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.

The only hope for the renewal of NewsNight's Blandin grant, Jensen says, is to convince the foundation board that the show provides urban audiences with much-needed exposure to rural issues. "Many of our state's key decision-makers live in the urban core," she says. "So it's a good opportunity to educate them about what's going on beyond their backyard." In the end, though, even Jensen knows this lawyerly interpretation of the "OneMinnesota" concept is a stretch. "I'm trying," she laughs. "I'm trying."

NewsNight's other major sponsor, McKnight, has already committed to a $1.2 million grant to be used over the next three years. O'Keefe says the grant was renewed because of the program's in-depth coverage of and commitment to community issues. NewsNight, he insists, has improved steadily since the first grant was made: "Their concept has been refined and the relationship with the viewer has improved."

YOUTH VIOLENCE is NewsNight's topic of the day on Thursday, March 12. The concept is admirable, if a little stiff: interview a couple psychological experts and local law-enforcement officials to get past the often sensational statistics. The first 20 minutes of the show are business as usual for the TCPT production crew. A couple minutes of tape, a little prerecorded music, some simple graphics, a camera swivel or two; basic stuff for guys like cameraman Jim Kron, who's been shooting on-the-scene documentary footage and experimental arts specials for TCPT since 1989. Even Cushman's adrenaline is starting to settle as he watches things unfold in the control room.

Then, just minutes before the show is about to wrap, everyone from Kron to Cushman comes to life. Two performers from Thunder Knocking on the Door, a touring musical visiting the Guthrie Theater, are brought on the set to promote their production by playing its show-stopping number. Anderson Edwards sits at a grand piano, Cheryl Alexander stands in front of a microphone. Harvin improvises a short introduction and the two let it rip.

Kron, who says most of the technical staff is comprised of "frustrated musicians," seems to be dancing as he skates and swivels his camera across the studio floor. Jeff Weihe, the show's director, begins to wave his arms in the control room, asking for fades and different angles as if he were conducting an orchestra. Cushman balances on the edge of his chair. When the song is over everyone in the control room bursts into applause, their spirits lifted by the rare chance to be creative.

"The entire staff wants to take chances, wants to do unique television," says former Executive Producer Wiener. "That's the talk in the halls. While everyone is doing their best on shows like NewsNight, it's not the work we do uniquely. It's not what we do best."

Both Emily Goldberg and John Whitehead, now working as freelance producers, say KTCA was at its best when the staff was showcasing local artists or was out in the world meeting its citizens face to face, offering a perspective unavailable on other local channels. They're quick to commend the embattled NewsNight staff and they'll never forget TCPT once gave them a rare chance to spread their wings. But they find NewsNight's increased dependence on studio-bound talking heads troublesome, especially since cultural programming has been relegated to a project-by-project, grant-by-grant basis.

"In the '80s we were about meeting the community, telling their stories and exposing each other to different cultures," Goldberg says. "That's what separated us from the pack."

Adds Whitehead: "To me, what NewsNight has evolved into is a lot like what everyone else is doing on the local dial."

Both Goldberg and Whitehead were initially encouraged by Willis's vision. So were other local freelance producers unwilling to comment for the record because they still depend, to varying degrees, on KTCA. They all describe Willis as a former documentary-maker who once spoke excitedly about the golden age of public TV, when rebellious broadcasters would hand video cameras to the disenfranchised and let it roll--just to get a response. He was, in a phrase, one of them. Unfortunately his vision didn't square with reality. Instead of opening more doors in the community, his legacy is a station stripped of its most ambitious, avant-garde products.

Before leaving KTCA to become an independent producer, Laurie Stern worked as a senior producer in TCPT's public-affairs unit and reported stories for NewsNight. After spending six years in commercial news, she remembers being excited about NewsNight's potential to break ground, to be "brilliant." "Because Jack (Willis) is such a good rhetorician, I thought he could pull it off," she says. "The idea of a community-driven broadcast really intrigued me. But nobody could agree on a vision, what NewsNight was supposed to be. Should there be tape in the show? Should we be breaking news or following the news? What topics should we explore? It was all very unclear."

Whitehead, who also did a few pieces for NewsNight, says initially the show hoped to be a real alternative to the standard public-affairs treatment on PBS, programs hosted by guys wearing "horn-rimmed glasses and carrying clipboards." Now, as footage from the field is replaced with panel discussions, he worries the show will be less likely to break the mold, its vision narrowed further by a lack of resources.

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