CHANGING COMPETITIVE LANDSCAPE
2700 South Quincy Street
Arlington, Virginia 22206
Telephone: (703) 998-2111
Fax: (703) 820-6266
Web site: http://www.pbs.org/newshour
Incorporated: 1981 as MacNeil Lehrer Gannett Productions
Sales: $32.5 million (2005 est.)
NAIC : 512110 Motion Picture and Video Production
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions (MLP) is a private media production company owned by James Lehrer and Robert MacNeil, in partnership with Liberty Media Co. Lehrer and MacNeil are veteran public television newsmen, whose show the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour ran from 1983 to 1995, and continues as the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The production company puts out the awarding-winning daily NewsHour, as well as other documentary television programming. While the News-Hour runs on public television (PBS), the company produces television specials for regular broadcast and cable television networks as well. MLP also offers a host of client services, such as video production and interactive multimedia, web site design, museum exhibits, teleconferencing, and other educational and community outreach programs. The company produces interactive web DVDs used for education and training. Its clients for its multimedia services include the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Institutes of Health. The company also finds and distributes archival news footage for clients, and produces videography and distance learning packages. MLP has facilities in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Denver.
TWO NEWSMEN COMING TOGETHER
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions was founded in 1981, but its roots go back years before that, through the intertwined careers of its two principals. Robert MacNeil was born in Canada in 1931, and began his career as an actor in radio dramas. He eventually stopped pursuing acting and found work at a television news company in London. He next spent five years working for the Reuters wire service, until he became London correspondent for NBC. In the mid-1960s, NBC had him coanchor a weekend news program, the SchererMacNeil Report. MacNeil did not at the time enjoy being a news anchor, and in 1967 he went back to London to work for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). In 1971, he returned to the United States and worked for the National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT), based in Washington, D.C. NPACT produced news for public television, and because of its critical views, the company outraged the Nixon administration. MacNeil’s then broadcast partner, Sander Vanocur, resigned over conflict with the administration, and James Lehrer was hired as his replacement. MacNeil and Lehrer first worked together providing PBS’s extensive coverage of the Watergate hearings.
James Lehrer had studied journalism at the University of Missouri and then worked as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News beginning in 1959. He resigned from that paper after only a few years, when its editorial board quashed a potentially unsettling series of articles he had written about the political leanings of a local civil defense group. The city’s rival paper, the Dallas Times-Herald, then picked Lehrer up. He eventually became the Times-Herald ’s city editor. However, a part-time consulting position at Dallas’s PBS television station KERA soon consumed all of Lehrer’s interest. He left print journalism to produce KERA’s news show, and then in 1972 he moved to Washington to work as the public affairs coordinator for PBS. In 1973 PBS teamed Lehrer with MacNeil, and they produced a documentary series called America ’73. Then they joined forces again for PBS’s Watergate hearings coverage.
MacNeil went back to work for the BBC after the Watergate hearings ended, but in 1975 he was back in New York hosting an evening news program for the PBS affiliate WNET, the Robert MacNeil Report. Within a few months, MacNeil’s New York news show went into nationwide broadcast with Lehrer joining from Washington. This show was called the MacNeil/Lehrer Report.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report was different from other network news shows both in its sober tone and its unusual format. The original Report viewed five days a week for a half-hour, and it focused on a single issue. No other news show had such in-depth coverage. However, the show seemed more for connoisseurs than for a broad market, and it struggled at first to define itself and its audience. Its staidness was a throwback to the television news shows of the 1950s and 1960s, while commercial television news in the 1970s was shifting to shorter and more sensational or entertaining stories. The MacNeil/Lehrer Report provided the kind of news that was becoming increasingly rare on television.
Eventually the show won a small but loyal following. Its future, though, did not seem assured in its early days, and the anchors took the unprecedented step of forming their own production company. In 1981, MacNeil and Lehrer went into partnership with the media company Gannett Co. and formed MacNeil Lehrer Gannett Productions. Gannett owned 50 percent, and the two anchors 25 percent each. At that time, the new company’s only product was the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and this was the only news show in the country owned by its anchors. This unique arrangement gave the two newsmen an unusual amount of editorial control. It also potentially buffered them from the low pay of PBS. Public television stars typically made only about a third of what their colleagues on regular network television were paid. MacNeil Lehrer Gannett gave the newscasters an entrepreneurial vehicle that made up for the lower salaries on public television.
