With World News on the Decline, It’s Worldfocus to the Rescue

January 12th, 2009

Veteran international reporter, Jim Lobe, recently put together some eye-opening perspective on the state of world news coverage on American television. Citing the respected Tyndall Report, Lobe reports that “foreign-related news coverage by the three major U.S. television networks fell to a record low during 2008.”

Taking at look at this chart on the Tyndall Report site, you can see a steady decline in international coverage by the networks over the past decade. From a combined total about 2500 minutes in 1998, the networks dropped down to about 1900 total minutes of world news coverage in 2008.

Lobe also cites a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that some 70 percent of the public in 2008 relied on television as a main source for national and international news last year.

The conclusion couldn’t be clearer – or more troublesome. Americans’ main resource for world news is giving them less and less coverage with each passing year.

And that’s only half the story. The same Tyndall Report chart also shows that the most-covered international story by far in 2008 was the Summer Olympic Games. The Games were an important event, for sure. But they certainly didn’t have significant impact on the urgent issues shaping our world today. Subtract coverage of the Games from the total time the networks dedicated to international news coverage and the picture looks dimmer still.

Lobe quotes Moises Naim, editor of the prestigious Foreign Policy magazine: “It’s ironic and paradoxical that at a time when we have a financial crisis that is global in nature, this country is fighting two wars, and the destinies of the population is more than ever linked to events that happen beyond the national borders of the United States, that the networks decide to cut back their foreign coverage.”

Perhaps the real irony is that the struggling network news divisions are using their balance sheets to justify cutbacks in foreign news bureaus. But as Naim suggests, those cuts come at a great expense. If America is to work its way out of this global financial crisis and maintain its leadership position in the world, Americans are surely going to need to be equipped with an understanding of the forces affecting us all in our global community.

This is where we at WNET.ORG are playing a vital role. With its nightly nationwide 26-minute broadcast, our Worldfocus series adds 6760 minutes of dedicated international news coverage to American television every year. In other words, we’ve more than tripled the combined coverage of the three major networks. And that’s not even considering that Worldfocus has a 24/7 website with regular updates and additional coverage.

For a nation facing historic challenges in an increasingly interconnected world, ignoring international news is not an option. With Worldfocus, we’re bringing world news home to America – just in the nick of time.

Infrastructure and Shakespeare

January 8th, 2009

from: Neal Shapiro, President & CEO, WNET.ORG

I spent the morning with two incredible people who make what can sometimes seem to be inaccessible topics into riveting and informative television.

The people: Ray Suarez and Sir Ian McKellen
The topics: Infrastructure and Shakespeare

Greetings from the Winter TCA Press Tour in Los Angeles, where media writers from around the country converge to hear about new programs and initiatives from all the networks. PBS went first this year.

WNET kicked it off with a discussion about Blueprint America, our system-wide initiative launched with the Rockefeller Foundation that explores how America needs to deal with the one the biggest challenges of the 21at century: its crumbling infrastructure. For months, we’ve worked with many of the most important programs on public television and radio to report on this topic, and we think it is no accident that it has found its way to the top of president-elect Obama’s to-do list.

I presented with our Vice President of Content, Stephen Segaller, and talked about how the programs came together, but the real star of the session was Ray Suarez, Senior Correspondent for The NewsHour. Ray has already done several Blueprint America stories for us, and he has a history with the topic of infrastructure, having covered it back in his days as rising star reporter at WMAQ-TV in Chicago. Infrastructure sounds like a clinical or technological issue, but as Ray explains it, infrastructure is really about the everyday things we do in life…getting to work, communicating, moving food and supplies.

We also told the critics about our next two documentaries…the first begins shooting this week and will air in late May. Stay tuned.

Next up, we met a night–er knight–in the morning. Sir Ian McKellan was waiting backstage before he went onstage to talk about the Great Performances production of King Lear, in which he plays the title role. He is charming, witty, disarming and curious about television. We talked about PBS and the kind of arts coverage we are doing.

