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"Arizona Illustrated" debuts Sunday

After a summer hiatus, AZPM launches the revamped "Arizona Illustrated" this Sunday evening at 6:30. For 30 years, the show acted as a lynchpin of local news programming and covered a variety of topics on a nightly basis. Once long-time host Bill Buckmaster departed, the show maintained a nightly format, but morphed into theme-related efforts with a rotating cast of hosts.

That idea was jettisoned in the spring. The new incarnation takes the old name, but changes the focus from nightly current events approach to a weekly show that looks more like a mini-documentary format. The same show will air multiple times per week in a 39-week schedule, with reruns slated for the summer.

Long-time KVOA news anchor Tom McNamara, himself an avid fan and advocate of public television, will introduce the segments.

"These guys have their heart and soul in this," said McNamara of the reporters and producers who have been working on compiling material for "Arizona Illustrated". "They've been gunning it all summer. The pieces look great. They've been pouring everything into it. I started in the magazine format in local television. It's great. Long form is back to the candy store for me. It's long form, but featuresque and informational. With good photographers and good storytellers, it's heaven. It's such a luxury. It's such a rarity now. These guys are getting back to it. I'm back to my roots and looking forward to it."

As it stands, the program will include an average of four stories per week, although that will fluctuate depending on feature length. Executive Producer John Booth hopes to balance the flow among a variety of topics, including personality features, historical retrospectives, science, arts and culture.

"The cool thing about it is we have such a diversity of storytelling skills here," Booth said. "Growing Up Roosevelt is a classic, elegant, documentary style story. The Art Frank piece has no dialogue, and is constructed in such a way that you just keep peeling the onion to discover what the core of the story is. In the tradition of "Arizona Illustrated," there are stories heavier on science and environmental issues. The quintessential element of this show is we can take eight weeks to produce a story and have time pass, and you'll see how the story unfolds."

The azpm.org website ties into aspects of "Arizona Illustrated" as well. Many of the features will be available at the website location before they air on television. Furthermore, the program even has a link for story submissions, which Booth says is already being utilized. He says there are 60 stories currently mapped out in some form of completion en route to the necessity of roughly 150 features per broadcast season. "Arizona Illustrated" will also incorporate a From the Vault segment, a replay of many of the features that aired years ago during the program's three-decade tenure, with efforts to update information.

Given its once a week status, the program's airing strategy is very different as well. When Buckmaster helmed the show, viewers of the program knew "Arizona Illustrated" would be broadcast weeknights at 6:30. If they liked the show and were avid viewers, they knew when to find it. The new version will air Sundays at 6:30. Usually. That is, unless PBS presents a national program that pre-empts the timeslot. The program will air on multiple occasions throughout the week, but again, those could fluctuate based on the timeframes made available by PBS.

"The broadcast strategy is HBO," Booth said. "We're going to make quality, but we're going to air it several days a week. That's worthy of emulation. We're going to compromise on quantity, but gain in quality and air it in a number of different times. I'm confident we'll have a TV audience that will find the time where it airs."

AZPM will find out soon enough whether Booth's expectations come to fruition. The HBO quantity of scheduling argument isn't entirely consistent. Every HBO show has a specific initial airdate, and then gets multiple replays. As a result, viewers know exactly when to expect the initial offering of the program.

Meanwhile, "Arizona Illustrated" is starting from scratch. It's not on every weeknight and hasn't been on the schedule at all since late May. It also attracts an audience that skews older, and as a result tends to more likely implement habitual, traditional television viewing approaches. In other words, they expect to watch it live. While DVR is certainly a growing option, much of the demographic will expect to see a program as it's airing. So to get that group on board, it would benefit AZPM to be as consistent in the timeslot as possible, and then hope it gains steam during numerous replays throughout the schedule run.

"I'm confident we'll have an audience and they'll roll with it," Booth said. "They know where we are and they'll find us every time. The quality is there, and it's a high percentage of weeks out of the year, and I'm confident people will find it. They're going to come, they'll find the stories and they'll be hooked."

For McNamara, it's an opportunity to explore a format for which he has great appreciation.

"How many places can you give birth and air long form features? There are very few outlets now," said McNamara, who is also appreciative of KVOA's cooperative approach in allowing him to participate in the "Arizona Illustrated" venture as opposed to viewing his role at KVOA TV 4 as a conflict. "I've always had an affinity for public TV. You watch a lot of the programming from the time you're a kid, but now the concerts and other programming, it seems like public TV is always rolling out something you want to get a grasp on. It's an outlet for things you can't do all the time in commercial television."

More by John Schuster

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