June 10, 2010 / by Sarah.Hetland

Gabrielle Zuckerman is going back to television journalism’s old school roots with her latest start-up project, Need to Know, on PBS. The show, which launched in May, features longer interviews, a forgotten form in the genre.

Zuckerman says many programs have “squeezed” news into a package that does viewers a disservice.

“It’s been that way for a while, it’s not something new…for TV to have something that is 10 or 15 minutes long [is rare],” she said. “And I think people get short changed when you do a shorter interview.”

As with all new beginnings, challenges loom ahead for Zuckerman but she is already tinkering with ideas for the new program.

“I’m still working to find that right mix of guests and the right voices for the program, because it is just a great platform,” she said. “There aren’t boundaries, you’re not locked into a particular job description…you can explore things and different topics.”

She said, “It’s a sort of love-hate thing. It’s a start-up and this is my fourth start-up. There are a lot of unknowns, which is great on one hand, but on the other hand it takes longer to do things or to hit your stride.”

With Need to Know, Zuckerman is attempting to give stories more perspective with the longer-form interview. It is also hard to take experts seriously, she said, when they just get regulated to sound bites.

She added, “As with anything, everything gets sped up and all the stories get shorter. And there are so many different platforms [now] for accessing information. But an interview is a really unique thing that kind of stands alone.”

Strongly produced pieces are another aspect that make Need to Know stand out, Zuckerman said, as she feels the form is dying.

“There are a lot more talking heads on TV then there are actual produced pieces. It’s so expensive to send a reporter out to cover a story, to edit and put it together and also to acquire things internationally from documentary or freelance producers,” she explained. “So to make that kind of quality produced work is very time consuming and labor intensive. That’s a big commitment of ours on this program.”

Zuckerman also plans to cross over platforms and integrate more with their “very robust” website.

“If there’s someone we can’t get on [the show], it’s great to have the option to do this for the Web – so they both kind of feed into each other,” she said.

She added, “Typically if I have a great voice that I think would be a good person to blog, I will work with the Web producers to make that happen. It’s great for doing really focused, specific angles that we may have covered more broadly on the show.”

Zuckerman’s passion for news began long before her days producing in television. Though she went to school for theater, she developed an interest in journalism through a series of internships and found herself working in radio. She spent several years working for Minnesota Public Radio before moving to the East Coast.

Her first job working in New York was actually her first start-up venture as well, helping to launch the short-lived political talk program The Al Franken Show.

“It was a different experience, which was something I wanted to try. It was during the 2004 [presidential] campaign and it certainly didn’t lack for drama,” she said.

Though she was interested in the way government works, she ultimately realized her preference for straight news without being roped into any specifics. She went on to work as a producer for MSNBC and CNN International before returning to her non-profit broadcasting roots at PBS.

“I like the sort of overarching ethos of non-for-profits…seems like there’s more freedom, and sometimes I feel like there’s more devotion to getting information out and on education, while [still] being entertaining and engrossing,” she said.

Pitching Tips

Zuckerman is interested in a variety of topics or experts on those topics including health, education, policy, finance, economy, security and the environment. The show also features culture and the arts.

“It’s a newsmagazine so we like to do a broad range of pieces in any given show,” she explained.

To get a pitch to stand out she suggests taking a topic and connecting it to a policy or an issue, why is this happening and what are the roots of something?

She emphasized that PR professionals should familiarize themselves with the show and its process before attempting any contact, “The more they seem to know the show and have crafted the pitch, the better,” she said.

“The biggest beef are those pitches that are just totally random and inappropriate for the show,” she continued. “It’s not even just that one pitch that’s inappropriate, it just makes you think that this person doesn’t take the time to figure out what the show is about…therefore I’m more likely to dismiss the entire outfit or the person.”

When it comes to pitches about people who aren’t well known, it’s best to emphasize where they have been and what they have done. She likes to find experts who are as thoughtful and intellectual as possible.

She also loves hearing about known experts who are covering subjects for which they are not known. These ideas are interesting and will stand out to her.

Finally, she’ll pay more attention to a pitch that has some creative thought put into it and doesn’t just come over sounding like a standard press release or a typical marketing pitch.

She prefers to be contacted through e-mail and finds that it’s “hard to take time to do phone calls.”

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