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PBS Extends ‘NewsHour’ To Weekend To Lure Digital Crowd

A 30-minute 'NewsHour' aims to give show presence throughout the week

Public television’s venerable “NewsHour” is loosening up for the weekend.

This is PBS, so all things are relative: The show may undo its collar, but it won’t be stripping down to a bathing suit.

When fans of the PBS perennial tune in for the program’s first weekend edition this Saturday, they could see stories about Vancouver crusaders who have changed drunk-driving laws or a spotlight on the emergence of tidal energy – two stories that were in development as of last week. If fans of the program search Twitter during the middle of this week, however, they could discover anchor Hari Sreenivasan talking about the pieces days before they see air.

Holding forth during a rehearsal on the set of the new show in midtown Manhattan, Sreenivasan said he expects to hold “anchor hours” in social media circles, asking potential audience members what questions they’d like to hear about a proposed topic before the program starts live.

TV news is “not just a one-to-many proposal,” Sreenivasan said, emphasizing the audience that could be available to the venerable news brand if it gains more traction on the digital frontier.

If some of that sounds anathema to fans of the legendary “NewsHour,” which has aired on PBS stations since 1975, then so much the better.

“We are trying to engage younger viewers in a very noticeable way, as opposed to hoping they find us,” said Marc Rosenwasser, executive producer of “PBS NewsHour Weekend,” which, for the first time,  will give PBS stations the ability to offer a seven-day-a-week newscast looking at topics of national importance. The show arrives with some tweaks of its predecessor’s format: It will air from New York, not near Washington, D.C.; will be 30 minutes in total, rather than an hour; and will give local PBS stations valuable minutes to use for their own stories, if they wish.

The new Saturday extension marks  a bid to make “NewsHour” more relevant at a time of intense competition in the TV-news business.

Al Jazeera America, a new cable-news effort backed by the Qatar government, recently launched with the promise of keeping away from the foaming-at-the-mouth talking heads that populate a lot of other news programming these days and hewing more closely to deep reportage that seems in shorter supply. And CBS News has seen ratings growth at several of its programs thanks to an effort to stick closer to hard-news stories, rather than fluff.

But these elements have been the stock in trade of “NewsHour” which has its genesis in a series of reports on the Watergate scandal by journalists Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. MacNeil would later go on to host a half-hour program on New York PBS station WNET that delved into a single issue. The duo’s “MacNeil Lehrer Report” – later expanded to 60 minutes and called “The MacNeil Lehrer NewsHour” – relied on long interviews over sound bites and didn’t have to worry about commercial interruptions.

The weekend show launches as the main program is also getting something of a makeover. On Monday, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff become the weekday program’s main co-hosts and co-managing editors. Both Rosenwasser and Sreenivasan suggested the two shows – which are supported by different flows of fundraising and are presented by different PBS stations – could share stories.

Sreenivasan, the anchor, expects the weekend program to tackle more issues of interest to a crowd that is extremely savvy about mobile devices and digital media, but more interested in substantial reportage rather than quick-hit coverage. One story he’s interested in: The cost of a new desire by people to indulge in “body quantificiation,” or log in stats about weight loss or miles jogged to personalized apps and computer programs. “Who owns this data?” he asked.

Rosenwasser called the weekend program “a marketplace of ideas” that will cover not only the news of the day, but culture, religion, and more. He anticipates a heavier reliance on taped pieces rather than live material, owing to the weekend, and suggested some segments may be shorter than they are during the week due to the half-hour format.

Above all, he said, the program will lean toward “making sense of the news” rather than trying to cover every little scrap of it.

As for the growing number of competitors in the market to convey a more serious look at news and ideas, Sreenivasan offered a sanguine thought: “Out of chaos comes opportunity.”

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