Ending years of speculation and brainstorming, The New York Times is narrowing in on a deal to launch a nationwide 11 p.m. nightly newscast on the Public Broadcasting System. The goal is to produce a smart but hip evening news program, one that would offer an up- market, Times -ian alternative to the shrill blood ‘n’ guts found on local TV.
Such a television launch has long been dancing in the head of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., The Times ‘ publisher and resident Johnny Quest futurist. Mr. Sulzberger, who’s been paging through his copy of The Industry Standard , is convinced that a coming broadband Internet means that all media will converge and, like it or not, the stodgy editors on 43rd Street will have to know their way around a control room.
The Times has already taken several baby steps into TV, forging partnership agreements with ABC News and PBS’ Frontline . But these have been, for the most part, simple cross-branding affairs. (You stick our reporter on the air, we slap your brand name on our pages.) For the family business to survive, Mr. Sulzberger has concluded that The New York Times will have to become just as good as ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN at producing television news.
But a nightly evening newscast, even on a public broadcasting network, would represent The Time s’ most significant entry into television. The forces behind the Times newscast do not want it to be a low-rent rehash of Times stories, woodenly retold by newspaper staffers wearing tweed sport coats. Rather, they want it to be an expensive, even slightly flashy news program with high production values and top-notch industry talent.
Times staffers have not been ruled out as potential on-air talent for the nightly newscast. The paper’s editors are already bracing for the TV move. A source told The Observer that executive editor Joe Lelyveld said in an editors meeting during Thanksgiving week that a new position will be added to the paper’s masthead to supervise the television efforts at The Times .
Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis declined to discuss The Times ‘ plans for a nightly newscast, beyond confirming that it was in the planning stages. Regarding the new masthead-level position, “we have not made any announcements,” she said. She did confirm, though, that The Times is looking to expand its relationship with ABC News. “That’s certainly under discussion, but there’s nothing to announce at this point,” she said.
Long in the planning stages, the Times newscast would be a decidedly Times (as in the newspaper, not the corporate parent) product, produced in conjunction with MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, makers of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer , and with PBS affiliates WNET New York and WETA Washington D.C., according to sources both at The Times and MacNeil-Lehrer.
Standing in the way of the show, of course, is the issue of funding. Representatives of the Times newscast have been in contact with a number of corporate and public foundations, seeking a suitable sponsor. Though no final sponsorship agreement has been reached, it is believed that a sponsor could be announced in the coming months, with the program launching next fall.
An anchor for the newscast has not been chosen. But a spokesperson for MacNeil-Lehrer Productions said that a number of high-profile names in the TV news business are under consideration. “All things being equal, we would rather have someone who is better recognized than lesser recognized,” said spokesman Robert Flynn. “But we are also looking for the right talent and the right type of person for this program.”
The proposed news show, called National Edition , would air five nights a week on PBS. National Edition would sell an upper-crust blend of national and international news against the lowest-common-denominator, mayhem-and-heroic-puppies formula of local network broadcasts.
“I think that whomever you’re talking to at The Times would be probably correct in saying that it’s picking up momentum on all sides,” said Mr. Flynn. “We are continuing to think that this is an idea that has tremendous merit, and a great opportunity exists in the TV landscape for programming like this.
“This really is designed as a viable option to body bags at 11 p.m.,” he added.
The show would be taped in New York and follow a traditional newscast format. In its current formulation, the show would draw on The Times ‘ reporters for stories that would appear in the next day’s newspaper (in addition to its own anchors and reporters). The idea, said a Times staff member, is “the first news of tomorrow, not the last news show of today.”
The show would also have time allocated to a local insert for local PBS stations to fill. And like every other 11 p.m. news show, it would include a local weather forecast.
Mr. Flynn emphasized that this program would not be a reporters’ roundtable, filled with faces made for radio, parsing the day’s events.
“We see this as relatively quick-view, straight-delivery news primarily developed for a group that we see as being significantly under-served right now, which are people in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s who either don’t have the time to watch the early news, don’t get home to watch the early news or have other things in their lives,” he said.
Unclear is how the Times newscast would affect the future of Charlie Rose, whose hourlong interview show airs nightly on WNET and other PBS stations at 11 p.m. The powers behind the Times newscast would like to have Mr. Rose’s show follow the national newscast at 11:30 p.m. Mr. Rose was traveling and could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Flynn saw a hard-news show as a booster for Mr. Rose. “I think it would provide a wonderful lead-in for Charlie,” he said.
