PBS West

Colorado Studios houses two of the state's best-kept media secrets.

First among equals at the Stapleton-area facility is HDNet, billionaire Mark Cuban's ambitious high-definition television service, whose offerings (including Dan Rather's post-CBS broadcast) can only be seen by Denverites who subscribe to satellite TV, since Comcast continues to shun the enterprise. But PBS's The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer shares the structure, where the crew produces most of the weeknightly program's pre-packaged segments with little notice from locals. Not that staffers regularly flee in search of greater attention. "Frankly, people stick around The NewsHour for so long that there's not much chance for advancement," says Tom Bearden, who's served as a Denver-based correspondent since 1985. "But it's an excellent place to be. When people ask me what my job is like, I tell them I have the best job in television."

Betty Ann Bowser, another Denver correspondent, who's worked for The NewsHour since 1986, echoes this sentiment. She's a veteran of CBS News, and when she shares her experiences with former colleagues or peers, she says, "they're jealous."

No wonder. These days, video packages on the commercial networks' nightly news shows tend to last two minutes or so, with five-minute-plus efforts being rarer than displays of modesty from Donald Trump. In contrast, NewsHour items routinely run for eight to ten minutes — and that's actually down from the ten- to twelve-minute lengths of a few years back. The current template roughly matches the size of prime-time magazine-show segments, yet The NewsHour generates them using far fewer resources.

"I remember talking to a friend at Dateline who did a similar story to me about the [2001] Cincinnati race riots," notes producer Terry Rubin, a relative newbie; he's been on the PBS payroll on and off since the early '90s. "I asked, 'How much did that cost you?,' and she said, 'Probably $70,000.' And we spent $12,000."

Despite such limitations, producer Mary Jo Brooks, a NewsHour staffer since the late '80s, never struggles to fill the time: "I still have to make tough decisions and still have to leave a lot of good stuff on the edit-room floor." For that reason, she says, "I have a firm rule that I never interview more than six people for a ten-minute story. I don't want them to feel that they have to spit out what they have to say too quickly." Some newsmakers accustomed to the network way don't always know what to do with such freedom, she adds. "At first, some of them are a little uncertain, because they have that perfect eight-second haiku thing all ready to say. But I've never had a person who can't jump out of that shorter style. They appreciate being able to talk at length."

Of course, the Denver branch wasn't founded in 1983 as a way to let the usual suspects expand on their thoughts. Executives at what was then called The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, named for anchors Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, "really wanted something out in the country," says managing producer Patti Parson, who helped open the office here and currently oversees its efforts. "They wanted a place where we could radiate out from, so we could get a sense of the rest of the world beyond the Beltway." The Colorado office became even more of a key to the operation in 1995, when MacNeil's retirement led to the closure of the New York bureau from which he worked. Other than a studio at KQED in San Francisco that's populated by just three employees, The NewsHour's contents flow from either Denver or Washington, D.C., where Lehrer is joined by correspondents such as Gwen Ifill and Ray Suarez. Moreover, producers from Denver often collaborate with members of the D.C. contingent. For instance, producer Merrill Schwerin, who joined The NewsHour as a CU intern in 1985 and never left, recently returned from a Las Vegas assignment with Judy Woodruff.

Over the years, The NewsHour has featured more than its share of Colorado stories — not just incidents that made national news, such as the Oklahoma City bombing trial, but also happenings that illustrate larger trends. For instance, Rubin built a piece about the strategy of breaking troubled schools into smaller units on footage shot at Manual High School, which has experimented with the approach. He was able to tackle the topic without running up a big tab for travel and accommodations. And because the meter wasn't running as quickly as usual, he got to spend more time with subjects prior to the actual filming, which he thinks resulted in better, more relaxed interviews.

Schwerin has had similar experiences. "If we do a story in Colorado, where we live, we can take the time to let a situation unfold," she says. "In the visual world, that's important, because you want to document a process, a crisis, whatever." But outside demands don't always allow the Denver crew to remain in the neighborhood. "I think we'd do more in Colorado if we weren't so short-staffed," she says. "We're busy trying to cover everything."

She's not exaggerating. Although the NewsHour reps in Colorado tackle more than their share of regional matters, they routinely take on subjects on the opposite side of the continent. Bearden spent a week covering the shootings at Virginia Tech, Bowser led much of the show's 9/11 reportage, and so on. They cross national borders, as well. Rubin's resumé includes Kosovo and Venezuela, and earlier this year, a grant from the National Poetry Foundation allowed Brooks to jet to the Middle East, where she assembled profiles of six poets — three Israelis and three Palestinians. Taha Muhammad Ali, one of the latter trio, especially connected with viewers. "I heard through his translator that his poetry book zoomed up to number 125 on the day after our broadcast," Brooks recalls. "That's unheard of for poetry."

Even as The NewsHour shines its spotlight on the likes of Ali, or delves into ecological themes with assistance from another grant courtesy of the National Science Foundation, it eschews sensationalism of the sort that currently dominates so much cable news, and is making steady incursions into network fare. "There are certain things we're not going to do," Parson says. "Even if there's an especially horrific murder, we're only going to cover it if there's a public-policy angle. If it's just one person dying, it's sad, but it's not a NewsHour story."

Other elements of the NewsHour culture are just as unfashionable, and Bowser, for one, is grateful. She started her TV career in 1974, and if she'd stayed with the networks, she says, "I don't think I'd still be on television. It's such a youth-driven business now. But The NewsHour is a place where experience and ability are more important than how you look or how old you are."

Brooks concurs. She briefly appeared on-camera for New York's Independent Network News before joining The News Hour full-time, and she says, "It was very frustrating for me, because they never talked about the content. It was always about, 'That's a terrible blouse,' or 'You've got to get your hair cut.'" But because the NewsHour powers aren't as beholden to ratings as their counterparts in commercial television, they can make decisions dictated entirely by news value — like devoting the whole hour to the Iraq war or the economy if developments dictate. Lehrer refers to shows like these as "hell-and-gones," Brooks reveals, while high-impact stories are touted with the phrase "That one got Gladys out of the kitchen."

Such achievements aren't enough to squelch all criticism of The NewsHour. Plenty of right-wing critics continue to accuse the program of liberal bias — a perception that producers and correspondents say they fight on a daily basis. (Rubin times sound bites to the second to ensure that each side of an issue is equally represented.) And plenty of TV consumers without ideological beefs see the program as too dry and boring. Nevertheless, an estimated 2.7 million people tune in to each NewsHour, and that's enough for Schwerin. She admits to having thought about leaving Denver for a commercial-network job a time or two over the years, but she's never made the leap, and quality has a lot to do with it. "I'm always covering stories that the networks are," she says, "and I think our stories end up being better."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts