PBS’ new show Wide Angle is a rare find on U.S. television: a regularly scheduled slot for documentaries about international issues. Produced by New York public station Thirteen/WNET and carried by the national program service, the current affairs primetime hour debuted on July 11, 10 months to the day after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. But, executive producer Stephen Segaller says the idea for Wide Angle did not arise as a response to the events of September 11.
‘About three years ago, when I began working at Thirteen, I started trying to figure out how one could make a series of this kind without it being absurdly expensive,’ he explains. When Pat Mitchell took over as head of PBS in 2000, Segaller found an ally. Says Mitchell, ‘Long before September 11, I was alarmed by the decline in international and global issue reporting on all American media. I saw it decline on CNN, where I was before, and I certainly saw it decline at the networks, where I also worked before. It seems to me we are losing the critical understanding of not only what is going on in the rest of the world, but the way in which the rest of the world sees [the U.S.] and our issues.’
Segaller, who is also wnet’s director of news and public affairs programming, refined his idea over the next year. In a strange twist of fate, the greenlight for Wide Angle came last August. (PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting signed on to cover half of the budget, with the balance coming from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Jacob Burns Foundation, The Florence and John Schumann Foundation, the Wallach Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.) After 9/11, there was discussion about moving the launch date forward, says Segaller, but PBS decided to pour more resources into Frontline in the short-term to address the ‘war on terror’, allowing Wide Angle to develop according to its original plan.
The first run of the new PBS strand consists of 10 independently produced docs, each 45 minutes long and budgeted between US$175,000 and $300,000. Segaller sought a mixture of acquisitions, commissions and coproductions that address a range of themes around the globe. For example, Slobodan Milosevic – A Very Modern Dictator (a copro with the BBC, France 2, France 5, Paris-based distrib Tele Images and London prodco Antelope) explores the relationship between dictatorship and control of the media, while Argentina: The Empty Wallet (a commission that went to London-based October Films) considers the ramifications of sudden economic upheavals.
The key difference between Wide Angle and other current affairs programs is the stories are people-led rather than issue-led. Notes Segaller, ‘I’ve made it a strict rule that I don’t want think-tankers, policy people or journalists in the films. I want the films to be shot and presented in documentary style, in the places where dramatic or influential events are taking place. We learn what the issues are from people’s experiences, not from analysts or correspondents standing in front of the camera.’
This approach is a pointed attempt to reach an audience that has previously shown little interest in global affairs. Another tactic to smooth the way for viewers is the use of hosts. Daljit Dhaliwal, former anchor of World News for Public Television, and James P. Rubin, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs, introduce each episode, then host an eight to 10 minute discussion/interview after each film ends. ‘This is really a cultural tactic,’ Segaller explains. ‘Our objective is to help indicate explicitly that the rest of the world and its concerns, stresses and changes do impact upon [the U.S.] and will impact upon us, and we ought to spend a bit of time thinking about what those connections and impacts are.’