Neal Shapiro and Sir Ian McKellen

In front of the critics, he was mesmerizing as he talked about finding his way through Lear, and how he brings some of the experiences in his own life to bear in under-standing the role. When one of the critics asked him if playing Lear was the most challenging role of his long and distinguished career, he said “Yes, I think it was.”

Eventually the topic of the nude scene was brought up. In the play, it is clear that Shakespeare means for Lear to be disrobing. But onstage, how far should he go? When he toured with the show, in most performances Sir Ian left nothing to the imagination. But in some places, such as Singapore, local law and customs forbade total nudity, so he did not.

The critics were curious about the television version: would he or wouldn’t he? The director chose to suggest total nudity but not show it completely…which Sir Ian said he thought was fine. He acknowledged that sometimes when an actor totally disrobes, it distracts from the dialogue. In fact, he told us, when he disrobed onstage he was distracted too…he concentrated on holding his stomach in!

My Viennese New Year’s with Julie Andrews

January 5th, 2009

Inside Thirteen Blogger: Cara Cosentino, coordinating producer, Great Performances

Can you imagine a chance to be in Vienna to welcome the new year with none other than Julie Andrews? Well, that’s exactly what I had the good fortune of doing last week.

Working on staff on the Great Performances series, I have the incredible chance to travel to different cities, work with talented artists and be immersed in all genres of music.

I will confess the annual New Year’s concert is one of my personal favorites, one I look forward to all year. How can you not love being in Vienna listening to Johann Strauss’ waltzes with Walter Cronkite during the holiday season?

As most people know, the legendary Walter Cronkite had been our host for our “From Vienna: The New Year’s Celebration” for the past 24 years. I had the opportunity to work with Mr. Cronkite for several New Year’s, and as any viewer will know, he left pretty big shoes to fill. This year, Miss Julie Andrews succeeded him as host. I’m sure you’ll agree that there is no
better person for the job.

It’s always a little nerve-wracking to work with a celebrity for the first time, especially one as iconic as Julie. But as soon as she stepped on set, all fears were eased. She is as gracious, beautiful and warm as I imagined her to be. What an honor to work with someone you’ve admired your entire life, and have them exceed your expectations. She is a true pro and every
bit a class act.

In Vienna, classical music is as essential as food or drink. That much is clear in every location we shot in. You can’t walk three feet without seeing ads for classical concerts, Mozart Kugels being sold by the pound, or miniature Strauss statues. They are as abundant as Statue of Liberty souvenirs on the streets of NYC!

We’ve shot in Haydn’s house, the Redoutensaal (a concert hall within the Imperial Palace where Strauss, Beethoven and Mozart performed in), Esterhazy Castle – and of course – the Musikverein. Julie was as excited to visit these sites as we were. And, of course, to hear the polkas and waltzes of the Strauss family.

This year, our show is in high definition, and I think it’s as close to sitting in the famous Austrian hall without leaving your American couch, but you can see for yourself.

Honoring Hollywood’s Historic Exiles

December 31st, 2008

Guest Blogger: Karen Thomas, filmmaker, Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler To Hollywood

When I first began working on Cinema’s Exiles, a film about the plight of German film artists who took refuge in Hollywood from Hitler’s reign, director William Wyler’s daughter Catherine, a friend of mine here in Washington, said “You must talk to my mother’s best friend, Lupita Kohner.” And so I did. I was so glad for that advice: Mrs. Kohner became a central character in our film. We had decided to tell this story in the first person, through the words and works of its principals, and it became clear that she was one of the principals.

