NEW YORK — In a television world larded with topical talk shows, Carlos Watson and Denise DiIanni faced the challenge of finding a new idea that could be palatable to typical PBS viewers and a younger audience that often tunes out this type of programming.
Their solution, “Third Rail with OZY,” is midway through a two-month run Friday nights on PBS. Its originators hope that lasts much longer.
Watson, editor in chief of the online news site OZY.com and Dilanni, executive in charge of the program for Boston’s WGBH, fashioned a program that brings in experts to debate big ideas beneath news stories of the day.
For instance, two of the first topics addressed were whether America was becoming more or less racist, and whether truth was overrated and lying had become the American way. In asking whether or not America should be the world’s cop, Watson tied it to the news by discussing President Donald Trump’s speech before the United Nations.
“I grew up remembering that (Phil) Donahue and Ted Koppel could not just capture the conversation of the moment but put big, difficult things on the table,” Watson said.
Watson moderates a discussion that features two people on each side with an occasional extra to offer additional insight. For instance, author Malcolm Gladwell deepened a truth-telling episode that occasionally sounded simplistic or became sidetracked in political squabbles.
Producers have gone beyond familiar pundits to find participants not often seen in these roles: actor and Harvard graduate Hill Harper, basketball player Michael Williams, author Roxane Gay, CBS reporter Mo Rocca, former CIA analyst Yael Eisenstat and a campaign director for President Donald Trump from Georgia, Seth Weathers.
Gay added some wry humor to her appearance. “Do young people lie more?” she asked. “I can’t tell. I teach fiction.”
A weakness is the show’s failure to use onscreen chyrons to remind people who these experts are as the shows go on.
“It’s absolutely critical that we have a variety of voices,” Watson said, “and a variety in my mind doesn’t mean four of the same old people and one that is slightly younger. We’ve got to take some chances and we’ve got to mix it up. I have to say to people’s credit that they want to be part of the conversation.”
Watson seeks common ground among the debaters. No members of the panel discussing the nation’s role in the world, a topic triggered by Trump’s “America first” ethos, was eager to see the country get into further military action.
“Third Rail” has found that so far, more people stream episodes online than watch on TV.
“We’re very bullish on this show,” DiIanni said. “We’re very excited and we’re getting a lot of encouraging early signals from our colleagues. We have a big vision of having this show become a staple of the talk and public affairs programs that PBS offers.”