Dearth of public affairs programs in Washington is evidence of changing viewer habits
It's crushing to see journalists that you admire go off the air, especially after their programs have provided voters with so much context during a bruising election year.
The only thing that depresses me more is thinking about the sad state of public affairs programming in Washington now. (Confession: I make these statements as a viewer and as a former public affairs producer and moderator for Idaho Public Television.)
The former abruptly ended its run on Nov. 9 — just three days after the general election. Producer and host Enrique Cerna told me over the phone last Friday that he will stay on to develop new public affairs content, but it won't be broadcast weekly. (More on this further down in the post.)
Mak bid farewell to viewers on Sunday — a little more than three weeks after this year's historic vote on statewide issues like marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage.
Here's his final message to viewers from the final broadcast:
Mak opened the final show by tackling a four-minute story on the budget shortfalls in Olympia. His review of the program's 11-year history showcased television storytelling at its best, as well as in-depth interviews that have often revealed more about public officials and office-seekers than any other program in local television. It's not easy to explain budgets and taxes in a way that's concise and maintains viewer attention. And yet "Up Front" excelled at meeting those challenges. (There's an incredible segment here in which Mak explains the Monorail issue by juxtaposing it with scenes from an episode of "The Simpsons." Again — brilliant.)
On Friday night, Seattle Times political reporter Jim Brunner Tweeted more bad news: Mak is reportedly leaving KING-TV.
If Monday is indeed his last day, I wish him well. What a loss for KING-TV and for political watchers in western Washington.
Over at KCTS, I was relieved to hear producer and host Enrique Cerna say that Seattle's PBS station isn't dropping public affairs programming altogether. On Thursday, he's hosting "Ask the Governor" with Chris Gregoire at 7 p.m. Heading into the new year, the station will focus on producing specials. The idea is to focus on projects that will have more impact.
"It's up to us to find new and innovative ways to bring public affairs programming to our audience. That's my task and mission now," Cerna told me.
That's the right mindset to have. Audience habits are changing. With so many channels to choose from, it doesn't seem that most people watch television programs so that they can be more informed citizens. They watch the shows that entertain and engage them. C'est la vie.
Not all is lost.
If viewers want to see public affairs programs back in Seattle, they better let their local stations know how they feel. It's worth reminding everyone of this important message from the FCC's "How to Get the Most Service from Your Local Station" guide, published in 2008:
In exchange for obtaining a valuable license to operate a broadcast station using the public airwaves, each radio and television licensee is required by law to operate its station in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” This means that it must air programming that is responsive to the needs and problems of its local community of license.
We at the FCC want you to become involved, if you have any concerns about a local station - including its general operation, programming or other matters - by making your opinion known to the licensee and, if necessary, by advising us of those concerns so that we can take appropriate action. An informed and actively engaged public plays a vital role in helping each station to operate appropriately and serve the needs of its local community.
The airwaves belong to the public, not to private television stations. We should never forget that.
Achenblog by Joel Achenbach
Postman On Politics