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.

Wurzer, for instance, was a major loss because the remaining NewsNight crew had been counting on her network-made magnetism to smooth the transition from a show driven by segments videotaped in the field to an in-studio effort. "She had a presence that was second to nobody," raves NewsNight Executive Producer Fred de Sam Lazaro. "She was an inviting presence. Under the hot lights she made people comfortable to just sit and shoot the breeze."

Wurzer says she was reluctant to leave. "It's really too bad. I have so much respect for the people working on NewsNight. They're beating the odds every day," she says. "When we still had money, still hoped for additional resources, we were doing satellite interviews and traveling to out-state Minnesota and had the ability to do really good work. Then, about a year or so ago, the show just crashed into a wall."

On paper, NewsNight's budget reduction of $1.7 to $1.4 million seems negligible. According to one KTCA producer, however, the number is meaningless, reflecting a reduction in TCPT's overall support more than actual dollars spent on making a good-looking newscast. "Take a look at this show," the producer says. "If they're spending $1.4 million we're spending a billion. The production quality is one step above cable access." What's more significant, the same source says, is Pagliarini's message that NewsNight must "learn to live within its means." Already fewer station resources are being spent to fill in the cracks, and Hanley's made it clear that B-roll (videotape from the field) is a low priority.

Shannon Brady

Not even Cushman is privy to budget numbers, a puzzling fact considering the way he describes his job. "What does it mean to be a show producer?" he asks with a chuckle. "It means if there's no show it's my ass."

Despite NewsNight's slow starvation, some station staffers complain the program is still sapping too many crucial resources from other parts of the station. It's unclear whether this jealousy is justified, since TCPT will not reveal how much money it has given or will give NewsNight to augment private foundation support. However, if Blandin grants the program another million this month, Pagliarini says he will do whatever it takes over the next three years to pay for NewsNight out of the station's core budget, without the help of outside grants.

"I went through a very interesting first few months here, because I really had to look at NewsNight, which is somewhat controversial internally because, let's face it, it's a lot more fun to produce an arts program than it is a news program," says Pagliarini, who became CEO on September 1, 1997. "But if we're re-funded, NewsNight will become a key component to this station's presence in the community."

WHEN WILLIS and Hanley first approached corporate funders with their baby in 1993, they decided it would be easier to find support if they sold NewsNight as a show that would cater to two distinct audiences largely overlooked by KTCA's commercial competition: "under-represented communities" and "rural Minnesotans."

Michael O'Keefe, executive VP and CEO of the McKnight Foundation, says his organization was intrigued by the concept of a newscast that would go out of its way to serve women, minorities, and children. "We were drawn to the idea that a local TV station, a major media vehicle, would put emphasis on in-depth and objective local coverage," O'Keefe says. "We felt NewsNight was a creative approach to thinking through the role of a public TV station in the community."

Kathryn Jensen, a senior vice president at Blandin, says her board was attracted to the idea of producing a daily newscast relevant to Minnesotans living outside the Twin Cities. "We were particularly excited about the 'OneMinnesota' focus of the program," she says, throwing out a term coined by the Blandin Foundation. "A program that would cover statewide news--both rural and urban--is extremely rare."

Hanley, Halbreich, and TCPT Board Chair Ellie Crosby argue that the two populations each funder hopes to serve aren't mutually exclusive. And in theory they're right. But in practice, despite the best efforts of Cushman and crew, a vibrant, well-watched mix of rural/urban news seems too much to ask for, especially given current budget constraints. So instead of being able to design the best possible news show, they're handcuffed by the wants and needs of their original funders.

Day after day, in NewsNight's morning production meetings, there's a relentless effort to de-localize spot news, turn metro-section commentary into something worthwhile for viewers on the Iron Range. It's a losing battle. For a staff of nine, it's hard to cover out-state issues in the first place, especially when there's only one photographer on staff.

Then, when a truly rural issue does makes its way onto the broadcast, it's seen by only a few people outside of the metro area, where most of NewsNight's audience lives. In part, Hanley says this is because smaller public TV stations in Minnesota can't afford to interrupt their feeds from PBS to air a Minneapolis program.

Jensen says it's also attributable to NewsNight's overall reputation as a Twin Cities-based product. "It's difficult to get the rural audience numbers as high as we would like, because of when the program is aired and regularity of coverage," Jensen says. "So, no, I don't think you can argue NewsNight has attracted a substantial rural audience."

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