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PBS May Leap Into Late-News Lineup

TIMES STAFF WRITER

MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, producer of the venerable “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” is trying again to launch a late-night newscast on Public Broadcasting Service stations nationwide, this time in conjunction with the New York Times.

The move comes as the producer’s early-evening “NewsHour,” a fixture on more than 300 of PBS’ noncommercial stations, is coming under increasing pressure to jazz up its low-key news analysis format in the wake of falling ratings in some key markets. With viewers finding more and more outlets for news, the program, along with other PBS public affairs shows such as “Washington Week in Review,” is being pressed by some stations to make itself more compelling, according to several people in the public TV system.

A late-night newscast would give public stations an additional way to compete in an increasingly cluttered news environment, and would be the only national newscast available in the evenings, outside of cable news. The new program is at the moment being conceived as a half-hour of hard news, with room for local inserts of news or weather and sports. Airing at 11 p.m. on the East and West coasts, the show would offer a potentially larger, younger audience than that available in early evenings and would be an alternative to local newscasts that air at that hour.

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No anchor has been chosen, but it is not expected to be anchored by Lehrer, who has hosted the early-evening show solo since his partner, Robert MacNeil, retired in 1995.

Dan Werner, president of MacNeil/Lehrer, confirmed that the production company, which is a partnership with cable programmer Liberty Media, was developing a late-night show, which he said the company thinks “is very special.” But he said plans were in the preliminary stages, and declined to place a timetable on the project, which is about to be formally presented to the public television system. A spokeswoman for the New York Times said the company is actively looking to expand its television presence and has had “early exploratory conversations with many organizations,” including MacNeil/Lehrer, but no decision is imminent.

MacNeil/Lehrer first tried to launch a late-night newscast, dubbed “The National News,” in 1995. Plans for the program, which was to be produced with Dow Jones & Co.'s Wall Street Journal Television unit, were eventually dropped.

Indeed, finding financial support, a process that MacNeil/Lehrer is about to begin, will be a key to whether the project goes forward. Under the 1995 proposal, corporate sponsors would have been given 30-second plugs, the minimum time that many companies want. But many public stations’ guidelines limit underwriting plugs to 15 seconds. Some station executives, including Sharon Rockefeller, president of Washington station WETA, which is the main sponsor of the early-evening “NewsHour,” argued that lengthier plugs would be too commercial.

“NewsHour,” whose underwriting credits run just 15 seconds, has had its own difficult time finding underwriting in recent years. Last year, with time running out, Rockefeller helped broker a deal to bring in units of Travelers Group as one of the program’s two commercial underwriters, said people familiar with the situation. The Archer Daniels Midland Co. also helps fund the program, as does the Corp. for Public Broadcasting.

This time around, as it tries to drum up support for the new show, MacNeil/Lehrer is proposing limiting underwriting credits to 15 seconds. At the same time the production company is trying to get the new show off the ground, some stations are pushing for the early-evening newscast to get livelier.

PBS says ratings for “NewsHour” were flat in fall 1998 compared to a year earlier, drawing 1.3% of the nation’s TV homes--a pattern mirrored in Los Angeles, where KCET reported ratings were also flat at 1.7%. In New York, however, ratings during the February sweeps period have dropped more than 25% in the last two years. WETA ratings for the show are off 16%.

However, Les Crystal, executive producer of “NewsHour,” said he was under no pressure to make changes. In the past year, the program has added well-received segments on media and health care.

The pressure on “NewsHour” described by the other executives comes on the heels of the recent shake-up at another long-running WETA-produced PBS public affairs show, “Washington Week in Review.” Moderator Ken Bode left and the executive producer was fired after an internal debate about possible changes at the program became public. Rockefeller said in an interview that looking at “Washington Week” is simply part of the process of evaluating all shows--and as to the late-night newscast, WETA would be likely to carry it.


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