That didn’t last long. Just 20 months after retiring his PBS series “Bill Moyers Journal,” Mr. Moyers was back in the studio on a Wednesday morning in December, deep in conversation about moral political psychology with the author Jonathan Haidt.
The interview veered from Manichean thinking among baby boomers to the social conservative understanding of karma, all as it related to the roots of the country’s political divide. Mr. Moyers worked his way through a sheaf of notes, as the scheduled 90 minutes stretched a good hour longer. (“This is fun,” he said to his guest during a pause.) Emerging from the studio, he said he had decided mid-interview that the discussion would probably take up the entire hour on his new weekly program, rather than be a 20-minute segment.
“Bill Moyers Journal” ended in April 2010 because Mr. Moyers, now 77, said he needed a break from the incessant demands of weekly television. But there’s no sign he is easing up this time around.
The new show, which begins this month on public television stations, has a different name, “Moyers & Company,” and a warmer set, featuring a blue-and-green background. But much will carry over from the old program, including Mr. Moyers’s thoughtful interviews with thinkers who wouldn’t otherwise get much television face time and a focus on the country’s most pressing political and economic questions. “I’m coming back because in tumultuous times like these I relish the company of people who try to make sense of the tumult,” Mr. Moyers writes on his Web site, billmoyers.com.
In an interview in his sprawling new Manhattan office he said that during his break he explored the possibility of a documentary on Lyndon B. Johnson, the president he served as press secretary, but decided that “today is more interesting than yesterday.” Also a factor: the passionate viewers who write him by the hundreds and stop him on the street to talk about his past programs like “On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying,” from 2000.
Aided by 30 employees (just over half that of “Journal”), Mr. Moyers has banked interviews in recent weeks with the former Reagan budget chief David Stockman, the former Citibank chief executive John S. Reed and the poet Rita Dove (with whom he read “The Hill” by Edgar Lee Masters). He also held a marathon four-hour chat with the political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, authors of “Winner-Take-All Politics,” which he called “the most important book I’ve read” since ending the old show; it will provide the backbone for his first three episodes.
The seeds of Mr. Moyers’s return were planted several months after his last show ended by Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
When “Bill Moyers Journal” ended, “I was very sad,” Mr. Gregorian said in a telephone interview, praising the host’s intelligence and “the respect with which he approached everyone, whether he agreed with them, to know their ideas.” Mr. Moyers, he added, helps in “enlightening our democracy” — a Carnegie mission — by putting “before our nation questions that we should discuss.” The Carnegie Corporation, which was instrumental in the founding of public television, gave Mr. Moyers a lead gift of $2 million for the new show.
In an odd twist, however, “Moyers & Company” is not being distributed by PBS, but by American Public Television, a separate distribution service. Viewers will find it at a hodgepodge of times, but Mr. Moyers is so popular that many stations are scheduling multiple broadcasts. In New York WNET will run it on Sundays at 6 p.m. starting on Jan. 15, with a rebroadcast Mondays at 10 p.m.
Mr. Moyers said he was unsure why PBS, where he has spent most of his career since 1971, declined the show for its main schedule. Some public television executives, who would not publicly comment on a sensitive issue, said they believed that PBS did not want to realign itself with Mr. Moyers, a longtime target of some conservatives, as it was fighting to keep its federal financing.
In a statement a PBS spokeswoman, Anne Bentley, said of Mr. Moyers that “we respect him immensely and the outstanding work he has done,” and that PBS had discussed carrying the show. She did not address why he wasn’t offered a prime spot. PBS will, however, stream the show at video.pbs.org.
No longer tied to PBS, Mr. Moyers was free to create his own Web site, where for the first time much of his work, old and new, will be in one place. He is soliciting viewer participation, writing: “This will be a political series but not a partisan one. In the conversation of democracy, everyone’s invited. That means you too.”
In the interview Mr. Moyers added that with the Web site, “we don’t have to worry about somebody at PBS losing sleep over the fact that David Stockman says the Republicans have lost their minds on taxes.”
His return comes as public television executives are debating their path: More “Downton Abbey,” or local and national news? So far public affairs programming is losing. PBS canceled “Now” when “Bill Moyers Journal” ended; the replacement show “Need to Know” was recently trimmed from one hour to 30 minutes.
Yet, Mr. Moyers noted, PBS announced an additional version of “Antiques Roadshow” just a few weeks after the Census Bureau released figures showing the number of people living in poverty had risen to more than 46 million.
“I love ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ ” he added. “But it is just symbolic of how we’re not connected viscerally to the state of the American people right now.”
In November he called for executives at local stations to come to grips with financing and governance issues that he contends threaten public television’s future.
“We’re just hanging on, leaking away, fraying at the margins, scrambling year by year to survive, hoping all the while for what in an era of trillion-dollar deficits and austerity will never be: more and more funding from Congress,” he said in a speech to his colleagues. “What we need is a makeover of our own” to help “realize the goals of our founders: diversity, public access, civic discourse, experimentation, a welcoming place for independent spirits.”
Many stations are already on that path, said Rich Homberg, president of Detroit Public Television, adding, “I think we need an army of people to read that speech and go act on it.” He said Mr. Moyers has been “an important voice for a long time, and we welcome him back.”