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

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

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.

Without Lehrer's longstanding presence, there was concern that the program might see erosion of the audience conditioned to his genial yet completely authoritative leadership. But the falloff in viewership has been small, according to the NewsHour's measurements. Moreover, the program's expansion to the Internet has attracted about a million monthly visitors to the website and through YouTube. The program has 294,756 Twitter followers, and is focused on developing its digital potential with podcasts, and on using the evolving multimedia platforms for web video and stories.

Aside from its consistently thoughtful presentation, what makes the NewsHour distinctive is its selection of subjects. In 2011, there was a third more coverage of international news than in all the other formats for television news. The program also devoted a third more time to covering government than the commercial newscasts and much less time to crime, disasters and lifestyle features. While the pacing and tone of the NewsHour have quickened somewhat, and the shows have added segments, there are still critics who think that the interviews with experts reflecting two sides of some contentious issue drift on too long, without questioning that is sharp enough to justify the length.

So what is the future of the PBS NewsHour? The president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions is Boisfeuillet Jones, a former publisher of the Washington Post. Jones' objectives are to maintain the present funding from CPB, PBS, foundations, and corporations -- a full-time job in itself -- while developing new revenue streams, including a Friends of the NewsHour group, whose contributions would be large enough over time to reduce the dependence on traditional funding sources.

The NewsHour has now made a successful transition to the new generation of on-air roles, a significant achievement. And as the convention coverage showed, under the direction of Executive Producer Linda Winslow, the program can compete with any potential rival for energetic, creative approaches to major events in the political arena.

Yet for all its considerable commitment to first-rate broadcast journalism and digital innovation, the NewsHour cannot afford a moment's complacency. And neither can its audience. The show provides news for serious viewers, and if you happen to be one, no other daily program will give you a more extensive offering, refusing -- at some risk -- to heighten the glitz quotient that has been so corrosive elsewhere in today's media. The greatest danger for this time-honored newscast is its being taken for granted while the spotlight shines elsewhere on less worthy but more popular programs.