Lehrer Says ‘News Hour’ Money Woes Are Worst Ever
In late April, Mr. Lehrer, who turns 74 on Monday, had aortic valve replacement surgery. He said he was recovering nicely and expects to be back on the air toward the end of June. But the nightly newscast’s funding situation could take longer to heal.
In its 25 years on the air, “NewsHour” has had fallow budget periods, but none that equal the current one, Mr. Lehrer acknowledged. The financial squeeze was precipitated last summer when Archer Daniels Midland ended its 14-year sponsorship of the program. That sponsorship provided nearly $4 million (and some years as much as $7 million) of the program’s yearly budget, which varies from $26 million to $28 million.
On May 1, salaries were frozen at the newscast, and company contributions to 401(k) retirement funds were suspended, cutbacks suggested by the staff. “NewsHour” still has two corporate sponsors — Chevron and the Pacific Life Insurance Company — and it receives support from PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But only part of the Archer money has been replaced, leaving the budget several million dollars short.
“NewsHour,” along with other PBS mainstays, may have a longer-term problem. Not only are corporations cutting back on all forms of advertising during the current economic slowdown, but public television’s model — soliciting long-term commitments — is also increasingly out of step with the changing needs of corporations, which no longer sponsor public television programs for purely philanthropic reasons.
“Now, it’s more a marketing-driven conversation, about audiences, and delivery and engagement,” said Rob Flynn, vice president of communications and marketing for “NewsHour.”
In the last five years, corporate underwriting on PBS has varied; in 2007, it totaled $91 million, or just under 23 percent of all program financing, PBS said. But the core series of the PBS schedule, like “NewsHour,” “Nova” and “Masterpiece Theater,” known internally as the icon series, have had corporate underwriting drop 40 percent.
As a result, although viewers will not have noticed any difference except in the end credits, PBS is permitting programs to experiment, which has produced short-term sponsorships for “Nova” and “Antiques Roadshow,” and even a two-week Sony Classics sponsorship of “Masterpiece Theater.”
The experiments could become permanent, as PBS is studying changing its policies about sponsorship. Last fall, a study from the research firm McKinsey found that corporations would be more receptive if PBS permitted shorter deals, broadcast corporate messages more quickly and provided more audience data, “so they could have a good sense of who they were reaching with their messages,” said Andrew Russell, senior vice president of PBS Ventures.
Mr. Flynn argues that “NewsHour” has a strong story to tell; it reaches 1.2 million adults a night and its audience includes a high proportion of what he calls “opinion leaders.” Last week, Mr. Flynn said, “NewsHour” completed a 13-week sponsorship commitment from the Danish company Vestas Wind Systems, a maker of wind turbines, which will begin in mid-August.
“NewsHour” also increased its solicitations for foundation donations in recent years. Including a new Starr Foundation grant for $1.5 million, foundation support of “NewsHour” is up to $7 million from $2 million five years ago. The money comes from 16 foundations, some of which designate their donations for the coverage of specific topics.
In an odd twist, that has allowed “NewsHour” to bolster its foreign reporting even as it struggles with the overall budget. Four international reporting grants — from the Gruber Family Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — were recently tapped to permit Margaret Warner, a correspondent, to leave earlier than planned for China so she could report on the earthquake there.
These kinds of restricted grants are criticized by some media watchdogs, who worry that they let foundations dictate coverage. But so far “NewsHour” grants have been “a great success story,” said Linda Winslow, the program’s executive producer, although she added, “I would not pooh-pooh the fear that it becomes something that steers you to something you wouldn’t already do.” She noted that “NewsHour” had also rejected some grants for being too narrow.
Ms. Winslow is figuring out new ways to operate under a budget squeeze. Open jobs, including a correspondent and a senior producer, are not being filled for now. Longer term, she is investigating partnerships, but covering the news remains her top priority, a sentiment echoed by Mr. Lehrer.
“We’ve always played it close to the chest financially,” he said. “That’s part of who we are, part of being in public broadcasting.”
The other issue facing the program is succession. Mr. Lehrer has been on “NewsHour” and its predecessor, “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” since 1975 — a stretch as anchor that is 14 years longer than Walter Cronkite’s at CBS — and it is almost impossible to think of the show without him. He said he had thought about a succession plan, however, and Ms. Winslow acknowledged that it had been discussed. But she would not discuss details.
Neither would Mr. Lehrer, except to say that despite the recent health scare, he has no plans to step down anytime soon. The valve problem, he noted, had been with him since birth, and was just now caught.
“I’ve always said, ‘I’ll do this until one of two things happens: it’s not fun any more or I start drooling on the air,’ ” he said. “As we speak, neither is happening.”