- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2006

LOS ANGELES

Television can peddle soap, cars and political candidates like nobody’s business, but in one contrary corner there’s a network selling viewers on an idea: Looking outward to understand the world and how to live in it.

Noncommercial, 24-hour Link TV, with a budget that might cover a broadcast network’s executive bonuses, offers international newscasts, documentaries and music shows aimed at helping Americans assess the global picture, big and small.

“Our goal is to engage Americans and give them the information they need to make smart choices as citizens … and to get involved,” says Link TV co-founder and President Kim Spencer, a former ABC News producer and documentary filmmaker.

He describes Link’s programming as “a pretty eclectic mix. You can go from seeing news from the Middle East to a documentary on China to a mix of world-music videos you won’t see on MTV.”

“It’s ironic, but Americans with 200,300 channels really have a very limited choice compared to some in other parts of the world,” Mr. Spencer says.

“Mosaic,” Link’s Peabody Award-winning half-hour daily sampling of newscasts from 30 Middle Eastern broadcasters, is the hallmark of the network, which is delivered primarily via DirecTV and Dish Network to 28 million U.S. homes.

Reports from Egypt, Jordan, Israel and elsewhere are presented unedited and translated, if required, into English.

Starting next year, the program “Global Pulse” will showcase news from other regions along with commentary and public opinion polls to provide context.

Among the first areas of attention will be Latin America, which has produced such provocative images as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez denouncing President Bush as “the devil” in a United Nations speech.

“But what do we really know about what’s going on in Latin America?” Mr. Spencer asks rhetorically. Link’s distillation of news and analysis could begin to fill in the gaps, he says.

On the cultural side, this month brings the introduction of the movie series “Cinemondo,” with the American debut of films — including Iran’s Oscar-nominated “Border Cafe” and “May 6th” by Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker killed over his sharp criticism of Muslims.

“Out of the Box,” an original Link series hosted by actor-activist Peter Coyote, searches for stories and individuals overlooked by mainstream TV news.

Link’s extensive slate of documentaries ranges from “Bad Medicine,” about the dangers of counterfeit drugs, to lighter fare including “Accordion Tribe,” about a gathering of great accordion players, and “The Girl From Ipanema,” a look at the song’s legacy and the bossa nova.

The network’s funding comes from a combination of grants and viewer contributions, with support from celebrities, including musicians Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt and Cher and actor Brad Pitt. Mr. Matthews “became hooked on Link and would watch it on his tour bus,” Mr. Spencer says.,

The bulk of Link’s $6 million annual budget is provided by organizations, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The latter joined with Link to introduce “Mosaic” in 2001, one month after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“Link is the kind of fast-moving, entrepreneurial organization that can do something new without an act of Congress or a stockholders meeting,” says Eric Newton, the Knight Foundation’s director for journalism initiatives.

With “Mosaic,” Mr. Newton says, Link offers the kind of coverage that can’t be found elsewhere and shares the foundation’s vision of “free-flowing international news.”

Some Link programs are available on cable in a few markets, including the District, San Francisco and New York City, and on local cable access and university channels. On Link’s Web site, material including all past editions of “Mosaic” — about 600 — is available.

The network, which marked its sixth year in 2005 by winning broadcasting’s prestigious Peabody Award for “Mosaic,” still is trying to cut deals with major cable operators.

It’s Link TV’s vibe as much as a specific program that keeps more than 5 million viewers tuning in on a regular basis.

Charles Noble, an Orange County, Calif., businessman, considers Link a valuable alternative to broadcast news and an adjunct to PBS’ “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.”

“I don’t even watch the networks. You can go from one news channel to the next, even though they’re on different networks, and it’s the same subject. … It’s not in-depth,” Mr. Noble says. “Link takes a subject and really goes into detail.”

A majority of Link’s programming is acquired from outside sources such as the BBC in Britain and ITVS, Independent Television Service. More than 90 percent of the network’s fare is airing for the first time in the United States.

“These are documentaries that deal not only with difficult social issues around the world, but people who are making a change,” Mr. Spencer says. “We try not to leave people in a puddle on the couch thinking, ‘Oh, my God, now what do I do?’ We generally try with our programs to offer something you can do,” such as connecting with organizations.

It’s an approach that draws a varied audience. According to research surveys, more than 56 percent of regular Link viewers also watch Fox News Channel. Forty-two percent of them voted for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004; 31 percent voted for President Bush.

“People who watch a lot of different perspectives don’t close themselves off,” Mr. Spencer says. “We’re not trying to be Air America [liberal radio network]. We’re trying to be accessible to anybody who’s a thinking American.”

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