The New York Times makes its biggest foray into television

Monday, March 24th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Vivian Schiller makes it her mantra: ``We are not a news network.''

For a new cable channel part owned by and part named for the nation's most prominent newspaper, The New York Times, it's a natural expectation.

Instead, the Discovery Times Channel, which officially begins operation Tuesday in about 29 million homes, is looking to become a behind-the-news network.

``We're going to treat things seriously, but hopefully have a little fun, also,'' said Schiller, who's running it.

The venture is a bold move for the Times, which has lent its expertise to television documentaries for several years and recently signed a deal for its correspondents to appear on CNN during the Iraq war. This time the newspaper is helping to start its very own channel.

The deal was made last year, with the Times paying Discovery Communications $100 million for a half-stake in the Discovery Civilization Channel, one of a baker's dozen of cable outlets run by Discovery Communications. Discovery retains operating control but agreed to change the name.

``We've really shifted our focus from the idea that we are a newspaper company to the idea that we are a news and information company,'' said Michael Oreskes, an assistant managing editor.

Discovery Civilization, available mostly in homes with satellite dishes or digital cable, airs virtually all reruns, mostly historical programming or documentaries about social issues. Some of that programming will survive the transition.

Discovery Times begins at 8 p.m. EST Tuesday with ``Al Qaeda 2.0,'' an hourlong documentary examining the terrorist organization.

An hour later, Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid debuts ``Terror's Children,'' about Afghan refugees who crossed the border into Pakistan. It questions whether harsh conditions there are breeding a new generation of terrorists.

``We're doing something that no one else in television is daring to do,'' said Don Baer, executive vice president for strategy and development at Discovery. ``When there is a race to the bottom with everything going on in television news, where they're providing less and less detail and more and more shouting, we'd like to try something different.

``This is about giving people the back-end information that they need to make their own judgment.''

The cable news market is already saturated with CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, Oreskes said. There's also a strong market for historical programming; Discovery Times is trying to fit someplace in between. Although many networks try this approach in limited series, none do it full time, the organizers said.

``Why shouldn't there be a place where people can tune in anytime, day or night, and get smart, engaging television?'' Schiller said.

One intriguing, three-minute nightly show will be called ``Page One,'' with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheryl WuDunn giving a run-down on what stories will appear in the next day's newspaper.

With war raging in Iraq, Discovery Times will devote its first Saturday's entire prime time to that country.

April will bring two documentaries focusing on the auto industry: ``The American Car,'' about the social forces that determine who buys what, and ``Nowhere, Fast,'' about the proliferation of traffic jams.

Bill Carter, who covers the TV beat for the Times, will make a documentary for May telecast about the late-night television wars, and another show will examine 50 years of racial stereotyping in Hollywood.

If the network is going to make a television star out of a newspaperman, the most likely candidate is foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who will appear in a series of one-minute segments discussing world events.

Discovery Times is seeking to draw attention to its programming by debuting a high-profile documentary on another channel. A one-hour show with Friedman as host traces the roots of the Sept. 11 attack and will first be seen Wednesday on the Discovery Channel.

Baer said that's being done because Discovery, available in more than 90 million homes, has three times the potential viewership of Discovery Times.

``When you have a channel that is in less than 50 million households, you want to drive viewers there,'' he said. ``You can't bring them in unless you bring them through a much bigger door to the tent.''

Schiller, who used to be in charge of long-form programming at CNN, said she's determined not to fall prey to the ``good for you'' syndrome that sometimes hurts PBS. In surveys, viewers sometimes say they support the idea of quality programming more than they actually watch it.

The Times is committed to good writing, powerful imagery and compelling storytelling in the newspaper, and will be on television, too, Oreskes said.

``There is nothing about quality that says it has to be dull,'' he said.