Religion news on TV: A not-quite post mortem on Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

Late last year, we heard about the impending demise of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the almost 20-year-old PBS show that is unique in American journalism. No other network has mounted such an ambitious effort to cover faith and ethics with Washington-based talent and staff.

Those of us on the religion beat were amazed when the show began in September 1997. Imagine, a TV news magazine about ethics (unheard of) and religion (nearly unheard of). Instead of the obnoxious religious TV that constantly hit you up for contributions, R&E had enough funding from the Lilly Endowment to keep those telephones quiet. WNET, whose head office is in New York, produced the show and PBS distributed it.

It also had star power behind it in Bob Abernethy, a widely traveled NBC news correspondent who in his retirement years (age 69) started the show. The show set up shop in offices on H Street, borrowed studio space from Reuters and took off.

Religion News Service told us how it’s all ending two decades later:

WASHINGTON -- "Religion and Ethics News Weekly," an award-winning weekly public television series, will end early next year after a 20-year run.
The last episode will air on Feb. 24, announced WNET, the parent company of THIRTEEN Productions.
“It has been a great privilege to report the many ways people of faith worship and serve others,” host and executive editor Bob Abernethy said in a statement in a news release dated Wednesday. “We are deeply grateful to our thoughtful staff and also to our viewers, many of whom have told us the program consistently affirms the values they most respect.”
The show’s 20 years of broadcasting is unusually long for syndicated series and TV programs in general.
Founded by Abernethy and launched in 1997, it provided national and international news coverage and analysis about religion. It included interviews with newsmakers ranging from the Dalai Lama to former President Jimmy Carter, profiles of religious leaders such as evangelist Billy Graham and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and surveys about faith after 9/11 and about “nones,” or the unaffiliated.

The article went on to say the news release didn’t say why the show was ending. It also listed some of the show’s many awards.

So, just when the show decides to end, religion coverage is getting a great boost (even at the New York Times) in the new Donald Trump era.

What really happened to end the show and could it have been re-tuned for a younger audience?

There’s several reasons I’m guessing the show was shut down and since no one else is asking the right questions, I will pose a few.

First the website current.org gives us a few more details

Producing station WNET made the decision in response to declining primary-channel carriage as stations shifted the program to multicast channels with fewer viewers, said WNET spokesperson Donna Williams. Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly content is also available on the multicast World channel.
This season the program aired on 113 primary channels and 380 secondary channels, according to public TV audience analyst TRAC Media Services.

When the show kicked off in 1997, it was on 190 of the nation’s (at the time) 349 PBS stations, according to an informative Christianity Today feature. In 2001, it was carried by 210 PBS stations. The current 113 stations is about a 40 percent drop over the years. No show is going to be able to withstand those kinds of cuts.

But why was no other foundation willing to kick in big money for such a huge program? 

Even in its salad days, Religion & Ethics was often aired at very strange times of the day, ie early in the morning.  KCTS, the PBS affiliate here in Seattle, airs it at 5 a.m. During the years when I lived in the DC area -- a few miles from the show’s studios -- I noticed how hard it was to get it on local TV at any time.

Other stations would broadcast the show during daylight hours, but on Sunday mornings when much of the show’s main audience is in church.

Yes, you read that right. Granted, there are those non-churched (or folks from other religions who are free on Sunday mornings) who might watch it at that time but a Sunday a.m. slot is counterproductive in terms of getting many viewers on large parts of America. As any social media expert will tell you, timing is everything.

Also, even though it was counted as a PBS show and shared producers with other PBS shows, it never got picked up in prime time.

PBS NewsHour should have picked the best of the Religion & Ethics offerings and run them. As far as I know, it didn’t.

The show always had an interfaith feel to it, which was attractive to mainline Protestants and minority religions but not so much for evangelicals, something Richard Cizik complained about in the above-mentioned Christianity Today piece.

I am curious whether Catholics ever glummed onto the show or whether they flocked to their own shows, such as Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word TV Network. Having a show that airs on Sunday mornings was not going to draw folks who need to be at Mass. And so, R&E began a show with the capacity to draw the 89 percent of the American populace who believe in God, but managed to interest only a portion of that. 

It’s clear, too, that the Lilly Endowment’s religion division decided to move on, but I wish reporters had looked more into why. Lilly’s original investment was $5 million. By 2000, it was up to $7 million. It slid down to $6.625 million a year later; the show received $6.6 million in 2002 and $6.25 million in 2004 and  2008. But, by 2010, the budget was down to the original $5 million.

The show did some belt tightening but was unable to secure a replacement for Lilly. Most funders want you to reach out and get lots of other funders within a few years; the show never managed to do that, so it’s understandable why, after 20 years, Lilly wanted to move on to other things. By 2013, they were giving $4.2 million a year in 2013 and $4.31 million in 2015.

Also, two of the show’s major personalities are in their 80s. Abernethy is 89; Executive Producer Arnold Labaton is 83.

Abernethy pulled a coup in starting the show as a major second act in a distinguished career. But once the show was on solid footing, why didn’t he turn it over to younger people? I know there were junior folks waiting in the wings for Abernethy to turn over the reins; people who might have taken it in a more interesting and vivacious direction for a new century. But he never left, and neither did Labaton.

Want some facts? WNET’s most recent 990 shows the generous salaries –- roughly a quarter-million dollars each -- both men were being paid, so it’s understandable why they lingered.

Younger (and bilingual) folks like Lilly Fowler were recently hired, but the top management stayed the same and so did the format. Meanwhile, other entities (The Huffington Post being one) redefined and jazzed up the religion beat. Plus, if you’re unable to break news (it being a weekly show), then you need a large staff to do the investigative work -- 60 Minutes style -- that brings influence in a different way. Religion & Ethics never got that kind of infusion. Instead, staff and budgets shrank over the two decades.

By last summer, there were rumors this might be the show's last season and now there's less than a month to go. It's expensive; that is, about $100,000 per segment, to put on one of these shows, so I'm not holding my breath waiting for another sponsor to step up to the plate. But you never know: If there truly is a revival of interest in religion news, miracles may happen.

This August 2014 photo, which is from Religion & Ethics Newsweekly's Facebook page, shows, from left: Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention; Alton Pollard III, dean of Howard University School of Divinity; Kim Lawton, the show's managing editor; and Bob Abernethy, the show’s host/executive editor.

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