Covering Politics AND Religion

April 3rd, 2008

Thirteen blogger: PJ Hanley, producer Religion and Ethics

“Never discuss politics or religion.”

That’s the conventional wisdom, right? Well, what happens when discussing politics and religion is practically the first sentence of your job description?

Meet the staff of Thirteen/WNET­ D.C., where we produce episodes of “Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly” more frequently than a lot of Americans attend church, where sentences beginning with “The Pope, the Dalai Lama, and George W. Bush,” don’t typically end with a punchline. Where asking someone about their most deeply-held beliefs is not only commonplace, but expected. And I don’t think a single one of us has been thrown out of a dinner party for doing so.

Being based in the nation’s capital, where political races command more attention than the local sports teams, we can’t avoid the intersection of our beat with politics. In 2008, that means following as closely as we can what the candidates are doing to reach out to people of faith, and how they practice their own faith on the campaign trail. Without having reporters and cameramen embedded in each campaign, we do our best to keep up and sometimes end up frustrated. Campaign workers (when they call back) will tell us their candidate doesn’t know where he/she is attending church this weekend ­ and we find out–after the fact–that they did indeed worship in an obvious location right downtown.

Other times, we get a tip from someone who knows us because we are the only TV outlet that covers their issues. They understand that we need access ­in advance­ to get our story right. Most importantly, we get these calls because the tipster recognizes that we WILL get the story right–we generally have figured out how to discuss religion without offending anybody.

As for politics, we’ve always known that Barack Obama is not a Muslim, that Hillary Clinton grew up Methodist, and that John McCain has challenges with the Religious Right. But if anyone hears where any of the candidates will be attending church this Sunday, please let us know.

–PJ Hanley

Animal Attraction

April 1st, 2008

Thirteen blogger: Fred Kaufman, Executive Producer, Nature

A few years back, while producing our series Deep Jungle, I saw some extraordinary footage of a small, sparrow-sized bird doing a Michael Jackson moonwalk on a branch in the forests of Panama. The bird, called a manakin, was doing a little dance followed by a backward slide, and then a 360-degree spin. It was an eye-catching performance, but why such an elaborate show? The male was performing for a female. He was trying to impress her. He was looking for a mate. Cue video:

Boy trying to impress girl? Been there, done that–and not very well, by the way. Personality may get you a second date but looks get you the first or maybe being a good dancer. I don’t know any females who aren’t attracted to a guy who can dance. And guess what? It’s the same in the animal kingdom. If you’re a good-looking male and can build an impressive nest or sing a love song, or got some good moves,­ you, sir, are just what the females are looking for. Looking for love in all the wild places? Catch “What Females Want and Males Will Do” on Nature April 6 and 13.

Reel 13 = Officially ‘Cool’

March 31st, 2008

Thirteen blogger: Neal Shapiro, President

There I was, having a quiet Sunday brunch with my family and my 20-year-old nephew–let’s call him Spencer (because that’s his name).

Spencer is ultra-cool and he had taken us to an ultra-cool brunch restaurant in Brooklyn. Although he thinks it is nice that I work at Thirteen, my job isn’t right up there on his list of cool, hip professions.

As we were deciding whether to get the duck egg over lardons and potatoes or the “The Beast Pizza”, a total hipster type, with cool clothes, an earring and 3-day stubble tentatively approached our table .

He hesitated and then came closer, tapping me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, are you who I think you are?”

My nephew looks at him…and then looks at me. What could this cool guy possibly want with me?

“Who do you think I am?”

“Aren’t you that guy on Thirteen?”

“Yes, I am, ” I replied.

“Oh man,” he said, “I want to thank you so much. So much.”

I extended my hand…and he ignored it. Instead, he enveloped me in a big bear hug. My nephew was even more stunned.

“I love Reel 13,” he explained. “I love the classic and the short and the indie feature. I was watching last night and as usual, I got hooked. I couldn’t go out until it was all over.”

Now, my guess is that there was plenty for him to do in Brooklyn after our independent movie ended at around 1 am, but it’s great for us at Thirteen to know we are reaching all kinds of viewers, opening their eyes to different kinds of movies.

I hope you’ll give yourself a chance to get swept away by Reel 13–not just because these classic movies are always framed with an expert’s introduction that will make them even more enjoyable…and not just because you, the viewer get to pick which short feature film airs each Saturday…and not just because we find award-winning independent films that have never been seen on broadcast television.

