MacNeil Confirms He Will Leave PBS ‘NewsHour’ in 1995 : TV: He cites program budget shortfalls, financial pressures at WNET. Jim Lehrer will anchor alone.


Robert MacNeil confirmed Monday that he will retire as co-anchor of PBS’ “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” next year and said his decision was influenced by funding difficulties in public television.

MacNeil, 63, told “NewsHour” staffers that he intends to leave in October, 1995, the newscast’s 20th anniversary. Jim Lehrer, 60, who co-anchors the hourlong weekday broadcasts from Washington, will then become solo anchor, with all operations being consolidated in the nation’s capital.

“My close colleagues know that I’ve been thinking about when to retire, and the 20th anniversary provides a nice symmetry,” MacNeil said in an interview, “but what confirmed me was the coincidence of our need to save money. We were faced with a budget shortfall in our funding, and the situation with WNET meant that we were going to have to pay even more money to stay in New York.”


“NewsHour,” one of the most popular and critically praised series on the PBS schedule, with an annual budget of $25 million, is facing a 7 1/2% shortfall this year because one of its three major corporate underwriters, PepsiCo, dropped out last July. Meanwhile, WNET-TV, the PBS flagship station here, is said to be losing an estimated $4 million a year on its studio operation and has asked “NewsHour” to pay more in rent. The station has only committed to keeping the studio running through June.

“NewsHour” executive producer Les Crystal said that “the financial problems of WNET mean that they’re not sure they can keep the studio open past next June. That financial instability was a factor in our decision” to consolidate operations.

William F. Baker, president of WNET, said he didn’t know yet what the impact of losing “NewsHour” will be. “We have to run a very tight ship economically in these times,” he said, “and we have to decide whether the best use of our limited resources is in a studio or in other areas such as program development.”

MacNeil said he believes “NewsHour” will not suffer editorially from the change.

“We started the two-city operation years ago when we were a single-subject hour with talking heads,” he said. “Today we’ve got a variety of voices and a greater variety of elements within the show, and we don’t need that Washington-New York scaffolding the way we did. This is a show that focuses on public-policy issues and (that) views Washington as the news capital of the world. Jim Lehrer has always been more than half of this partnership, and he will continue to do outstanding work.”

Charlayne Hunter-Gault and other members of the New York reporting staff are expected to work out of Washington. Lehrer told staffers that Hunter-Gault, Margaret Warner, Elizabeth Farnsworth and Kwame Holman will regularly do focus and newsmaker interviews as part of a regular sub-anchor system when MacNeil retires.

But the anchors and producers said they do not know yet how many jobs will be eliminated in the consolidation. “NewsHour” has about 50 staffers in New York and 40 in Washington.

MacNeil, who has written several novels, said he hopes to write more fiction and nonfiction after he departs “NewsHour.”