Innovative PBS show tries to hook viewers on state politics
What is it about California politics? We’ve got a governor nobody likes, a bunch of clowns in the Legislature who never seem able to pass a budget on time and an election cycle that has become a staple joke on late-night TV.
We are among the most populous, influential and economically solvent states in the nation. Yet when it comes to politics, all those East Coast stereotypes about Californians being flaky and “out there” seem to come true.
While California voters may not have an excuse for their apathy, there are valid cultural, historical and geographical reasons why politics are so screwy in the Golden State. Rural and urban voters have different needs, resources and population are spread around unevenly, the population is the most ethnically diverse in human history, and the economic juggernaut that is Southern California often ends up skewing legislative priorities. California often seems to be two or three states instead of a unified whole.
That’s why, in an unprecedented attempt to get Californians more involved in government, an affiliation of public television stations has embarked on an ambitious and expensive project they call “California Connected,” the centerpiece of which is a weekly newsmagazine of the same name that airs simultaneously across the entire state. The project also involves an interactive Web site that not only details important issues, but also offers links and suggestions as to how the average person can make a difference in his or her community.
The show, just entering its second year in production, has been successful with both critics and viewers thus far, but with PBS funding being what it is, only time will tell if it can stay on the air.
Recently, the show flew a CN&R reporter to a taping at its Hollywood studio in an attempt to drum up publicity for the project, which, if it lasts, has the potential to make a real difference in how Californians “connect” to state government.
“This, to me, is an open architecture. Anyone can participate,” said Marly Klaus, the show’s executive producer. “It’s an attempt to focus on solutions, not just blame [those] who screwed up in the past.”
Klaus, who has worked in TV news “all [her] life,” cuts a picture of the consummate TV newswoman. Her small stature is offset by a brisk and energetic nature, and the look in her eyes is fierce and direct. She’s a former producer for CBS’ 60 Minutes, and her passion for news, politics and people is more than just apparent, it’s one of her most striking features. California Connected has become more than a paycheck to her. It has become a mission.
“This is the best job I have ever had, no question,” she said. “When they hired me they gave me six months, not to produce anything, but just to think about how to get people more involved in their government.”
What came from those six months was a realization that the issues facing Californians have never been presented in a comprehensive way that empowers them and gets them involved.
"[The show] is supposed to make the conversation in California more constructive,” Klaus said, explaining how the show differs from what’s already out there, and especially how it differs from what PBS has offered in the past.
For one, PBS has never done a show in California that airs statewide in the same time slot every week. Since every PBS station is independent, it is a fairly radical idea for station managers to coordinate programming. Brad Fay, program director for KIXE, said the idea to share some programming was around before California Connected, but the show itself is what made the idea viable.
“We decided to pick it up long before we ever saw it,” Fay said, adding that he was pleased with the show itself and with viewer response. “I like very much what it’s doing, and in fact they’ve already done four stories in Northern California.”
That’s a welcome change from other California news shows that claim to cover the whole state but tend to ignore both rural areas and the Northstate, Fay said.
On the day a CN&R reporter attended the taping of the show, it ran segments on federal-government intrusions on the state’s gun and medical-marijuana laws and the health care crisis raging across the state, along with a lighter piece on the search for one of California’s most elusive critters—the San Francisco Republican.
On a set that looked like a Technicolor version of the standard TV newsmagazine set, California Connected host David Brancaccio was trying to get his sequences on tape, chuckling off-camera about his delivery of the words “reefer” and “ganja,” part of the introduction to the medical-marijuana story.
It was freezing cold in the studio downstairs where Brancaccio was working, but upstairs in the control room things were heating up. The title sequence had already been shot, but someone forgot to put a question mark at the end of a graphics title. It was a small thing, but to Klaus it had become a major irritant. Because the show operates on a shoestring budget compared to major network new shows, Klaus had to decide whether to shoot the sequence again or accept an imperfection. Since one of her major jobs for the show is to raise the funds that keep it on the air, she knows how true the axiom “time is money” really is.
“Yes, I want the damn question mark,” yelled Klaus, caught up in the energy of the production. “Can we cheat it in later?”
An assistant director manning one of the dozens of monitors in the little room said maybe, if the camera was on a still shot. The graphics team still couldn’t figure out how the punctuation got left out.
Klaus, halfway through the taping of just one of the two shows she would produce that night, grumbled a little and then let it drop for the moment, quickly shifting to another problem: The panelists who had been assembled for the show’s pundit segment, called “Dish,” seemed a little unclear on the concept of the segment’s “lightning round” and were drawing their comments out far too long.
“Give ’em some Red Bull and get ’em moving,” someone suggested.
Klaus diplomatically told them to speed it up, and they flew through the session one more time. A director cued cameras in staccato TV-speak: “Closer on six. Camera five take a two-shot. Take five. Take six,” and so on.
The panelists, fed from Sacramento via satellite, finished their discussion on cue. Klaus told one or two of them to stop talking and look in different directions so the editing team could get the shots they needed to recreate the conversation.
Downstairs, Brancaccio, who had been drinking hot water to keep his voice limber, finished his send-off. As the host and senior editor of Public Radio International’s daily radio show Marketplace, Brancaccio had been working all day and still had hours to go before he could take off his make-up and go home. As he headed out to the dinner break, he fretted about his performance, noting that it hadn’t been easy to make the jump from radio to TV.
“I’ve really had to work at it,” he said.
The production of the show is a major effort for the entire crew, Klaus said, adding that she feels very indebted to the professionals who make the show happen. For most of them, she said, the show is a labor of love.
“This show gets no money,” she said. “These people could be making twice as much as I’m paying them doing ‘Who Wants to Date My Mother’ or ‘Survivor.’ That’s the kind of work available in Los Angeles.”
Rounding up Hollywood types willing to work for substandard wages is easier when there is a buzz surrounding a production, and even without a huge budget, California Connected has that buzz. Articles in the L.A. Times and other influential publications have hailed the show as being fresh, innovative and entertaining, high praise indeed for public television, which is often thought of as being stodgy and dull (think Jim Lehrer’s News Hour).
But Klaus thinks even more of the show than that.
"[This show] is very expensive for public television standards," she said. "But this is a public service, and it’s a critical public service that’s not being done. It’s going to be hard to keep this on the air. It’s a struggle, but the way I look at is, with the budget situation throughout California, why should we be immune from that?"