A Times show would help MacNeil-Lehrer to fulfill its long-harbored ambitions to extend its news franchise to a late-night edition. Some PBS member stations have already agreed to broadcast the show. The obstacle up to now has been finding an underwriter to foot the bill of the production. Adding a highly marketable name like The New York Times to the newscast will likely make that effort easier.
Likewise, Mr. Sulzberger has been thinking about this for a while. At the New York Times Strategic Conference, an annual confab that this year was held in September at the Millennium Hotel, Mr. Sulzberger clearly spelled out his thinking, inspired in part by Gary Hamel’s management tome Leading the Revolution : “Are we a company that venerates the past, or one that invents the future?” Mr. Sulzberger demanded of his employees.
And keeping with a style he said was patterned after Mao Zedong and Che Guevara, Mr. Sulzberger spelled out what the future would bring for The New York Times :
“We will not be able to meet the goals we established for our 10-year plan unless and until we create and foster a sustained New York Times presence on television.”
He added that unlike synergistic cross-marketing arrangements between print and broadcast news operations, he intended The New York Times to make money from its operations in television. “Can we create a sustainable image of The Times as a place to turn for quality news and information on television while also meeting our financial obligations?” he asked. “I believe we can. I can’t prove it, but I feel it in my bones.”
Though not spelled out in any way, those inside The Times said that there is no upper limit to the schemes Mr. Sulzberger is at least mulling over. How about a New York Times cable news channel? Or what about buying a cable system outright? And why couldn’t The Times buy off a money- losing network news division? What would Michael Eisner say if someone offered to take ABC News’ red ink off of Disney’s earnings statement?
“It is only the beginning,” Mr. Sulzberger said at the strategic conference.
Spurring all of this, Mr. Sulzberger said, was his belief that the Internet will change everything in the news business.
“At some point in the not-too-distant future, achieving critical mass on the Internet will depend, to a large degree, on our ability to marry the printed word with the moving image,” he said. Working in that sort of environment, he said, “will require that we also become far more familiar with a world that we chose to ignore in the 1940’s and have, in the intervening years, looked upon with feelings of both inadequacy and distaste. Now, for all the right reasons, we have concluded that television is a distribution form we need to engage with, and one we need to master.”
The Times’ recent history is replete with examples of the newspaper’s scorn for the medium. When newly elected President John F. Kennedy adopted television as his chosen way to communicate with the country, Times reporters, who had been the chosen vehicle for Presidential communiqués, reacted with scorn. According to Gay Talese’s The Kingdom and the Power , Times man James Reston called Mr. Kennedy’s televised news conferences “the goofiest idea since the hula hoop.”
Abe Rosenthal, who led The Times from 1976 to 1986, had his own reputation of disdain for television news. Today, he said, it wasn’t so much disdain as competitive and journalistic principle that kept his reporters from becoming on-air pundits.
“We did have some rules: You couldn’t every week,” Mr. Rosenthal told Off the Record. “You were allowed to appear as a reporter, but not as an editorial writer. I was competitive. I didn’t want to see a person spill a story the day before the paper.”
In the 1980’s, the New York Times Company included a division called NYT Cable TV that operated a cable system in southern New Jersey. In 1989, when Punch Sulzberger (father of the current publisher) was running things, the Times Company sold the outfit. “The sale of NYT Cable TV makes it possible for us to focus our efforts on our core businesses,” Mr. Sulzberger announced.
Now, with numerous new sections, and new color printing plants to print them in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and other sites around the country, the young Mr. Sulzberger is looking beyond his family’s “core business.”
Speaking at the Millennium Hotel, he rued the day The New York Times sold the patents for fax machines for a song in 1959. He also noted, “Just after World War II, as the television industry was developing, the government offered The Times an opportunity to create a station here in the lucrative New York City market for next to nothing. Management decided that it was not our business and we walked away.”
It’s a different Times, said Mr. Sulzberger, who calls Star Trek his “favorite show”:
“This is our next great frontier, and we have within us the courage, the vision and the will to match our achievements in other mediums.”
-with Jason Gay