Distress Signals

KTCA tried to survive the public TV wars by being bigger and better. Too bad the grants dried up and the talent jumped ship.

Neil Seiling, the executive producer of ALIVE TV, an experimentally vibrant national arts showcase that started at KTCA and has since moved to New York, says the decisions to which Halbreich refers were shaped by fear of a public backlash; of being relegated to the fringe. "This is all a playing out of the right wing's attacks on the arts, starting with the National Endowment for the Arts and continuing with PBS. So the pendulum is swinging. The zeitgeist has changed from experimental culture in the '80s to more reality-based stuff in the '90s, like talk shows and news programs."

Willis, TCPT head for seven years before leaving last spring, originally conceived of NewsNight as a way of getting ahead of that trend; or, in Ledbetter's terms, of fighting for a full loaf. Barbara Wiener, a freelance producer who was once an executive producer at KTCA, says Willis believed he could spend his way past the right's attacks by throwing the station's support behind a dynamic, objective public-affairs show. Once people became accustomed to tuning in channels 2 and 17 for the daily news, less timely, more ambitious programming could be promoted and previewed in the time slot. This would lead to increased viewership, which in turn would yield an increase in individual contributions and corporate grants.

"Jack decided to try to reallocate resources," says Pagliarini. "The idea was to try to make NewsNight the primary vehicle to serve the community." The strategy failed. Instead of giving the station a boost or keeping the arts and culture department insulated from Gingrich & Co., NewsNight has presided helplessly over a tumultuous period.

Shannon Brady

Today KTCA's once-teeming edit suites are often empty, offices are dark, and the energy once expended on original programming is being sapped by worries over job security. According to Judy Diaz, a senior manager in TCPT's Marketing-Communications Department, full-time staff paid out of TCPT's core budget fell from an all-time high of 182 in 1995 to 157 in 1998. Of those full-time workers who were laid off, nine filled positions in production, five came from building administration, and another five came from advertising and promotion. Six others were eliminated from various jobs throughout the station. These figures do not reflect attrition or the massive restructuring of certain divisions, such as the creation of the Marketing-Communications Department, Diaz says.

Still, she and Pagliarini maintain the three-year slide has been minimal, emphasizing that of those nine production employees laid off, six have been brought back on a part-time, freelance basis. However, one of those six part-timers claims they've worked less than a week for TCPT since packing their bags: "They are the kings of spin. Whenever there was an all-staff meeting at the station we just laughed and got ready for the happy talk. If you looked at their flow charts you'd swear they were hiring more people."

Moreover, management's employee totals don't take into account personnel lost because of the elimination of locally focused shows such as Tapes Rolling, Portrait, Showcase, Arts on 2, and MNTV. That's because these programs were funded primarily by foundation and corporate grants given by everyone from McKnight to Honeywell. When a grant disappears, so do the positions it paid for.

Last fall, for example, the 15-year-old Newton's Apple--TCPT's high-profile pride and joy--stopped taping when it couldn't find a funder to replace 3M (NewsNight has since moved into their office suite and has space to spare). In all, the loss of these programs has meant that 16 full-time workers paid by grants, as well as dozens of part-timers and interns, are no longer wandering KTCA's hushed halls. And while it's true there's been restructuring, Diaz doesn't mention that many full-timers, including former TCPT senior producers Emily Goldberg and John Whitehead, both known for their documentary work, were shifted from their full-time jobs to grant-funded positions shortly before being laid off.

PRACTICALLY speaking, NewsNight has been hit as hard as any division at KTCA. For proof, all you have to do is spend a day walking in Cushman's shoes. At the morning meeting he presides over a brainstorming session, scrambling for a missed angle on topics such as the tobacco trial or Norm Coleman's hockey arena. At midday he pulls an executive producer away from booking guests to tape some on-the-street interviews, just to break up that evening's program, give it some color. By 6 p.m., while the technical crew is plotting its limited number of camera moves, he's searching for a second wind to get him over the hump.

"I'm not a person that usually gets off on adrenaline," Cushman says, running down the stairs to give his director a revised script. "But every night it seems we have to push the panic button."

Of course, newsrooms are supposed to run on caffeine and cigarettes. Go to any TV station in town and you'll experience the same frenetic pace. The difference at NewsNight is that everyone, from the on-air hosts to the lowliest production assistant, is driving uphill in fourth gear just to get something on the air. Five fewer staffers means five fewer bodies to chase late-breaking news or take an extra minute to fuss over an eye-catching graphic. It means less expertise on both sides of the camera.

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