Mrs. Kohner was born in Mexico, moved to Los Angeles and starred in silent pictures (as Lupita Tovar) beginning in 1929. In 1931 she was the lead in the Spanish language version of Dracula.
Lupita and her husband Paul, a producer at Universal, moved to Berlin in the early 1930s, when Paul Kohner became the Universal’s representative in Europe. Lupita Kohner saw Berlin in its glamour and gaiety, and witnessed Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. She saw Nazi brutality firsthand. After Hitler banished Jewish filmmakers from working in the German cinema, Kohner and her husband smuggled money across the frontier to Paris to filmmakers in exile. She was still in her early 20s. Sometimes she hid the money in her knitting; once she stashed it in a very large cold cream jar.

The Kohners were ultimately denounced for their activities. Crossing the border into Czechoslovakia on one occasion, they were nearly caught smuggling a large amount of cash. The Kohners never returned to Germany after that scare; they went home to Los Angeles. There, Paul and Lupita Kohner became founders of the European Film Fund, an extraordinary organization that provided arriving émigrés with money, food and shelter. Every exile working in Hollywood was asked to contribute 1% of their paycheck to the Fund. Mrs. Kohner, Charlotte Dieterle, Ernst Lubitsch and Henry Koster are among the many who worked to encourage participation in the Film Fund. On our film’s companion Web site you can see the list of 1941-1942 contributors and the amounts they gave, which range from $2 to $1300. Decades later, strangers introduced themselves to Lupita Kohner, and thanked her for her help.

Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler To Hollywood premieres on Thirteen Thursday, January 1 at 9:30 pm (ET). For broadcasts elsewhere, check local listings or reference pbs.org.

Things Fall Apart

December 29th, 2008

Inside Thirteen Blogger: David Brancaccio, host and senior editor of NOW on PBS

The Big Fix,” part of Thirteen’s “Blueprint America” series, airs December 30th at 9:00 pm.

Idiocracy’s vision of the future

One of the finest pieces of satire ever committed to film is “Idiocracy,” an underrated 2006 feature from Mike Judge that projects what society will look like after 500 more years of dumbing down. By then, according to the comedy, hardly anyone reads, most are barely articulate, and the food supply is about to fail because crops have been irrigated with Gatorade (actually “Brawndo“) because policymakers believed advertisements that said the energy beverage was good for you. What is especially resonant is the state of the infrastructure as depicted in the film. If you watch the background carefully, you can see the crumbling hulks of what were once highway overpasses or bridges left to rot in a society incapable of planning ahead.

It is clear that could be the future of America’s infrastructure if current trends of neglect are allowed to continue unabated. And as the collapse of the 35W Bridge in Minneapolis two summers ago made shockingly clear, we won’t have to wait 500 years for things to fall apart. While no politician is in favor of potholes, dangerous bridges, or traffic jams, fixing what needs to be fixed will cost a colossal amount of money in a time when the economic collapse is demanding great rivers of public money for front-and-center needs of all kinds.

However, the economic crisis and the pressing need to fix the infrastructure may have crashed together in a useful way. Economist and op-ed columnist Paul Krugman made the case for our cameras just hours after he got off the plane from Stockholm where he had just picked up his Nobel Prize for Economics. I conducted this interview for the Blueprint America project, a year-long PBS initiative on infrastructure. The interview will conclude a special called “The Big Fix” airs December 30th at 9:00 pm on Thirteen, and later, will be watchable online.

Krugman has long pondered the last big economic crisis similar in magnitude to the one we face now. He has just freshened up his 1999 book “The Return of Depression Economics,” and he says the principles of the 1930s apply now: Roosevelt spent government money mightily on infrastructure and so must Obama. He must spend a lot, the spending needs to start right away, and according to Krugman, the spending has to be sustained. Roosevelt got in trouble, the economist argues, when he slowed spending, prompting a recession in 1937.

Krugman teaches at Princeton and he included on his personal list of infrastructure spending perhaps a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River to New York. Alternative energy, the next generation internet, computerizing health care, building new classrooms all count toward the goal of keeping the U.S. out of depression. And building a better country, I asked? Yes, both goals in tandem, Krugman said.

