomorrow night's broadcast, the anchor should apologize for this error and the omitted section should be replayed. I trust what the newscasters at PBS tell me is true and this has made me question that trust.

Tucson, AZ

~ ~ ~

PBS is the only station I watch because it gives me decency. I object to the management of WNMU that deprives television viewers of national events: I have had to go to my computer to watch Obama give a speech. WNMU would not air the Tucson Memorial service on any PBS local Upper Michigan channel. To have a public television play a rerun of no consequence and not allow access to a presidential address does a disservice to public television when some conservatives already want to defund PBS! This last summer I had to go to my computer as well. What about the many rural people in Upper Michigan who do not have a computer?

Carol Johnson, Stephenson, MI

PBS Responds

PBS member stations had the option of carrying the Tucson memorial last night in its entirety. The PBS NewsHour began live coverage at 8:00 p.m. ET and ran until 10:00 p.m. ET (affording stations the opportunity to cut away following the president's remarks; depending on schedules, some stations may also have decided to join the president's remarks in progress at 9:00 p.m. ET or the local equivalent). PBS programming staff screened the coverage and there were no technical gaps or glitches with the PBS feed as confirmed with PBS technical operations. However, as noted, stations could opt in and out at the local level. Before the event, the guidance we had was that President Obama was scheduled to speak earlier and more briefly than occurred; this might have accounted for difficulties in local coverage of the speech. The complete coverage was also made available online on pbs.org.

(Ombudsman's Note: As far as I can tell from other inquiries, there was also some internal indecisiveness within PBS about how the NewsHour coverage would be handled that contributed to the problem. Also, PBS is a decentralized network of independent stations that can complicate uniform carriage, and stations have varying abilities and inclinations when it comes to dealing with the burden and unpredictability surrounding the timing and duration of such a public event.)

No Sex, Please; We're British

PBS's highly publicized and widely and well-reviewed new four-episode, imported British period drama, "Downton Abbey," made its debut on Masterpiece last Sunday, Jan. 9. That first episode of the series — about life among the moneyed-aristocrats, their families and their servants in early 20th century Britain — contains a scene with two men kissing that, not surprisingly, surprised some viewers who don't like such surprises.

A sampling of their letters follows, along with a response from producer Steven Ashley:

I wanted to share how much my family and I enjoy so many of the Masterpiece Theatre presentations. We have purchased so many after watching it on your program. We were looking forward to Downton Abbey and was watching it with my girls when we were all shocked to see a same-sex kissing scene. I wish we would of had some way of knowing this was coming so we could of chosen not to watch the show. It is one thing if homosexual attraction/relationship is implied and it goes over my kids/teens heads but to have it actually happen on screen is too much. Can you please have a way to announce or give warning for us? I am not sure what to expect in the future and may have to choose not to watch your programing if there is no way of checking. I don't want my family desensitized and this agenda forced on us. Thank you for considering our concern. We hope we can enjoy more programing on your station but are very guarded now and not sure what we can do to ensure our moral standard to be upheld.

Canoga Park, CA

~ ~ ~

I was terribly disappointed by the showing of the 2 men kissing on last night's Masterpiece. I was so excited to finally have another series like Upstairs/Downstairs and called all my family to watch. I know this is going on in the world, but I do not need to have it in my living room. Now I know why I will not contribute to PBS-needless to say I immediately turned it off and will not be finishing the series. What a disappointment!!

Rachel Good, Ephrata, PA

~ ~ ~

I was so looking forward to "Downtown Abbey" series until I watched the first few minutes of the story when two men were shown in a 'gay but not so gay' relationship. I do notice that more gays are introduced into PBS storylines much to my regret. I have been promising to read more lately so I guess I have to thank PBS for the inspiration to turn to the written word. I will miss the anticipation of Sunday evening viewing but will check back in the future.

Nancy Freeman, Ave Maria, FL

~ ~ ~

My wife and I are absolutely outraged that such inappropriate matter should be foisted on the public. Such is not suitable for consumption for cultured minds. The "gay scene" was a surprise after such interesting content beforehand, but we shut the station off immediately when we saw it. Such content cannot expect the support of decent minded people.

Pensacola, FL

~ ~ ~

Our family was quite upset tonight by the homosexual conduct of two men in the Downton Abbey program from Masterpiece Theatre. I was watching the show with four of my children and enjoying when a scene came on where two men were sitting on a bed and started kissing. We are Christians so we don't believe in this sort of thing . . . the children are still upset and saying they can't believe they had to see that. We watch Public television frequently as it is "family friendly". Please advise your film providers/producers that you don't want explicit/controversial sexual behavior in your films. It was not needed for the plot and ruined the film for us. If broadcasters draw back from airing such things producers will leave junk like this out of their films.

Kalona, IA

Masterpiece's Steven Ashley Responds

We've heard from a number of viewers expressing disappointment with the inclusion of two men kissing during a scene in episode one of the new Masterpiece drama "Downton Abbey." The majority of concern was that there was no warning the series would contain adult themes or scenes they felt were inappropriate for multi-generation viewing. Many regard Masterpiece as a family viewing experience.

The mini-series was given a Parental rating of TV-PG. That rating is intended to signal to parents that, while it is a generally "safe" show to watch with your family, a measure of guidance is suggested. These ratings are necessarily subjective, but their application is informed by experience gleaned from producers, viewers' reactions and PBS itself. It seems clear that a higher level of warning would have been useful to many of those who wrote. In that light, we will review our practices, taking in to account these specific concerns.

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