By Mark Pattison
EVEN IN THE 500-channel universe, PBS’ “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” was really the only program of its kind: a weekly half-hour program that took a serious look at religion and religious issues across the spectrum of belief, and how faith intersected with politics, society and culture.
However, that voice will be silenced, as the last installment of more than 1,000 episodes of the newscast will make its way to PBS stations the weekend of Feb. 24.
According to Arnold Labaton, the executive producer of “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,” it was the digital broadcast milieu that killed off the show.
After public TV stations starting adding subchannels, “a number of them, including a number of (stations in) major markets, took us off their main channel and put it on a secondary channel. That led to a significant diminution of our broadcast audience,” he said.
“However, our online presence has increased exponentially and continues to increase exponentially,” Labaton added. Every episode of “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” will remain on PBS’ website for three years after the last broadcast.
The Lilly Foundation had underwritten the series from the beginning, but with viewership down, WNET, the program’s host, saw the end coming. “I think it was in the spring of this year” when the bad news was delivered, Labaton said.
The cancellation of “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” means 15 people will be out of a job, including Kim Lawton, a reporter for the show from the beginning.
Asked what she’ll do next, she replied, “That’s a very good question. I don’t know what my next phase will be. I’d like to stay in religion reporting.”
Lawton told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 20 telephone interview from the show’s Washington base, “I didn’t set out to be a religion reporter. I had been a general assignment reporter. My radio outlet (UPI Radio) wanted to do more coverage of religion so they could appeal to more religious stations. My manager asked me if I would take this on. So I had been doing more religion in broadcasting.” UPI, once a rival to The Associated Press, suffered from a series of financial setback, and Lawton was laid off from there.
“There was someone from television, Bob Abernethy. who had was looking at doing something for television on religion,” she said. “He had heard about me. And I had heard about him. I was interested form the beginning.”
Lawton repeated, “I didn’t set out to be a religion reporter, but because I am a religion reporter, I’ve covered the Supreme Court, I’ve covered the election, I’ve covered politics and religion, I’ve covered denominational meetings, I’ve covered pop culture and music and art, so it’s just been a wonderful beat to really dig down and look at those things that are so important to so many people.”
Her assignments have taken her to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, to New Orleans after the catastrophic levee failure following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, to Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, and to refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey near the border with Syria.
“When it first came on the air, we said it was going to be dedicated to religion,” Labaton said. “But within a brief time afterward, the content changed and we became more about religious beliefs and traditions.”
Even with the shift in focus, there was nothing like it “whether it’s cable or the news networks or anyplace else that has a program or segments based on religion news coverage. Typically, in the major news media, coverage of religion, except for the National Catholic Reporter, has been more about controversy and scandal and division. While we will cover those things, that is not most of what we try to do.”
I remember interviewing Abernethy twice before “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” debuted, jokingly telling him at one point “This interview is over!” once I learned he was not a Catholic but a member of the United Church of Christ. I’d wondered if the show was going to succeed, given the absence of anything like it in the TV landscape.
Well, 20 seasons isn’t quite the same as 27 and counting of “The Simpsons,” but a thousand-plus episodes and some 200 awards and honors is a mark of success. It’s too bad 200 awards and honors – that’s 10 per year on average – couldn’t save the show. And it’s too bad that after two decades, it remained the only show of its kind.
Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.