No. Watch Reel 13 because it’s cool.

Behind the Scenes: Music

March 26th, 2008

Thirteen blogger: Emily Lee, Coordinator, Thirteen’s Music Services

As the coordinator for Thirteen’s Music Services department, I am excited to give you a behind the scenes peek at how the music part of production works.

At Thirteen, we have a three-person team dedicated to providing music support to all the programs produced here. I am in charge of preparing music cue sheets (logs of all the music that is in each program), researching publishers and record companies for identification and clearance, and selecting sound effects.

In public television, we face interesting challenges that do not always arise in commercial television–smaller budgets probably being our biggest hurdle. The Music Services department is unique to our station. The commercial world tends to have various people working on a project-by-project basis, whereas we have a whole department servicing the clearance, selection and research needs of most projects produced at Thirteen.

Let’s begin!

So you’re sitting there on your couch watching the latest episode of NOW. You’re probably absorbed by the election coverage, or amazed by the profile of a courageous whistleblower, or discussing the failing economy with your loved-one sitting beside you. But what you’re probably not doing is paying attention to the music.

And that’s exactly what the Thirteen music department is hoping.

A lot goes into scoring a program ­ matching the right tone for the picture, making sure the piece starts and ends correctly, pulling the correct sound effects for the image on the screen ­ but if it is all done well, you should never even notice it’s there. It should blend right into the background, providing support and propel the program forward, while not rearing its head and taking much of the spotlight.

For example, take the opening from the show, Curious:

If you play the beginning of the clip without sound and then compare it with the sound up, you can definitely see the difference. The lighthearted music sets a tone and helps to segue one image to the next. But when you watch the segment, your mind shouldn’t separate the music from the image. This music was specially composed for the program.

In the music library, we deal with three different types of music. We may use commercially released music that anyone can buy in a store or online. We may turn to our production music library. Here we have music that is composed and primarily licensed for use on TV, film, radio, etc., but is not commercially available. Or, we will have music composed specifically for a program. We also have a large sound effects library.

In addition to our music resources, the head of the music department has been at Thirteen since before PBS was created! But that’s another story.

Stay tuned for more Behind the Scenes: Music posts, where I’ll try and get into these things more specifically, I’ll give you a peek inside what it takes to put music in a show, and you can get to know the people behind the music at Thirteen.

Inside Outreach

March 25th, 2008

Thirteen Blogger: Maura Thompson, Cyberchase Outreach Manager

For two years, as a teacher, I hoped to attend the Teaching and Learning Celebration. Who would have thought I would finally land my chance by working in the Education Department at Thirteen? My department, Cyberchase Outreach, presented at a Panel discussion and an “In the Classroom” session. Both presentations were filled with passionate educators, described by one panelist as “an interesting and diverse group of people.”

I was one of many people you may have seen with STAFF shirts and walkie talkies. Most of my time was spent guiding guests to their next session but I did have a few minutes to poke my head into sessions I found intriguing as a math educator. In case you were at other sessions, or missed the TLC altogether, here are some sessions I am looking forward to watching on EdOnline:

• Using Mathematics to Solve Crimes, presented by “The Math Guy” from NPR, Keith Devlin. He’s now the math advisor to the CBS show, NUMB3RS.

Karen Cator, from Apple. She spoke about ACOT2. ACOT was such a huge influence on me personally, I am excited to see this collaboration revived.

Edutopia’s Milton Chen. If you do not already receive this innovative educator’s magazine…it’s free, go sign up.

Dan Flockhart. More to come on him next month when I blog about the launch of Cyberchase’s Math & Sports initiative.

Lastly, I wish I had the opportunity to see Two Million Minutes. This documentary received a lot of attention from bloggers on my Google Reader, and many guests I interacted with showed equal enthusiasm. Factor in Bill Gates’ testimony to the House Committee on Science and Technology and the National Mathematics Advisory Panel Final Report released this week, and this movie should be on the top of all educators’ Netflix queues.

The Art Behind the News

March 24th, 2008

Thirteen blogger: Hugh Siegel, Communications

Some people think the news just happens. We press operatives know better.

Without us, events would get reported, sure. But would news get made?

