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PBS ‘NewsHour Weekend’ Readies For Launch

This weekend, the “PBS NewsHour” expands to weekends (and to New York City), with the debut of “PBS Newshour Weekend.” Anchored by Hari Sreenivasan, the weekend edition of the iconic evening news program will be shortened to half an hour (yes, a half-hour “NewsHour”), and will be produced by New York City PBS station WNET.

“It is an expression of continuity and change. One of the discussions I had with ["NewsHour" EP Linda Winslow] early on was about that. Are we looking for continuity or change?,” the weekend program’s executive producer Marc Rosenwasser says, sitting in a conference room at the WNET offices in midtown Manhattan. ”The answer we came up with was both.”

“The line we have to walk is between upholding the very rich traditions of the ‘NewsHour,’ which we respect tremendously and the nation respects tremendously as this great, valuable brand that has an almost unique place contextualizing and analyzing the news,” he added. “At the same time, moving forward as many weekend shows at all the networks work, as kind of a laboratory too.”

For the new team in New York and the “NewsHour” team in DC, the challenge is keeping the spirit of the weekday program, while simultaneously expanding its boundaries.

“It is still pretty rare to have 40-year long brands that have lasted,” Sreenivasan says. “Sure, we could use a few million more dollars, but we have somehow managed to survive in the marketplace, even with all the commercial competition, even with the current landscape.”

That isn’t to say there haven’t been hiccups along the way.

MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which produces the weekday edition of the program, had to shut down bureaus and lay off staff earlier this year after a drop in corporate revenue support. The changes were designed to try and streamline the program, and tweak it for today’s media environment. WNET stepped in to produce the weekend edition of the show, having ended a weekly news program of its own, “Need to Know.”

The “NewsHour Weekend” newsroom, offices and control room are at Worldwide Plaza in midtown Manhattan. At first glance it looks like many other New York City offices, though the number of TV sets on the desks is a clue that something was different. On a visit this week staff were hard at work building a small backup studio that can be used for the weekend program or other shows. The actual set for the show is a bit of a hike from the newsroom: a two block walk east to the 1 train, then two subway stops north to Lincoln Center, where the Tisch WNET Studios sit just off the sidewalk (see the photo to the right).

We walked with Sreenivasan as he made the trek northbound for rehearsals, slinging a garment bag with a pair of suits over his shoulder.

Sreenivasan is a TV veteran, having reported and anchored for CBS News and ABC News, before joining the “NewsHour” in 2009. He is also a digital native, as comfortable on Twitter or Facebook as he is on camera.

“What I said to these guys when they first approached me with this is, how can we find ways to put the public back in public media? To give them a little bit more of a stake in the program both in the content creation as well as the distribution,” Sreenivasan says, adjusting his tie in the makeup room at Lincoln Center. “My goal is to get into your DVR, your iPad, your Facebook stream, as much as it is to lure you to watch television.”

The solution he came up with was something like anchor office hours, “The equivalent of office hours for a professor,” he added. During the week Sreenivasan and the “NewsHour” team will solicit ideas and feedback from viewers, based on previews posted earlier in the week.

“When he travels, or even when he is around here, he is incredibly involved in social media,” Rosenwasser says of Sreenivasan. “It is not something I have to prompt him to do, it is kind of who he is as a person, and where he lives.”

For all the buzz about interaction and formats, it always comes down to news. The weekend “NewsHour” will have to change its format somewhat to accommodate the shorter time period, as well as the fact that people don’t always consume news the same way on the weekend as they do during the week. Segments will go six or seven minutes, still longer than most commercial competitors, but not necessarily as long as some weekday segments.

“If you think of us as the Sunday paper, there will be a big hefty news section, but there will also be other sections of the paper for Sunday reading, or in our case viewing,” Rosenwasser says.

Breaking news will be joined by “Signature Segments,” taped pieces that highlight under-reported stories, particularly in the fields of arts, science and technology, religion and media. The first piece scheduled is from former NBC News correspondent Martin Fletcher, about a natural gas discovery by Israel. Another is from “NewsHour” correspondent Jeff Brown, who interviews composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Of course, a potential conflict in Syria could change things up.

“At the end of the day, after all the tweets have settled, ‘what the hell happened and why did it happen?’ is what you need to know,” Sreenivasan says, as he walks from the makeup room to the darkened ground-floor studio. “If we can do that, that’s great.”

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