PROFILE: Weiss changes approach to turn news into kid stuff

After years of bringing hard-hitting news to adult audiences, Alan Weiss shares his journalism experience with a younger generation to make complex issues more accessible to teens. Alan Weiss' decision to tell his 10-year-old daughter that she wasn't allowed to watch the local news wasn't an easy one. Weiss, after all, is a six-time Emmy-winning producer and a prominent alumnus of a legendary team of television journalists. He'd made his name on WABC's Eyewitness News team, working on any number of important stories. He was even the first to break news of John Lennon's death, for which he won one of his Emmys.

After years of bringing hard-hitting news to adult audiences, Alan Weiss shares his journalism experience with a younger generation to make complex issues more accessible to teens. Alan Weiss' decision to tell his 10-year-old daughter that she wasn't allowed to watch the local news wasn't an easy one. Weiss, after all, is a six-time Emmy-winning producer and a prominent alumnus of a legendary team of television journalists. He'd made his name on WABC's Eyewitness News team, working on any number of important stories. He was even the first to break news of John Lennon's death, for which he won one of his Emmys.

So when confronted by a child with questions about Monica Lewinsky's blue dress, the former TV journalist had to revisit his trade with the eyes of one. "I'd been watching local and network news all my life, but I'd never watched it from the perspective of a 10-year-old," he says. "I found it very frightening because the drumbeat of death, destruction, and danger is non-stop. News has changed since I was in it." This realization would eventually lead him to Eyewitness Teen/Kids News, a 30-minute, weekly news broadcast conceived by Eyewitness News creator Al Primo that brings age-appropriate news content to kids across the country. Featuring stories on issues that affect children, such as bullies and music downloading, and framing national and international issues for younger minds, Kids News is now seen on 175 stations across the country. The show is anchored by young talent, most notably Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford's son Cody, who covers sports, and Haley Cohen, the daughter of Paula Zahn. Kids News has a partnership with the educational publisher Weekly Reader to bring the show's scripts into classrooms. Weiss says he is now looking for PR pitches and corporate sponsors The idea behind Kids News is to put current events into context by dedicating more time to individual stories and providing the necessary background pre-teens and young teenagers need to understand complex issues. Weiss compares the process of writing and producing for kids to that of making a home safe for an infant. "You have to get down on your hands and knees and crawl around to see things the way they do," he says. Although it's defined against the salaciousness of TV news broadcasts, Kids News does take on controversial subjects. A piece on sexual predators who use the internet to lure victims caused a lot of consternation about how far the script should go in discussing an issue like rape. Another piece on the topic of fallen idols began with Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson, but eventually took on a more positive angle that showed examples of celebrities doing good. To capture the negative side of life in the spotlight, Weiss and his team went with actress Winona Ryder's shoplifting problem rather than deal with the rape charges pending against Bryant. "A guy being accused of rape is a different usage of the word than to say to a kid, 'Don't talk to these people, don't meet these people, they could hurt you.' That's different," he says. Such considerations were all new ones for Weiss. He says children's sensibilities weren't on his mind when he was putting together broadcasts in the 1970s and '80s. "We knew kids were watching, but we programmed for adults. We were most cognizant of the fact that it was the dinner hour, and there were certain things we wouldn't show." Weiss arrived at Eyewitness News fresh out of Northwestern University's journalism school in 1975. Bob Lape, then a correspondent, remembers him as a "hot potato" whose eagerness and dedication stood out. "He was a hard-working guy who put in all the time," he says. "It was not too surprising that he moved up rapidly from the guy who ran film cans and scripts down the street from the newsroom to the studio." Weiss worked his way up through the writing and production ranks, and he became especially adept at dealing with cranky anchors, says Lape. During his time at Eyewitness News, the WABC affiliate boasted one of the most popular news broadcasts in the country. The Eyewitness format is widely known as having provided the template to the contemporary TV newscast, and Weiss was responsible for creating the 5pm broadcast to compete with NBC's popular newscast in the same time slot. Six months after launching the 5 O'Clock Eyewitness News, Weiss' creation knocked NBC's Live at Five out of first place. In 1980, Weiss stumbled on to his biggest story when a motorcycle accident landed him in the same hospital that John Lennon was brought to after he was shot. Weiss broke the story from the hospital, establishing his place in TV news lore and netting him an Emmy. But it was years and years of covering bad news that led him to give up the TV news grind. He started Alan Weiss Productions in 1994, after about a decade as CEO at a company called Troika Productions. His company, which produces documentaries, corporate videos, in-flight videos, PSAs, and a number of PR tools, has won a number of awards, including several Emmys. One client says that Weiss' news background, especially his understanding of the media environment, informs his current projects. "Alan is very judicious and deliberate about selling tactics against what he knows the clients expectations need to be and should be," says Susan Wolfson, founder and CEO of the healthcare PR firm Sensei. "He's one of the most direct vendors I know." Though he still gets visibly excited discussing the news business, Weiss says he doesn't miss the bustle of the TV newsrooms. "I get my news fix from Kids News."

Alan Weiss 1994-present President, Alan Weiss Productions 1984-1994 CEO, Troika Productions 1975-1984 Various posts with Eyewitness News, WABC-TV, New York: Creator and senior producer, 5 O'Clock Eyewitness News (1982-1984); Producer, 6 O'Clock Eyewitness News (1980-1982); Producer, 11 O'Clock Eyewitness News (1979-1980); Producer, Eyewitness News Weekends (1978-1979); Producer, ENG Live (1976-1978); Writer for ABC Network (1976); Desk assistant (1975)

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