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Tuned In: 'Geographic' producer maps Sunday launch

Thursday, January 04, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Inside what was once part of the display space in National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall, a new TV program is about to be hatched. And it's not just any old cable series. It's the flagship program for a new network.

Deborah Acklin on the set of "National Geographic Today." (Rob Owen, Post-Gazette)

The National Geographic Channel debuts Sunday on AT&T digital channel 273 and with it, a special 7 p.m. Sunday edition of the network's weekday news program, "National Geographic Today."

Deborah Acklin, who grew up in Highland Park and helped launch "On Q" on WQED a year ago, is again getting a new program up and running as senior producer of "National Geographic Today." It will air at 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays beginning next week.

She said her experience with "On Q" and past program launches at KDKA (including "Wake Up with Larry Richert" and "KDKA Live at 5") helped prepare her for her biggest premiere yet: a national hourlong news show that emanates from a state-of-the-art studio that looks like a gussied-up version of the "Dateline NBC" set (it's by the same set designer).

"Launches require a special kind of ... guts. They're not for the faint of heart," Acklin said. "This one certainly hasn't been. I think we launched 'On Q' in 10 weeks, and this one is not that different."

Acklin joined National Geographic Channel in August after three years at WQED. That didn't give producers much time to get "National Geographic Today" ready to air. Acklin said she literally pulled out her notes from the "On Q" launch to give her a blueprint for the new program.

"It's very similar. The skills are the skills," she said. "But the resources here are so much deeper."

Acklin, 38, is one of three senior producers who report to the program's executive producer of news. Her main role at the moment is getting the program up and running. Then she'll concentrate on planning the hour and striking the right tone.

"It's like cooking a meal -- you have to have everything in balance," she said. "There has to be some knock-your-socks-off video, a sprinkling of this and that. If one day we're very much focused on the United States, then we might need some exotic locales, just trying to get the right balance."

"National Geographic Today," anchored by Tom Foreman and Susan Roesgen, has three correspondents based in Washington, plus access to reporters worldwide. The channel is a joint venture with Fox, which gives the show access to reporters with international Fox outlets, including Sky global news feeds.

In the past, the National Geographic Society had no outlet to deliver breaking news. Discoveries made by National Geographic-sponsored explorers would wind up in newspapers months before showing up in the society's magazine. Now those explorers will tell their stories immediately.

With the Society about to hand out its 7,000th research grant, "National Geographic Today" will also have access to those researchers, whom Acklin calls "expert eyewitnesses."

"We talked about that Mexican volcano that erupted in our morning meeting [last month], and someone said we have [a researcher] who's been down there studying that volcano for two years," she said. "We'd do a live shot with him. He's somebody with really solid information and a unique perspective. Everyone would do the story, but only we could do that. It's not just a reporter being dropped in for a live shot."

"National Geographic Today" will help distinguish the new cable network from its main rival, the long-established Discovery Channel, according to National Geographic Channel president Laureen Ong.

"There is room for everyone," Ong said. "The Discovery and History channels of the world have done a great job creating an appetite for this kind of knowledge-based channel. This is the en vogue PBS. Before cable, it was cool to say, 'I watch PBS.' Now they say, 'I watch History Channel.' Or Discovery."

There are thousands of hours of National Geographic specials to draw from to fill air time (a tribute to the Society airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on the new channel, and it will be simulcast on CNBC and repeated at 9 p.m. on Fox News Channel), and Ong said the National Geographic "campus" -- three buildings that house the National Geographic Society, its publications, exhibits that are open to the public and now the cable network -- also provide unique opportunities.

"Interesting celebrity scientists, explorers and politicians come here to talk about their findings, and we'll be able to sit them down in the studio and talk to them immediately," Ong said. Acklin isn't the only former Pittsburgher working at the network. Russell Howard, a spokesman for KDKA-TV in the mid-1990s, is the network's vice president of communications. Lorraine Snebold, marketing director at KDKA-TV when the "Hometown Advantage" slogan was created, is the cable network's senior vice president of brand management.

Acklin said she's planning several stories for "National Geographic Today" that will be taped in Pittsburgh. She declined to reveal what they're about, and she's waiting until spring to tape them "because I want the city to be just beautiful with leaves on the trees."

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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