Look at the piece PBS Renews Arts Support in Broadcasting and Cable today. “In its battle for federal funding,” B&C’s Marisa Guthrie writes, “PBS has clung to its educational mission and stressed a renewed commitment to arts coverage, which gets increasingly short shrift not only on television but in the pages of newspapers.”

Sound familiar? That’s a little tune we’ve been humming like a parakeet with OCD. We applaud our friends at B&C for joining in the sing-along.

What’s worth noting is that this article is actually a reiteration of the story WNET New York to Launch SundayArts, which B&C ran on Friday, ahead of the launch of Thirteen’s new arts and culture showcase, SundayArts. The subhead of Friday’s article became the headline of today’s. You journalism students out there might call this digging up the buried lead. For the real story here is not that Thirteen debuted an exciting new series this past weekend – it’s that New York’s flagship public television station is working hard to keep the arts alive in America.

Publicity – like art – is all about process, of course. So we can’t help but feel a flush of creative pride in reading The Christian Science Monitor’s review of Peter and the Wolf. “The value added by viewing this film in the Great Performances umbrella series of PBS (March 26, 8 p.m.) is getting to observe the effort the behind the creative process during an additional half hour of interviews with the filmmakers. We learn just how painstaking the work really was: An entire day’s work of moving puppets in front of a camera added up to no more than a second-and-a-half of final screen time. The assembled team worked on the film for more than five years. Once the viewer understands just how hard this format is to create, it seems a worthy fit for the serious and elegant classical music it brings to life.” As for the conclusion – “This is no simple cartoon short. It is as much a work of art as the music itself.” – we couldn’t have written it better ourselves (though we certainly might have tried).

For some people, it’s true, the greatest of all arts takes place not on the concert stage, but in a diamond of dirt and sod. The wonder of your publicity team is that we are as at home in our box seats as we are sliding into third. So when the press writes about an MLB star’s appearance on Cyberchase, we credit our signals to the mound. “Ever wonder what pitch John Maine decides to throw first? Why does it seem sometimes a fielder never has to move for a ball? What criteria does David Wright use to evaluate how well he’s hitting?,” asks Gannet New Service’s John Delcos. “Maine will attempt to answer those questions and explain the pluses and minuses behind the statistics on the math mystery cartoon, Cyberchase, on PBS Kids Go, April 7, the day prior to the final Opening Day at Shea Stadium.”

May all our pitches be so artfully caught.


Behind the Scenes: Religion & Ethics

March 22nd, 2008

Thirteen blogger: Patti Jette Hanley, Producer Religion & Ethics

Happy Easter – again.

This is our 11th Easter at Religion & Ethics, and every year we find ourselves looking for new angles to cover this most important holiday for Christians. We’ve done the “straight” story: what Easter is and why it is so significant. We’ve covered it from the context of the war in Iraq, the Hurricane Katrina devastation, conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

When you look at all these different segments, the theme that ties them together through the years becomes obvious: hope. The story of the Resurrection is the story of ultimate triumph, the defeat of death itself. For Christians, it’s the story of the impossible becoming real. That story provides hope for countless Christians in desperate situations worldwide. It is what they draw upon for strength. I guess that’s what faith is supposed to do, isn’t it?

One of the most evocative images of Easter for me is the Orthodox icon that represents the resurrection, often called the “Harrowing of Hell”. Jesus is front and center, stamping on the crossed doors of hell, with an image of a vanquished Satan cowering underneath. Jesus grasps the wrist of a woman on one side, a man on the other, pulling them out of their tombs – they represent Adam and Eve. The icon just seems to emit power and reassurance that good will triumph over evil, that we can prevail over our difficulties. That we can have hope.

It’s a story that doesn’t seem to get old.

P.J. Hanley

Image courtesy of Jim Forest

SundayArts Online

March 21st, 2008

There’s a new site for Thirteen/WNET that you should check out! I’m Colin Fitzpatrick, a web producer for Thirteen/WNET. I’d like to alert you to our launch of SundayArts, a site that brings our new Sunday afternoon cultural showcase online.

SundayArts is weekly magazine format program that will provide arts news, report on new museum acquisitions, inform you of the newest performances, and profiles and interviews with artists and art figures. The first 14 weeks of broadcast circulate around opera broadcasts from Live at Lincoln Center, like this week’s broadcast Madama Butterfly, and Great Performances @ the Met. This is all just a jumping off point for the web site, which will offer exclusive web content and a blog online, all with the ability for you to comment, provide feedback and questions.

