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Making TV: Need To Know

Meeting Today’s News Needs

By Michael Fickes


Co-hosts Alison Stewart and Jon Meacham are Peabody and Pulitzer Prize winners, respectively.

With newspapers and news publications failing across the country, who knows what the next generation of news will look like? WNET.ORG, the New York City metro area’s premier public media provider and parent company of TV stations THIRTEEN and WLIW21, may have an answer to that question: Its weekly newsmagazine program and daily news website called Need To Know.

“We are working in completely new ways to make this show,” says Wayne Palmer, the program’s on-air director.

Show and Website are Tightly Integrated
The key difference is how the television program and the website interact with each other. The website (www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know) contains text and video stories plus the 60-minute weekly TV programs that air on Fridays.

The website content comes from PBS ENG crews reporting from the field as well as essayists and feature producers who submit material for any of five beats that the newsmagazine covers: economy, environment, health, security and culture. Website editors select content to display on the website, and web designers upload and format the material.

Many of the website’s video stories are formatted like the news features that have appeared on television for years. Others, however, experiment with different presentations.

For instance, satirist Steve Brodner has a piece on the website’s security beat page called “Who is Hamid Karzai?” It’s a video essay with Brodner doing the voiceover. As he speaks, the camera follows his hand as it sketches caricatures of Karzai and others in poses that play off his words and illustrate the creative bent of the editorial focus.

The website explores major stories of the day as well as those unlikely to appear elsewhere — the Brodner piece for example. Among those currently appearing on the website are pieces that look at Muslim superheroes, physicists working on invisibility technology, a history of the contraceptive pill, how climate change may affect wine, the health dangers posed by global warming and the poetic heritage of Somalia.


Need To Know’s new flagship studio at Lincoln Center.

Need To Know television producers constantly sort through the website seeking stories that that could be expanded for use on air. Broadcasts feature some of these unusual stories as well as documentary-style domestic and international field reports, short features, essays and studio-based interviews and discussions.

Lincoln Center Studio Links to Control Room Downtown
Need To Know’s TV home is WNET.ORG’s new flagship studio at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. The street-level, glass-walled facility at 66th Street and Broadway accommodates the show’s co-hosts: Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweekand a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Alison Stewart a Peabody Award-winning broadcast journalist. A number of the program’s interviews are conducted in person in the studio.

Director Wayne Palmer and technical director Manse Sharp record each show from a control room located in the WNET THIRTEEN building on 33rd Street. Fiber-optic cabling connects the control room with the studio, 33 blocks away.

For example, Sharp “switches video for five cameras in the studio at Lincoln Center,” explains Palmer. “Sharp also controls a robotics system that operates four of the cameras. A technician working in the studio operates the fifth camera.” Sharp’s remote camera controls include pan/tilt, pedestal up and down, and focus and zoom.

Mahwah, New Jersey’s Telemetrics Inc. supplied the robotics system and Sony the five HDC-X300 compact HD cameras.

“I switch the video to a nonlinear playback-and-record system with six play/record channels,” says Sharp. Omneon’s Spectrum Media Server performs those tasks in the control room where a Chyron graphics system is also housed.

Back in Lincoln Center, the studio crew consists of four carpenters, four electricians, a stage manager and the tech who operates the fifth camera, handles audio assist and supports Sharp when he needs help moving the robotic cameras.

The new studio, which rises two floors to a height of 28 feet, is equipped with a Unistrut lighting grid and lighting-control system with a DMX interface that provides individual control of every light in the grid as well as two layers of motorized shades that control daylight entering the space.

A special K-13 insulation coats the ceiling to reduce noise and reverberation. The mechanical system features a Noise Criteria 30 (NC30) design to ensure quiet operation during production.


The studio’s glass walls look out on 66th Street and Broadway.

The show’s two hosts sit in front of a 103-inch Panasonic High Definition plasma screen. Also on set are one Samsung 46-inch and four Samsung 32-inch HD LCDs. Four Standard Definition Sanyo projectors play video that might come from file footage or other SD sources.

“Our graphic designer has created a beautiful look for the studio,” Palmer says. “It incorporates rich deep orange, amber and blue. It’s a gorgeous look and not one that I’ve ever seen on a national program.”

When the hosts are on camera, Palmer asks for deep-focus shots with a crystal-clear foreground and an out-of-focus background. “It’s important to see the co-hosts and interview subjects clearly,” he says.

As Palmer notes, Need To Know is pursuing and reporting its newsmagazine stories in entirely new ways. So is all of PBS.

Need To Know follows a major redesign of the nightly PBS Newshour (www.pbs.org/newshour/) and the revamped Nightly Business Report (www.pbs.org/nbr). Each now has a website that enables visitors to replay stories from their daily broadcasts as well as read other stories being followed by PBS reporters.

According to PBS executives, the network will soon begin aggregating all of its news and public-affairs content along with offerings from editorial partners in an online “super-vertical” site housed at PBS.org. PBS has also joined a partnership formed by leading public-media organizations with the goal of developing a local/national system that will support journalism in areas that have lost local news coverage.


December 10, 2012