PBS Digital Finds The Funny In News
Say what you want about PBS news, but my hunch is the word “funny” won’t be part of the conversation.
Yet humor-infused news is what the public broadcaster is offering up through its digital arm in Everything But the News. The 10-episode miniseries is PBS’s first foray into news programming exclusively for the Web.
Partially scripted, partially real, Everything But the News follows cub reporter Steve Goldbloom’s trials covering tech stories in and around California for PBS’s NewsHour, the network’s venerable, albeit staid, news brand.
Co-funded by PBS Digital Studios and ITVS (Independent Television Service), the series debuted on PBS’s YouTube channel on Feb. 12. Backers wouldn’t say how much the project costs, other than to say it was made with “a five-figure budget.”
Goldbloom is a real guy, a 30-year-old producer at ITVS who worked for NewsHour as a producer for three years. He plays an alter ego with the same name in the series. Goldbloom’s real-life buddy and co-creator Noah Pink plays his videographer.
Goldbloom says he knew his future with PBS Digital was not going to be in straight-shooting news when he pitched his off-kilter approach to storytelling last year. “There are enough people who look and sound like me that read the news,” he says.
Despite his longstanding admiration for NewsHour — he used to read transcripts for his college political science courses — Goldbloom knew a series that poked fun at public broadcasting, and TV news in general, would be the better bet.
“I told them that I did have something to lampoon — the newsgathering process,” he says. “It was a pretty bizarre pitch to someone who is going to be funding the idea.”
The impetus for Everything But the News dates back about two years when Goldbloom and Pink were covering the Sundance Film Festival for PBS Digital.
Goldbloom says the duo filed their share of serious reports as expected. But as freelancers on a tight budget, they also found themselves shut out of Sundance’s more glamorous venues, repeatedly being turned away from parties and the like. They also took note of the insular film festival crowd.
So they produced “news-type pieces” that took a lighter approach. One focused on “the ridiculous things said at Sundance.”
“We were just getting frustrated and wanted to do something fun,” says Pink, a Toronto-based filmmaker. “So we spent a night going around and, I would say, poking fun at the people who attend Sundance. We showed it to PBS and they loved it and posted it.”
After that, the pair decided they wanted to capture that spirit in a Web series. They decided the tech boom in San Francisco, where Goldbloom now lives, would provide plenty of fodder.
The five-to-six-minute episodes feature Goldbloom in pursuit of tech stories, from online dating to the booming ride-sharing business in San Francisco.
Although the series is not pure journalism, given the fictional character and conversation, it does include real-life storytelling. “We have fun with it, but there is some substance you can take away,” Goldbloom says.
The ride-sharing story, for instance, includes interviews with the head execs of companies including Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. Goldbloom talks to taxi drivers who say those companies are skirting the rules.
In another episode, Goldbloom travels to cover the world of online video at the annual VidCon conference in Anaheim, Calif. — the largest convention of online creators and stars in the world. Navigating the conference floor, grabbing interviews with the people who put all those videos on YouTube, Goldbloom wonders if the assignment will be his breakthrough moment. The title: “What Would Jim Lehrer Do?”
A scene in “Modern Love,” a story about online dating, includes Goldbloom’s mom on the phone providing input for the JDate profile Goldbloom is creating with a company exec. She appears off-screen in other stories, too. In one, the chief engineer of Reddit explains to her the premise of the website. In another, she learns the basics of venture capitalism.
Goldbloom says his off-kilter storytelling techniques are designed to break out of the broadcast journalism mold. “When you speak with executives, there is usually a suite of talking points they are going to just cram in,” he says. To make Everything But the News work, Goldbloom says he and Pink “needed to change the environment.”
Every episode (a new one debuts each week) has drawn about 10,000 viewers.
PBS Digital Studios’ Matt Graham says Everything But the News works primarily because it is such a departure from what viewers expect from public broadcasting.
PBS Digital airs about 30 short-form, Web-exclusive series on its YouTube channels, primarily on quintessential public broadcasting topics like science and the arts. But until Everything But the News came along, the department had not ventured into news programming because it could not come close to what NewsHour already offered, Graham says.