On the blog, we’ve welcomed three fantastic writers who will keep you up to date with arts related news, reviews, and interviews. Jennifer Melick, whom this afternoon I discovered is a fellow ex-student of the double reeds like myself, has already put together an interview with Shu-Wing Li, who plays the title role in this Sunday’s Madama Butterfly. Also writing on the blog are Adam Wasserman, editor of Opera News, and Elisabeth Vincentelli, arts editor for Time Out New York, and former colleague of mine in my L.B.T. (Life Before Thirteen). You can learn more about all three of them here. I know I am definitely looking forward to seeing their work on the blog.

And this is only the beginning of what we will offer online for SundayArts. Look forward to both arts and performance event information on our site as well as a web exclusive series featuring young opera performers at the beginnings of their careers. In the meantime, you can subscribe to our RSS feed (look for the button near the bottom of the right hand bar) by just following the instructions on our site, and you’ll receive our online content updates as they happen. Enjoy.

Behind the Scenes: Thirteen’s Education Department

March 20th, 2008

Thirteen blogger: David Reisman, Senior Editor, Educational Publishing

One of the reasons I like working in the Education Department at Thirteen/WNET is that I’m basically an idealist — early on, I decided that I wanted to be one of the good guys. Most of my work in the Education Department involves editing educational viewer’s guides, teacher’s guides and comic books, though I’m doing more and more writing for the Web these days.
Thirteen’s Education Department extends the life of public television programs beyond broadcast, and works on both local and national educational projects. We work on outreach, teacher training and professional development, Web sites, and publications that reach every age group, from preschoolers to senior citizens. Our work reinforces the educational impact of children’s programming on public TV and adapts programs for general audiences for classes in science, social studies, language arts, and other subjects. Over the years, we’ve also been involved with Bill Moyers’s efforts to help reduce youth violence, raise awareness of the nature of addiction and recovery, discuss death and dying, and many other initiatives.

I’ve worked here full time since the early 1990s and have seen the station go through many changes — from the station having one fax machine and two receptionists who took phone messages for all of us, to everyone using computers; from our sending typewritten memos to our being able to write blogs like this one.

Unfortunately, one thing that’s been constant over the years is uncertainty about funding. The range of options in media has expanded exponentially, and it’s clear that people working in public television have to keep making the case that we offer educational resources that are an amazing bargain for our country. This is especially excruciating in a time when our government is spending so much money on the war in Iraq and other projects.

Even Charles McGrath noted in his New York Times article, “Is PBS Still Necessary?.” “Considering how much it costs to create new topnotch programming, the best solution to public television’s woes is the one that will probably never happen: more money, not less.” The Education Department at Thirteen may be the station’s “secret weapon” (in the
words of our president & CEO, Neal Shapiro) but as we keep moving forward, hopefully everyone’s work in public TV will be better known, understood and appreciated, and ultimately, better funded.

From the Desk of Neal Shapiro

March 19th, 2008

Thirteen blogger: Michael Pielocik

Neal’s away for a week or so, and one would think that as his Research Assistant, his absence would give me the opportunity to conduct research into things like sleeping late, taking long lunches, and spending all day on MySpace. But alas, it’s almost as busy now as when he’s around. I blame Research in Motion. Thanks to Blackberry, he’s still asking me to do things! There are meetings to schedule, phones to answer, and a full mailbox to get to. The station doesn’t shut down just because Neal’s out on important business.

Yeah, it’s a tough job. Though I’d like to be watching movies on my couch, I’ve got to come to work, where Neal has me watching movies at my desk! The gall! Thirteen is trying to find the cream of the cinematic crop for Reel 13 Indies, and that means that our curators are wading through tons of screeners. They can’t watch them all, so I’m more than happy to filter out some of the “less palatable” fare. And if there’s one George Washington (airing April 5th) per stack of dozens of DVDs, then it’s certainly worth it.

Of course, it’s not all sunshine, lollipops, and David Gordon Green films around here. There’s also all the research we need to put together for Reel 13 Classics, SundayArts , and a few other super-mega-top-secret-need-to-know-basis initiatives that haven’t been announced yet (I could tell you, but then I’d have to… sternly ask you not to tell anyone). And all of that’s assuming that no gigantic local stories break that require our immediate attention.

Phew. Time for a nap in Neal’s office.

— Michael P.

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