In 1983, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report doubled its airtime, becoming the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. The expanded format required much time and energy from its hosts. Yet MacNeil and Lehrer used their production company to make documentaries, often using weekends and vacations to work on these projects. In 1984, the company produced a documentary called My Heart, Your Heart, which was an autobiographical account of Lehrer’s experience with a heart attack a few months earlier. The company also distributed a 12-hour documentary about China, called The Heart of the Dragon.
In 1986, Gannett’s five-year commitment to the production company expired, and Gannett sold its portion of the company to MacNeil and Lehrer, who were now sole owners. The company was then renamed MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. Because its work was shown on public television, MLP was able to attract corporate donors. Robert MacNeil was consumed for three years with a project he coauthored, an extensive documentary called The Story of English. He used vacation time to travel to far-flung parts of the English-speaking world to film, though he had no monetary backing. Yet by the time the series was ready to air in 1986, General Foods had contributed half the production costs plus $350,000 for marketing, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation granted MLP an additional $500,000.
For thirty years, millions of Americans and citizens of the world have turned to MacNeil/Lehrer Productions for the solid, reliable reporting that has made the NewsHour one of the most trusted news programs in television.
By the mid-1980s, MLP was financially viable. According to a New York Times profile of the company (November 9, 1986), the two principals were able to pay themselves upward of $300,000 a year each, a substantial sum though still well below what news anchors of similar prominence made at commercial networks. Profit on the company’s documentary projects was said to be next to nothing at that point. By 1990, though, MLP was making a documentary about healthcare for network television, moving it to the broader audience that network television attracted.
CHANGING COMPETITIVE LANDSCAPE
By the early 1990s, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report was an established and respected fixture in the television news universe. Its viewership was quite small compared to network news. Viewership statistics can be compiled in different ways, for example, by how many people watch the entire show every night, how many people see a minimum number of minutes of it, how many people see any of the show during a fixed period of weeks or months. Because these statistics are gathered different ways, direct comparisons can be misleading. Yet by any measure, the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour was a niche vehicle, with less than half the viewership of the least popular mainstream network news show. Network news had never been the real competition for MacNeil/Lehrer, as the show prided itself on its civility and seriousness, while network television news shows were looking for entertainment value. MacNeil/Lehrer was able to add highly respected journalists to its roster, for example, national news correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault and congressional correspondent Roger Mudd. The show garnered top journalism awards year after year, including the widely recognized Emmy and Peabody awards.
Nevertheless, the early 1990s were financially difficult times for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, and for public television in general. The Cable News Network (CNN) debuted in 1980, and by the 1990s had changed television news drastically with its round-the-clock broadcasting and many serious news and talk shows. Whereas the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour had once been a lonely alternative to commercial network news, with the prevalence of cable in the 1990s, viewers had many more news options. The NewsHour, still the principal product of MLP, found itself trimming its budget in the mid-1990s as public television membership fell and corporate underwriting was harder to get. The show operated with an annual budget of around $26 million, which it ratcheted down as it lost underwriter support.
In the early 1990s, the NewsHour received $6 million each from two corporate underwriters, PepsiCo and AT&T. AT&T and then PepsiCo stopped underwriting, and they were replaced by the agricultural firm Archer Daniels Midland and the insurer New York Life. By 1995, the show was making do with several million dollars less than a few years earlier, and the situation did not seem as if it would turn around by itself. Financial troubles also plagued the New York public television station WNET where MacNeil’s portion of the show was shot (Lehrer was in Washington, D.C.). WNET discussed closing down, and MLP President Al Vecchione suggested that the NewsHour needed to streamline in order to cut costs.
In the midst of these difficulties, Robert MacNeil announced that he would retire after the 20th anniversary of the show, in 1995. He continued as a partner in MLP, and planned to devote more time to writing and to producing other shows besides the NewsHour. The NewsHour went on without him, produced in Washington as the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and using a variety of hosts for different story segments. The production company got a financial boost in 1995 when Liberty Media, a media conglomerate, bought a two-thirds share.
- MacNeil and Lehrer first work together.
- Company is founded.
- MacNeil/Lehrer Report becomes MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.
