'We Do Not Interrupt This Program to Bring You…'

By Michael Getler

AUGUST 15, 2014

With things once again deteriorating rapidly in Iraq, President Obama appeared before television cameras in the State Dining Room at the White House at 9:30 Thursday evening, Aug. 7, to announce, in an eight-and-a-half-minute statement, that he was authorizing “targeted airstrikes to protect American personnel, and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death.”

Later that evening, a viewer in Des Moines, Wash., wrote to me, pointing out that “NBC and ABC both aired President Obama’s address regarding U.S. humanitarian aid and possible air support for Iraqi military tonight and PBS did not carry it. Why is that?” he asked.

NBC and ABC television did, indeed, break into previously scheduled programs to broadcast the president’s statement nationally, although some other commercial networks did not do so.

Lots of people, of course, rely on PBS, especially those without cable, and so I thought the viewer’s query was one worthy of an answer. When I first asked, I was told by a PBS “media relations” official: “With its robust slate of award-winning news and public affairs programming, PBS focuses its efforts on in-depth analysis of the news rather than on live coverage of breaking news. With respect to the remarks by President Obama on August 7, which took place hours after the PBS NewsHour had recorded its nightly newscast, PBS NewsHour posted the speech to its website that evening and covered the speech—and its implications—in its August 8 newscast.”

So, setting aside the PR pitch, that tells us what PBS did after the speech and something about why it didn’t go live—because the PBS NewsHour broadcast for that night had already been recorded.

But it is actually more complicated. Although this did not seem to outrage viewers, according to my mail, it does demonstrate the difference between the big commercial networks—with 24/7 news divisions and more flexibility to coordinate affiliates and break into programming—and public broadcasting.

Public broadcasting, and PBS and its flagship nightly NewsHour, have indeed covered major events and statements live. But whether and how much of this it can do—compared with a network news division—depends heavily on timing, advance warning and news judgment about the event.

The NewsHour records its live evening broadcast at 6 p.m. Eastern time, then repeats it at 7 p.m. and again at 9 p.m. Eastern time, which can be updated at times if possible, for the West Coast.

When I asked for more details, officials at the NewsHour made several points. “The PBS NewsHour is an independently-produced program [the week-night version is produced at local station WETA just outside Washington, D.C.], not a network. It’s also not a 24/7 news operation. On the night in question, we had no indication the President would be appearing in the briefing room at 9:30 when we finished our broadcast at 7pm. In fact, our sources in the National Security office told us no decision about bombing ISIS had been made. Therefore, the broadcast staff went home.

“At that point, PBS [the broadcast service rather than the station and NewsHour] had technical control of the NewsHour television feeds for the rest of the night. The notice that the President would appear in the briefing room went out from the White House around 9:15 pm. By that time, even our [NewsHour] online team had gone home.”

Another NewsHour official adds: “If there were a designated decision-maker at PBS headquarters at 9:15, all that person could do is tell the tech center to take our feed [from the White House pool coverage via WETA] and put it out [via satellite] to the system. There would also have to be human beings on duty at that hour at 300+ local stations [all of them independent] to decide whether they wanted to break into whatever program was on their own station’s air (they all don’t air the same programs at the same time), and tell someone in their own tech center to make the switch to our feed.”

So it’s complicated, and when it happens late and with little warning, there needs to be a studio ready and a reporter or anchor on hand to introduce and close the segment, as NBC’s Brian Williams and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos did on those network news special reports.

In any event, the viewer in Des Moines said she was pleased to receive a response.

Posted on Aug. 15, 2014 at 3:10 p.m.

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ABOUT THE OMBUDSMAN
As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >

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Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Michael Getler or contact him at 703-739-5290.

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