TV's Best News Show May Also Be Its Least Appreciated

Let's give PBS NewsHour the credit it deserves -- and needs.

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Gwen Ifill moderates the 2004 vice-presidential debate. (John Sommers II/Reuters)

Today's PBS NewsHour-- the offspring of Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer's evening offering of reasoned appraisals of events here and abroad, dating in its earliest incarnation to the mid-1970s -- is one of journalism's most respected institutions. Attracting a nightly audience of about a million viewers, and with an increasingly active presence on the Internet, the PBS NewsHour should be lauded regularly for what it provides.

But perhaps because of its ingrained tradition of avoiding the self-promotional clamor of so much else in broadcast news, the NewsHour rarely gets the recognition it deserves. The experienced team of anchors, correspondents, and commentators can be relied on to take the most complex and controversial issues and explain them in terms that offer insights, if not necessarily clear-cut answers.

I was moved to write this piece because the NewsHour has just come off its highly successful coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions, hosted by Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, with regular input from David Brooks and Mark Shields. During peak hours each night, it reached audiences that were comparable to if not larger than those for the networks and for cable leaders, based on the Nielsen ratings I was given by the NewsHour. Visitors to the PBS NewsHour website and its live-stream apparently added considerably to the number of broadcast viewers.

And yet when plaudits were distributed by critics and the blogosphere, the NewsHour, which was on the air from 7:00 p.m. to the closing orations, should have been more widely praised than it was.

My point is that the NewsHour is an invaluable counterpoint to cable's cacophony; and to network shows that seem to cram barely more than 20 minutes a night of news into a half-hour slot, once you factor in commercials. As is invariably the case in public broadcasting, the biggest challenge the NewsHour faces is raising the funds it needs to support a full range of high-end reporting and a staff of about one hundred. The NewsHour's annual budget of about $27-28 million (the fullest and probably most reliable statistics are in the Pew Research Center report on the State of the News Media for 2012) comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, foundations, individual donors, and corporate underwriters.

The financial pressures are considerable, especially given that those resources must also be used to support the digital initiatives and the extra coverage the website is expected the deliver. Corporate underwriting is now led by BNSF Railway and Intel, but the NewsHour's ability to obtain additional money from the commercial sector is subject to strict PBS guidelines for sponsorship that seem to limit the appeal of the program to most businesses.

It was 1983 when MacNeil and Lehrer expanded their report to a full hour, with Lehrer taking over the main anchoring role in 1995. The program is still the principal output of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which shares ownership with Liberty Media. Lehrer, who is the ne plus ultra of moderators of presidential debates, including this week's in Denver, has gradually stepped back from any nightly role so that Woodruff, Ifill, Jeffrey Brown, Ray Suarez, and Hari Sreenivasan, among others, could take over the show.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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