DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
After retiring from TV in 2010, veteran broadcaster Bill Moyers returns to public television this week with a new public affairs program that our TV critic David Bianculli says is hard to find but easy and important to watch. He's here to explain why and also to point out that Bill Moyers already returned to television this week on Tuesday's edition of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."
DAVID BIANCULLI: So far it's one of my favorite TV moments of the year. On Tuesday, the night of the New Hampshire primary, Stephen Colbert had Bill Moyers as his special guest on "The Colbert Report." Moyers was there to publicize his return from retirement and the launch of his new TV series, "Moyers & Company."
Colbert booked him to help him do just that - but as his on-screen persona as Stephen Colbert, the pontificating political conservative, he was there to throw good-natured verbal punches. And Moyers, just as genially, matched him blow for blow.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")
STEPHEN COLBERT: You keep a calm voice. You never attack the guests on your shows. And I'm here to call bull (bleep). OK?
It's all an act. You sandbag and shiv people with calmness and facts. How is that any better than what I do?
BILL MOYERS: You're from the South.
COLBERT: I am.
MOYERS: You must know the difference between a hoot owl and a screech owl.
MOYERS: The hoot owl crashes into the hen house, knocks the hen off the perch, catches it. The screech owl comes in quietly, gently, snuggles up next to the hen, starts talking gently to the hen.
MOYERS: And the next thing you know, there ain't no hen.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: Later in the same interview, Colbert countered with a piece of breaking news and took his shot, but Moyers stole the ball, slam-dunked it, and got a well-earned ovation from the studio audience. And this, it has to be stressed, was while making a point about politics, economics and big business.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")
COLBERT: We just got this in. Mitt Romney has won the New Hampshire primary with 35.6 percent. Mitt Romney so famously said this summer, corporations are people, my friend.
MOYERS: And as a friend of mine in Texas said, he will believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
BIANCULLI: Clearly, Bill Moyers, during his brief retirement, didn't lose any of his edge, his feistiness, or his sense of humor. But in his new series, "Moyers & Company," he prefers the role of straight man. He's starting off by attacking the exact same subject - the growing economic inequality in our country, and why it's grown, but by listening to, and gathering, the voices and viewpoints of people who are difficult to find on most TV talk shows.
"Moyers & Company," in its way, is difficult to find as well. It's not televised in a nationally standardized PBS time slot - in fact, it's not even televised by PBS. Instead, it's distributed by American Public Television and offered to local PBS member stations on an individual basis. And even though PBS doesn't seem to put a high value on the return of Bill Moyers, local stations do.
"Moyers & Company" is being shown in 93 percent of all TV markets, including 27 out of the Top 30 - a very impressive number. Some stations will air it in prime time on Fridays, others on Saturdays or in the afternoons on Sundays. The easiest way to find where and when it plays in your area is to go to the just-created website, BillMoyers.com, click on schedule, and enter your zip code.
I've seen a rough cut of the premiere telecast, and it's worth the effort to find it. Written by Moyers and Michael Winship, it starts by sampling some dialogue from Oliver Stone's 1987 movie "Wall Street," where Michael Douglas, as Gordon Gekko, boasts...
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL STREET")
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: (As Gordon Gekko) The richest one percent of this country owns half our country's wealth - $5 trillion. One-third of that comes from hard work, two-thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons; and what I do - stock and real estate speculation. You got 90 percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own.
BIANCULLI: The program ends down near the real Wall Street, where it interviews people participating in, and reacting to, the Occupy Wall Street movement in its earliest days. And in between you hear other voices. Like those of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, authors and professors whom Moyers calls the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of political science.
And Amanda Gruebel, a married educator in Iowa who testified before a Senate committee, explaining that while she and her husband both have jobs and Master's degrees, they find it tough to get by. Moyers plays a sample from her Senate testimony, which prompts an illuminating response from Jacob Hacker.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MOYERS & COMPANY")
AMANDA GRUEBEL: When we turn on our TVs, our radios, or pick up our newspapers, we read about what's going on in our federal and state governments and we start to believe that you don't care about us. We hear that corporate welfare continues and that CEOs get six-figure bonuses at taxpayer expense and we wonder who you're working for. And we look across the kitchen table at our families eating Ramen noodles for the third time this week and wonder how that's fair.
We read that the wealthy get bigger tax breaks and hopes that their money will trickle down to us and then we turn the page and read about how our school districts are forced to cut staff, again. We know that money talks around here, and that means you don't hear us.
JACOB HACKER: That is one of the big changes that occurs over this period. Money becomes more important for campaigns and it also becomes much more important in terms of lobbying, which in some ways is the more important way that money changed American politics. It's really the development of lobbying over this last 25, 30 years that stands out as the most dramatic role of money in American politics.
BIANCULLI: And the discussion by no means stops there. Hacker and Pierson, the authors of "Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class," are given time to make, and explain, point after point. And they're discussing a topic which Moyers has pledged to explore with other guests in the next few shows, setting the stage for the election year of 2012.
The first edition of "Moyers & Company," though, is enough to answer several questions, such as: Why did Bill Moyers feel the need to come back? And: Why should viewers make a special effort to seek out his new show? What he's doing is valuable. In fact, even at this early point in the latest, very welcome comeback by Bill Moyers, only one nagging question remains: How long will it be before he books Stephen Colbert?
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You can learn more about Moyers' program and watch his appearance on "The Colbert Report" at our website, freshair.npr.org.