You on the Tube
Plenty of new media boosters hailed the July 23 YouTube debate of Democratic presidential contenders on CNN as an egalitarian breakthrough — the first event of its type at which real people, not Beltway insiders, asked the questions. But Adam Schrager knows better. For the past several years the veteran Channel 9 political reporter has overseen numerous televised forums at which average citizens have had the chance to directly quiz newsmakers about issues. And since late March, he's hosted Your Show, a Sunday program broadcast on Channel 20, 9News' sister station, that allows viewers to choose the topics up for discussion and pose the lion's share of queries.
"They've done a great job, and I'm not surprised in the slightest," Schrager says. "If you give the public the opportunity to create smart television, they'll do it."
But will they watch it, too? That's Channel 9's latest challenge. Over the course of twenty-plus editions of Your Show, Schrager has snagged a series of prominent guests for extended sit-downs, including two current presidential candidates (Colorado Republican Representative Tom Tancredo and New Mexico Democratic Governor Bill Richardson), a former nominee who made a smidgen of news when he hinted that he hadn't entirely closed the door to another run (Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry), and even embattled professor Ward Churchill, who sat down with Schrager in mid-June at a time when he was pretty much giving the brush-off to the mainstream press. Even so, the program is no one's idea of a runaway hit. While the normally inquisitive Schrager promised himself he wouldn't look at the ratings for the first six months, he concedes that his creative baby "is probably getting clocked" — and Channel 9 president and general manager Mark Cornetta concedes that "it hasn't really developed the way we'd hoped."
As a result, Your Show will undergo a major change on September 9, shifting from an hour-long production broadcast in a 6 p.m. slot to a thirty-minute effort that'll air at 10:30 a.m. But despite this shift, Cornetta emphasizes that Channel 9 remains fully committed to the concept. "People will speculate, 'Now they're going to bury the show,'" he concedes. "But, to be perfectly honest, we want the show to do well." He feels that on Sunday mornings, "people are used to watching shows like Meet the Press and the Chris Matthews show. So we think it will get better traction."
Not that management has unreasonable expectations about viewership numbers. Viewers often claim "they want to see more discussions of education and things like that," says Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis. "But the truth is, those people will rarely watch. It sounds educated to answer a survey that way, but when the time comes, they may think, 'I'll watch a rerun of The Jeffersons.'" Nevertheless, Dennis thinks the Your Show template complements other types of viewer outreach happening at the station, and adds that "I trust Adam implicitly. He's an extraordinary journalist, and I don't know of anyone else who could do a show like this better."
Schrager appreciates getting the chance to prove it. Your Show is a project he's been wanting to launch for ages, and he feels the approach has been working well. Each week, visitors to the program's page on 9news.com are encouraged to vote for a subject to be covered, and once a topic is picked, they can delve into specifics. For instance, after traffic congestion topped the tally for the August 12 edition, users were asked about what they consider to be the biggest cause of such tie-ups; options included "construction work," "traffic accidents," "slow drivers" and "poor road design." (Dubious omission: "Idiots yapping on cell phones.") Additionally, they're able to submit questions for the week's guests and/or comment on anything they wish under the heading "What's On Your Mind?" Finally, a segment is set aside for individuals who want to stop by the studio and record opinions on matters important to them, be they food allergies or Harry Potter books.
The format minimizes Schrager's input without erasing it entirely. He selects the questions and follows up with his own, although he tries to act as more of a viewer surrogate than a typical reporter. CNN played a similar role in the YouTube debate, to the consternation of some observers. Nevertheless, news director Dennis sees such input as key. "Citizen journalism is one thing," she says, "but you also need someone who's learned over time to ask the right questions in the right way, so you get the full picture."
The balance works well with a guest like Baby Einstein creator Julie Aigner-Clark, who was lively and engaging in her August 5 appearance. Still, the proceedings can be awfully dry at times. The Your Show page invites people to submit video questions, á la YouTube, but the site's interface doesn't make it easy; Schrager hints that improvements are in the works. For now, he mainly reads e-mail questions blown up on text graphics — a strategy with limited visual appeal. Moreover, the recordings of viewers with no TV background reading awkwardly from a teleprompter for three or four minutes can make for awfully uncomfortable television. "You're not going to see that anywhere else, and it's going to jar you at first," Schrager acknowledges. "But sometimes it's important to step back and give the show the opportunity to breathe."
Such occasions will be rarer when Your Show is trimmed by a half-hour. However, Schrager isn't discouraged by having a smaller canvas to fill, and he plans to keep pushing for more presidential candidates to drop by as the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver nears. "It strikes me as blatant hypocrisy to hear these people say they want to talk about issues of substance, and then they won't sit down in a twenty-minute format and do just that," he says.
Of course, politicos seem a bit wary of viewer questions in general these days. Some of the YouTube debate snippets faced by Dems last month were incisive, but submissions such as a global-warming inquiry delivered by a squeaky-voiced snowman probably explains why some Republican candidates have been reluctant to sign up for a similar session. Schrader, though, doesn't see Your Show as a gimmick.
"I'm sure there are people out there who doubt our commitment and wonder if they'll really have impact and input — if it's really their show," he says. "And each week, we've got to prove them wrong."
Meanwhile, at a station across town...: Channel 7's Hendrik Sybrandy specializes in many of the same subjects as does 9News' Schrager — politics chief among them — and he says he was looking forward to covering next year's convention for his longtime station, where he's worked since 1992. But it's not to be. Sybrandy's contract was not renewed; his last day at 7News is August 17.
Dire financial conditions at daily newspapers have attracted lots of attention lately, yet these aren't fat times for local television signals, either. Many broadcasters have paid for expansion onto the web and various other platforms by eliminating some behind-the-scenes positions through automation, asking employees to take on more responsibilities (today's backpack journalist does the job of reporter, camera operator and sound expert all by his lonesome) and trimming costs, such as travel expenses of reporters like Sybrandy, who was once quite the globetrotter. "I went to Kosovo and Bosnia, traveling on an aircraft carrier as part of those two trips, and went to California for the earthquake and fires and Rodney King," he recalls. "But that was a different era. I'm sure Channel 7 isn't unique in this regard, but we don't even travel that much in Colorado anymore. It's got to be quite a bit to sell management on trips out of our immediate viewing area."
At this point, Sybrandy, who started his TV career in 1983, isn't sure if he'll stay in TV or move on to another field, in part because his main areas of interest don't seem in vogue anymore. "I like to cover more issue-oriented stories — things that have more substance to them and aren't just quick-hitting spot news or the crime of the day," he says. "I think that's something an awful lot of stations don't give enough weight to in this day and age."
The times, they have a-changed — for the worse.
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