This is, of course, money the U.S. Treasury does not have, especially given last fall’s rescue/bailout for banks. However, the interest rates the government has to pay to borrow the money is extremely low these days, which will help. Still, a few years hence, when the U.S. is out of recession, there is no getting round the big bill that will have to be paid.

As Chinua Achebe wrote, “Things Fall Apart.” That has happened to our economy and our infrastructure, but that confluence of timing could be an historic opportunity.

The City Concealed, Uncovered

December 17th, 2008

Inside Thirteen Blogger: Tom Vigliotta, producer, The City Concealed

I’m fascinated by the physical remnants of human activity, particularly relics that are hidden in plain sight. New York is one of the oldest cities in America, with a rich, storied history. As one era has turned to the next, leftovers have survived. Unfortunately, many of the most interesting sites in NYC are visible from afar, but getting to them is often difficult-to-impossible. The City Concealed is my attempt to document some of these historical gems in video.

old warehouses along Newtown Creek’s ‘banks’

Some locations, like the subject of our debut installment, Newtown Creek, are technically accessible to anyone. Anyone on a boat, that is. And without a guide, you’re not likely to know what you’re looking at, just a number of old and new factories and warehouses. Similarly, Green-Wood Cemetery, the subject of our upcoming second piece, is open to the public (though it hasn’t always been that way), but several areas are only accessible on rare occasions.

The biggest triumph of our initial set of episodes is our tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The story of how we ended up filming at the Yard begins with beer:

Being a resident of Brooklyn, I have, on a few occasions, had the pleasure of enjoying the wares of her namesake brewery. Some years ago, I took a tour of the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg and I loved the building. I suspected that there might be more to the Brewery than public tours reveal. I reached out to owner Steve Hindy to ask about the structures. As it turns out, Thirteen had already done a tour of the Brewery’s old warehouse in Bushwick a few years before.

But Steve pointed me in the direction of Andrew Kimball, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC). A few phone conversations later, and we were booked to shoot at the Navy Yard and (of particular interest to me) the Hospital Campus, which is currently unused and off-limits to the public. BNYDC’s excellent archivist, Daniella Romano, took us around the grounds and showed us amazing old structures which are awaiting new use (like the pre-Civil War Naval Hospital) as well as the buildings that have been successfully redeveloped.

BNYDC’s openness and willingness to share the story of the Navy Yard’s past, present and future was refreshing. I believe they are successfully preserving the historical integrity of the site, while putting it to use for the New York City of today and beyond.

While covering the Navy Yards, we met the amazing Rubena Ross, who worked at the Yard in the 1940s making flags for the ships being built and serviced at the Yard. She used her salary to raise several lovely daughters, buy two brownstones, AND retire early.

I’m looking forward to bringing you the rest of our stories and I hope you enjoy watching them as we have enjoyed making them. Tell us where we should go next! Please drop us a line (http://www.thirteen.org/thecityconcealed/share-your-ideas-now), we’d love to hear from you.


Switching Sides, Camera-wise

December 16th, 2008

Guest Blogger: Amanda Gordon, freelance correspondent, New York Voices

What does a society reporter do in a recession? Go on TV!

After six-and-a-half years writing and photographing a daily column on charities for The New York Sun, I lost my job at the end of September, when the paper closed, on the same day the vote on the federal government’s bailout of the banking industry failed in the House of Representatives. The stories were side-by-side in the headlines.

The cold reality set in that I was without a means to cover New York’s community of givers, until the executive producer and director of Thirteen’s local programming, John DeNatale, gave me an assignment. Apparently the recession hadn’t put society reporting out of business yet.

Amanda Gordon and Jim Tisch, WNET.ORG
chairman, at Alvin Ailey’s 50th anniversary gala.

