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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Hey! It's NBR but Not PBS

The ombudsman's mailbag was filled this week with complaints — mostly about two programs that have (almost) nothing to do with PBS. That's not unusual. As has happened many times in my years here as ombudsman, many viewers assume that what they see on a PBS-member station is a PBS program. Who can blame them? But often, that is not the case. All 350-plus member stations are independent and can broadcast what they choose.

They all get the big package of well-known, PBS-distributed national programs. But public broadcasters also produce their own local shows at times and get material from other big distributors such as American Public Television (APT), the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA), many smaller distributors and independent producers.

Some of this week's mail was a pre-emptive strike against a controversial, non-PBS program that is scheduled to air on PBS-member station CPT12 in Colorado tonight (March 7). Since it hasn't aired as of this writing, I'll come back to it in coming days.

Viewers, So Far, Say They Are Not Pleased

The subject of this mailbag is a pioneering, award-winning program with a devoted audience that has been on hundreds of public broadcasting stations for more than 30 years. But it has had a rocky past few years and now has a new owner. That program is the weekday, 30-minute, Nightly Business Report. It began in 1979 at WPBT in Miami, was anchored for 30 years (until 2009) by Paul Kangas, and was distributed alternately by APT and PBS. PBS was the distributor from 2005 to 2011, and for a couple of years in the 1979-'80 time frame. But PBS stopped its distribution and financial support in 2011 and APT stepped in once again.

Since 2010, the program has struggled. It has twice been through sales to new owners, restructuring, staff shake-ups and bureau closings. Then, last month, came the biggest shake-up and sale of all when cable television's financial news powerhouse CNBC, a unit of Comcast's NBC Universal, bought it. All of this has been laid out in reports in The New York Times and in the trade print and online newspaper Current.

Broadcast and public television, viewers say, needs a nightly business news program that they have confidence in, so one can hope that the new program fills the bill. But the mail to me since the March 4 debut of the new CNBC effort has been relentlessly critical. Perhaps that is to be expected given the attachment of viewers to the older version. Time will tell whether this new version is a good fit.

So, although PBS as a financial contributor and distributor (APT will continue as a distributor to some 180 stations that air this program) is out of the picture, here, as something of a farewell to a once beloved half-hour, are the final letters from PBS viewers.

Note: Also, posted below these letters about NBR/CNBC is a challenge to the accuracy of a statement about guns during the PBS special last month, "After Newtown: Guns in America."

Here Are the NBR Letters

I think the new NBR is the equivalent to FOX taking over the PBS NewsHour. The talking heads at CNBC are only interested in their careers. Their reporting has no integrity. I don't think the general public will get straight-forward, sound reporting from the new NBR. The people at CNBC are more likely to confuse people than inform them. Just like their cable show.

Terrebonne, OR


Watched NBR since its inception, but the latest iteration by the commercial interest is not my cup of tea, so I shall not be watching NBR in the future. You might pass this along to the new owners of NBR.

William Mueller, Sacramento, CA


I am enormously upset at the moment tucked in at the end of Nightly Business Report tonight that the staff is changing and the program will now be affiliated with CNBC. What could be worse? CNBC has made investment into a noisy game; each person tries to speak louder than the other and often three are speaking at once. Jim Cramer, who has excellent investment insights, embellishes his remarks with such a stupid array of noisemakers that his program, Mad Money, is impossible to listen to. He is such a loudmouth on the program during the day. All of them smile broadly as they vie for power. Nightly Business Report has always been about investments. Cool. Calm. Informative. Input from significant corporate leaders. CNBC offers NONE OF THIS. It is purely a show. PBS is making a tremendous mistake. Why is this being done? I would be delighted to have my opinions posted!!!

Bob Upton, Wheeling, WV


Can you explain why PBS can't cover business without selling out to CNBC?
All the stuff on CNBC is instantly available on the 'net anyway — so who cares?
Surely there are interesting, valuable business stories out there — but I doubt the mow and blow crowd will deliver them. R.I.P. NBR.

San Francisco, CA

'Comfortable vs. Shouting'

Dear Nightly Business Report, sorry to see you go! Tyler [Mathisen] is terrible. He and the other self-aggrandizing folks at CNBC are sellers of their personal individual values and they know it. The TV "faces" there are smart folks that are owned by NBC profiteers. The new NBR format is simply disgusting. I'm sure they're making good money for the corporate managers, but NBR always seemed to be an intellectual alternative that was comfortable versus the shouting innuendo of the corporate profit agenda of NBC "financial experts." Good luck with Tyler the Terrible, et al. I quit watching CNBC years ago and won't be watching this subsidiary program either again in the future. (Susie, try and hold on to your integrity in this environment; I realize it's a tough world out there; and everyone has to pay the bills.)

