Not So Easy to Turn on New York Times TV
By Janet Kolodzy
Janet Kolodzy teaches journalism at Emerson College.
This fall, TV viewers tired of the blood and guts of local evening news, sitcom reruns and sports highlights shows were supposed to have an alternative, courtesy of the New York Times. They were supposed to be getting New York Times Television's "National Edition."
But "National Edition," a late-night newscast bearing the Times' journalistic imprimatur, won't be on the air this year. It may not air at all. The Times doesn't have the funding.
Money is the biggest--but not the only--obstacle along the road to a more visible role for little-known NYT-TV. Some who've worked in network television news wonder if New York Times executives know enough about television to understand the commitment required for a newscast and the competition it faces.
"They have great resources," says Michael Gartner, who as former Des Moines Register editor and NBC News president knows the pluses and minuses of both media. "But the question is: Can they marshal those resources and adapt them to television?" TV, he says, has a different set of rules in terms of ethics, journalism and money.
The New York Times has been dabbling in television for about a half-dozen years. But only those reading the fine print of the credits of such shows as "Trauma: Life in the ER" or some PBS "Frontline" or A&E "Investigative Reports" offerings would know it. NYT-TV has been a documentary production house since the mid-1990s, when the Times Co. purchased a Philadelphia-based video news source experiment called Video News International.
Last fall, Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was quoted as calling for a sustained New York Times presence on television. By the end of 2000, Washington Bureau Chief Michael Oreskes was picked as assistant managing editor and director of electronic news to orchestrate that presence (see Bylines, January/February).
Since then, the Times has been talking about producing a broadcast edition of its Thursday Circuits section on National Public Radio, Tuesday's Science Times on the National Geographic Channel and an 11 p.m. newscast on PBS. So far, only "Science Times" on the National Geographic Channel has made it to air, debuting June 26.
"This is a long-term strategic venture," says Thomas Carley, president of the News Services Division of the New York Times. He admits the timing of this move into television, amid an economic downturn, makes getting funding for it more difficult.
NPR spokeswoman Gretchen Michael says "various things" are being explored with the New York Times, but "there isn't anything formal on the table." She says the plans for "Circuits" did not make the budget priority list this year.
Oreskes is not deterred. "What makes us the New York Times is the quality of the journalism," he says. "What's distinct is not the means of distribution but the quality of the work. Once we think about that, we can see every medium as an opportunity."
Oreskes adds, "What you chase is a quality audience" rather than ratings.
Few will dispute that the Times' excellence in reporting attracts a quality newspaper audience. But excellence in television requires good pictures, editing and production. It means putting crews on the streets and coordinating them effectively. "You can't phone in a story from a hotel room," for television, says Reuven Frank, former NBC News president. He adds that the Times has "all the real estate covered" in terms of bureaus, but it doesn't have the video and satellite equipment. Television requires experience and money that some say the Times lacks.
Not that the Times isn't trying. "Everybody's been beating the bushes to get funding," says Rob Flynn, spokesman for MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which has been negotiating with the Times to put together the PBS show. But in slow economic times, no corporate funder has signed on. Robert MacNeil told AJR in August that "the chances are looking very slim" that the program would make it on the air at all (see "No Frills. No Bells. No Whistles").
The Times' Carley says the idea has been temporarily shelved. "Both MLP and the Times had to move on," he wrote in an e-mail to AJR, "but should either the funding climate change dramatically or should a patron saint appear, both organizations still believe the idea of 'National Edition' was solid and worth pursuing." (Since PBS does not accept advertising, a corporate funder was needed to finance the program.)
The National Geographic Channel, however, did commit. It agreed to a two-year, 26-episode deal for "Science Times" with a price tag that Andrew Wilk, the channel's executive vice president for programming, production and news, calls "one of the most expensive commissions on National Geographic Channel air this year" on a cost-per-hour basis. But, he adds, the costs are well in line for documentaries.
Oreskes and Carley call the hour-long program about science, health and technology a milestone for the Times because it is a wholly produced NYT-TV presentation.
"Science Times" is the most extensive "branded" undertaking involving NYT-TV. The company also produces documentaries and specials in a three-year-old joint venture with British-based Granada TV and has worked on reports for ABC News prime time magazine shows, but those involve individual shows.
The Granada and the NYT-TV ventures require a new set of rules and compromises. Representatives of the paper and television operations plot out stories that will work for both media at a weekly development meeting. A Times print reporter and a TV producer are then teamed up, as they are for "Science Times" pieces. The extent of teamwork between the two depends on the individuals involved, says Lawrie Mifflin, the Times' director of television programming.
Most of the time, the TV stories appear first in print, Mifflin says. New York Times reporter Denise Grady, whose story on live donor transplants led the premiere episode of "Science Times," says the paper was insistent about it being in print before it was on the air.
Scripts and rough cuts of the "Science Times" show get vetted by both organizations. But, National Geographic Channel's Wilk adds, "In the end we maintain ultimate control because we air it."
Gaining more control of its television offerings is one of Carley's goals. He says the Times wants to see its name out front on more television programs, but he does not know yet how that will happen. The company is also exploring cable opportunities.
The New York Times is confronting the same concerns over financial feasibility and journalistic compatibility that others have faced in linking up with television. "They've got the name and the resources," Gartner says. "The question is: Do they have the drive and negotiating ability, because [TV is] a whole new world."###