Tonight I am making my Thirteen (and television) debut on the local public affairs show New York Voices. My report is on the spirit of giving in the midst of a downturn, covering two very different charities, an internationally-known dance company and a Brooklyn-based pre-K provider for low-income families. In reporting the story, it’s clear that charities are feeling the pain of the downturn and working hard to make their numbers. There are bright spots, for example: Brooklyn Kindergarten Society raised 20% less than it hoped to at its end of year fundraiser, but it still had more volunteers hosting dinner parties than ever before.

The health of arts organizations like Ailey, which had a $200,000 increase in gala proceeds in its special 50th anniversary year, is heartening. Everyone I’ve talked to comes back to the same theme: their confidence in their donors and the strength of their organization’s management to deal with the changes.

I’ve been sharing with former Sun colleagues the adventure of reporting for television as opposed to print. The basic methods of reporting and good storytelling are the same, but a lot of how you tell the story differs. And what lingo! My favorite term is “sot,” or sound on tape, which in print is called a plain old “quote.”

And then there’s the glamour. I’ve always been happy behind the camera. With this story, I went in front of the camera. I put on makeup (that’s a major Amanda headline – I’m an inky newspaper Chapstick-wearing gal at heart). And I even got to have a 1980s music video moment in the recording booth yesterday. Think Milli Vanilli. Tune in tonight at 8:00 pm to see the results.

There were New York Voices cameramen to film the parties I covered, but I couldn’t resist pulling out my own camera too: Clive Gillinson of Carnegie Hall, Sharon Gersten Luckman of Alvin Ailey, and Joan Weill, the chair of Ailey, at the Alvin Ailey gala.

The Personal Hajj

December 8th, 2008

Inside Thirteen Blogger: Patti Hanley, producer, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

We have five television sets that are constantly broadcasting in our newsroom. Believe me, that is a lot of 24-hour cable news. It’s safe to say we get a good idea of the stories that cable networks think are most important – for instance, this week it’s the auto industry bailout, the recession, violence in India, and the new Obama administration.

The biggest story in the religion world this week will probably only get a passing mention on those stations: the Hajj, where millions of Muslims fulfill a pillar of their faith by making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Unfortunately, most of the time the Hajj makes news because of some type of overcrowding-related tragedy. Yet it is that massive crowd that makes the images we see of Mecca so awe-inspiring. Two million of the faithful, in the same place performing the same rituals. Truly powerful stuff.

Full disclosure: I am not a Muslim. I am also not a fan of crowds. The Hajj is, to this outsider, a true test of endurance. At various points of the trip, a Muslim will kneel, run, throw things, sleep in a tent in the desert, and stand vigil on a mountain plain. These activities are not optional – every Muslim who is physically and financially able is expected to participate. No excuses. If there’s an analogous term to “cafeteria Catholics” that applies to Muslims, I’ve never heard it.

the Hajj

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly followed a Muslim pilgrim from New Jersey on his first Hajj, way back in 1998 (watch part I, part II, and part III). He said that in Mecca, he had found his spiritual home. After years of praying five times a day in the direction of that holy city, he found himself physically at the epicenter of his faith. For him, the crowds didn’t matter – except to illustrate to him the diversity of believers. Earlier this year, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government released a report on the long-term impact on pilgrims who perform the Hajj. In their abstract, they say that “Hajjis show increased belief in peace, and in equality and harmony among adherents of different religions.” They also leave Mecca more accepting of women’s education and employment. The Hajj is changing minds.

This is a season of holidays for many faiths, as well as for secular people. Later this month when I make my pilgrimage to my childhood (if not my spiritual) home, I’m going to be thinking about the Hajjis, and how I might be able to expand my own worldview.

Increasing my belief in peace and harmony might help with my own yearly test of endurance: the traffic on I-95.