Berney Stanley, Palm Coast, FL


I am really aghast about the status of NBR — Nightly Business Report. When I go to their website — I now have to sign up for Facebook to be able to use their website. I have searched and found this is a program under the auspices of PBS. I consider PBS to be a truly public service and am very PO'd that it has been taken over by Facebook. I do not have a Facebook account. I will NEVER sign up for a Facebook account. As far as I am concerned Mark Zuckerberg can take his Facebook and go to HELL. I can't believe that PBS is being taken over by MZ and Facebook.

Bill Lawrence, Meridian, MS


Please forward this to [PBS CEO] Paula Kerger. Re: NBR, CNBC: They are now advertising their TV shows at the end of the show. No more Alice. Full Wall Street spin now. You never supported this show after 2011. You should have used our gifts to you to support it. A sad day for PBS. Suzy gone at end of 2013. Tom and 18 — gone forever. CNBC spin now and forever. Maybe it will morph to a show like Mad Money...

Craig Martins, Rochester, MN


It never ceases to amaze me how tightly some people get their knickers in a twist (a good old English term fit for Downton Abbey) over fictional events and how little Nightly Business Report cares about vetting politicians or thinly disguised political mouthpieces who just want to spew their party line, no matter how irrelevant it may be. The latest to appear on NBR was U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (one of the two most consistent Republican hacks in the Washington state delegation), who had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to say about the latest buzzword, sequestration, except that the Republicans had a "smarter" plan than the President does. (I wish I had counted how many times she said "smarter.") Such interviews are completely worthless, and they are getting worse all the time. I expect such one-sided crap on sponsored programs, but not on PBS. Partisan politics has little long-term effect on business in general and my portfolio, in particular, no matter what the talking heads say.

James Bruner, Oak Harbor, WA


Nightly Business Report — who is this guy Tyler? He not only is annoying and not up to your standards, he belongs on network TV selling snake oil. You had something unique with NBR and you've spoiled it. So sorry.

Barbara Heatly, Easton, MD


I am concerned about the recent changes to and sale of NBR. Over the 30 years that I have been watching the Nightly Business Report, facts and figures have been diminished and commentary has been increased. The most recent change is abominable! Viewers are now being told WHAT to think as opposed to getting reports on PRICES of commodities, stocks, currencies, etc. The new host seems to be a "sensationalist" and not very objective. I believe the sale of this show was a total "sell out" by OPB. Viewers of NBR are the type of people that just want facts so we can make our own decisions — not be told what to think. Last night I felt that NBR is being financed by banks/investment firms & oil companies due to the commentaries about "actively managed investments" and oil development in Venezuela. Just my take...but I don't like it. NBR has just lost a viewer and PBS has lost a donor.

Cottage Grove, OR

What About Those 'Streetsweeper' Guns?

Today while watching the documentary "After Newtown: Guns in America," I was struck by the comments of Howard Safir, former NYPD Commissioner, regarding a particular type of shotgun. He made the claim that the "Streetsweeper" 12-gauge shotgun had a 100-round magazine, when, in fact, the number of rounds the gun can be loaded with is 12. The violence and gun issues in our urban locations is enough of a problem as it stands without wildly embellishing the truth, especially when you are portrayed as one knowledgeable about the subject. He cheapens his input to the program and in fact casts doubt on the rest of his "expert" observations. Considering the emotional and legal ramifications regarding the current firearms debate, it is crucial to get facts straight so that all may be properly informed (as much as is possible). Former Commissioner Safir simply contributed to the misinformation being casually batted about by both sides of the issue. I count on PBS for the straight story, this time I did not find it to be the case.

Addison Wardwell, Brick, NJ


On your recently aired program "After Newtown: Guns in America," one of your commentators made an inaccurate statement when referring to a shotgun. He stated that a shotgun known as the "Streetsweeper" had a 100-round magazine. This is incorrect. That particular shotgun came standard with a 12-round drum magazine and there was a 7-round drum mag available in the compact model. It is highly regrettable that a so-called "expert" on this issue was so grossly inaccurate in his characterization of this shotgun and it is a shame that you folks didn't fact-check one of your "talking heads'" statements before airing them. That type of error is what leads some people to question the impartiality of your organization when you present these types of shows dealing with these types of issues. I suppose that an on-air clarification of this error would be too much to ask for; but at least you now know that the error didn't go unnoticed. Thanks for your time.

Green Cove Springs, FL

Jonathan Silvers, Producer, Responds:

Former New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir "stands by his street sweeper comment and says that criminals frequently modified the street sweeper (and other firearms) to take high capacity magazines." Silver says that Safir is "a reliable source and a distinguished criminologist."

(Ombudsman's Note: Former NYPD Commisioner Howard Safir did indeed describe the "Streetsweeper" shotgun as linked to a 100-round magazine in the program on camera. I assumed he knew what he was talking about but I sent both of these emails, individually as they arrived, to Silvers, to get a response because the viewers also seemed to know what they were talking about. I asked if there was any further documentation or evidence to illustrate this weapon/ammo combination. Silvers said he went back twice to Safir, who stood by his on-air comment both times. Without some further documentation, I'm less certain and unable to provide a more substantive answer for the viewers at this time.)

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