- Story of English airs; Gannett’s partnership expires and company is renamed MacNeil/Lehrer Productions (MLP).
- MacNeil retires from NewsHour; Liberty Media buys two-thirds of MLP.
- Online NewsHour debuts.
- MLP puts out first interactive web DVD.
NEW PRODUCTS AND PROGRAMMING
While the NewsHour proceeded without him, Robert MacNeil devoted his time to producing other programming, both for television and for new media. MLP put out an innovative program in 1996 titled The National Issues Convention, which allowed people across the country to participate in opinion polling relating to that year’s presidential election. The production company also partnered with NBC News to cover both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. The year 1996 also saw the debut of a web-based version of the NewsHour, called simply enough the Online NewsHour. This site attracted more traffic than any other of PBS’s many web sites. The company expanded its web offerings in 1998 with NewsHour Extra, a version of the Online NewsHour targeted for middle school and high school students. During the next presidential cycle in 2000, MLP was again active in political documentary programming and coverage of the national party nominating conventions.
In 2001, the company began its experiments with interactive web-DVDs. With a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it produced the NewsHour Digital Prototype, a multimedia mixture of audio, video, and text in which audiences could participate. MLP then made similar interactive web-DVD products for the National Endowment for the Humanities and for the National Institutes of Health.
The NewsHour, MLP’ main product, continued to hold its small but devoted audience through the early 2000s. A segment called “Jobless Recovery: Non-Working Numbers” won journalism’s prestigious Peabody Award in 2004. This story seemed typical of the NewsHour ’s style, a seemingly dry topic, unemployment statistics, which other television news would not have bothered with, explored with depth and clarity. Industry magazine Broadcasting and Cable (May 17, 2004) described the award-winning piece as “underscoring the importance of economic issues while cutting through their inherent complexities in a lucid manner.” Despite the changes brought by cable networks and the opportunities MLP itself took in exploring new media, the NewsHour still did very much what it had always done, delivering steady, studied programming on issues that were elsewhere neglected or scorned.
By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions was quite a different company than the one it had originated as. While it still had a nightly news show as its main product, it also had a slew of other products. The company made educational videos, produced web sites, put out its interactive DVDs, and sponsored complex media projects that fostered civic engagement and debate. It was in many ways a 21st-century media company, experimenting with new forms and blurring the boundaries between web and television. At the same time, its television news show remained much as it always had, something of a throwback to the news shows of the mid-20th century. The company was thus an interesting mix of modern and traditional, and perhaps it was this mixture that allowed it to survive and prosper despite the transformation of news, media, and television during its lifetime.
Cable News Network LP, LLLP; Harpo Inc.
Blau, Eleanor, “MacNeil/Lehrer Gets an Impressive Financial Commitment,” New York Times, August 4, 1988, p. C23.
Burka, Paul, “The News About Jim Lehrer,” Texas Monthly, October 1995, p. 58.
Carter, Bill, “MacNeil to Retire from ‘Newshour’ in ’95 After 20 Years,” New York Times, October 11, 1994, pp. C15, C18.
Fabrikant, Geraldine, “A Supporting Actor Takes Center Stage,” New York Times, May 15, 1996, p. D1.
Gerard, Jeremy, “On Public Television, No Fireworks Is Just Fine,” New York Times, November 29, 1990, p. C22.
“Jobless Recovery: Non-Working Numbers,” Broadcasting & Cable, May 17, 2004, p. S20.
“MacNeil and Lehrer Form Venture with Gannett Co.,” Wall Street Journal, September 14, 1981, p. 36.
“MacNeil and Lehrer PBS’s Winning Team,” Broadcasting, August 3, 1987, p. 95.
“MacNeil/Lehrer/Vecchione,” Broadcasting, June 4, 1990, p. 95.
“NewsHour Lures Viewers Wanting More Than Shouting Matches,” PR Week, February 24, 2003, p. 13.
Rathbun, Elizabeth, “PBS’s Late-Night News Challenge,” Broadcasting & Cable, June 7, 1999, p. 8.
Reibstein, Larry, “Good Night, Robin,” Newsweek, October 30, 1995, p. 88.
Sterngold, James, “There’s More to MacNeil/Lehrer Than Covering the News,” New York Times, November 9, 1986, p. H27.