Live on Thirteen: A Backstage View

December 3rd, 2008

Inside Thirteen Blogger: Eva Glaser, Education Department

When membership drive time rolls around every few months, those of us who are directly involved experience a range of emotions. There’s the sense of impending long days and nights, the anxiety of making sure everything goes smoothly, but there’s also the excitement which I have come to learn is synonymous with live television.

the Billys and Rafael

Last night was a particular treat. The three young “Billys” who rotate in the starring role of Broadway’s Billy Elliot: The Musical were here, as well as the very talented jazz musician Chris Botti and his band. I can vouch for all three of the young, exceptionally talented Billys being just as cute (or cuter!) in the flesh as they appeared on the TV screen. I wanted to be 12 again (where were the gifted, mature, young male ballet dancers when I was in the 6th grade?). It’s easy to forget young Broadway stars are still just regular kids, but as they walked through the halls and into the green room, it was clear by their playful jabs and tousling of each others’ hair, that they are indeed just that. Seeing them in person, made it even more surreal as I watched, with everyone else, all three speak eloquently about their experience as emerging Broadway stars during their on-air interviews with Rafael Pi Roman.

There is another aspect that the viewers at home don’t get to see. And for me, it’s the most inspiring. My primary job during membership drives is working as part of the team that takes care of the volunteers who answer the phones. Last night, it was a faithful and fun group, volunteers from The New York Stock Exchange, one of our corporate donors. They are a dedicated crew (most have gone through more membership drives than I have) who come after their long days at work to put in a little time for Thirteen. They love it. This lively group gets just as excited about receiving that $1000 pledge as we do, and genuinely enjoys being in the studio in close proximity with the talent. The rush of being near stars in a live studio doesn’t seem to lose its appeal.

But for me, witnessing the generosity and commitment of these volunteers who believe in our station and programming enough to give up an evening (and surely a few hours of sleep!), is inspiring. Thirteen certainly brings in big stars and incredible talent, but it also brings in our community and above all, that’s what makes me feel privileged to come to work each day… just remind me tonight at midnight when I’m leaving the office!

stalwart NYSE phone volunteers

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Reel 13

December 2nd, 2008

Inside Thirteen Blogger: Michael Pielocik, Associate Producer, Reel 13

Holiday stress is reaching a fever pitch. The economy is in the toilet. Unemployment numbers are up. And the price of a movie ticket in Manhattan is approaching $14. I don’t know about you, but if I’m paying $14, those sexy Twilight vampires had better wash my car or make me a sandwich or something when they’re done with all their sexy vampire angst. But alas, no.

Which is why I suggest that you stay in on Saturday nights in December and enjoy great movies for free with Reel 13. This month is going to be a stellar one for our little programming block. We’ve got John Wayne in the movie that inspired every filmmaker from Kurosawa to Spielberg, The Searchers, and three, count ’em three, Best Picture Oscar winners: West Side Story (1961), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Annie Hall (1977). And that’s just the Classics.

As always, there are the Reel 13 Shorts that you select by voting over at the Reel 13 web site. And our December Indies are nothing to sneeze at, either. Falling Angels, starring Miranda Richardson, 13 Conversations About One Thing, starring Oscar winner Alan Arkin and Matthew McConaughey, and Jake Gyllenhaal in the cult favorite Donnie Darko, which has played to packed midnight showings for 6 years or so.

Oldham in the 2006 release, The Guatemalan Handshake

But the movie I’m most excited about in December is The Guatemalan Handshake. Starring independent musician Will Oldham (Matewan), The Guatemalan Handshake is the unconventional story of a small rural town and its oddball inhabitants. Through a series of interconnected vignettes, we learn about Donald (Oldham), who has gone missing in the wake of a meltdown at the local power plant. Narrated by Donald’s best friend, a ten-year-old girl named Turkeylegs, The Guatemalan Handshake is funny, heartbreaking, and surreal, and it’s one of those under-the-radar films that makes Reel 13 a great place to not just see some of your old favorites, but also to discover new ones.

The Guatemalan Handshake premieres on Thirteen on December 20th after Reel 13 Shorts.

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