NEW YORK - Wearing what is meant to be a sheepish smile, Bill Moyers greets a reporter by acknowledging that, yes, twice before just in the past decade, he has launched a much-acclaimed public affairs TV series, then called it quits, professing to be done with television - only to launch yet another such show a couple of years later.
He is doing it again. At age 77, this self-proclaimed "citizen journalist" re-engages with his audience when "Moyers & Company" premieres on public television stations across the country this weekend. It can be seen locally at noon Sunday on WHYY-TV 12.
"We will not be doing the extensive field reporting; we will not be doing the high-production-value stories this time," he notes, conceding that "Moyers & Company" will be a bit more lean and mean than such past series as "Bill Moyers Journal" (2007-2010) and, before it, "Now With Bill Moyers" (2002 to 2004).
But "Moyers & Company" will be gratefully received by anyone who has followed his TV career, which began four decades ago, after several years with President Lyndon Johnson, whom he served as special assistant and press secretary, and after a stint as deputy director of the Peace Corps, and after a stretch as publisher of the Long Island newspaper Newsday. (The Texas native's resume also includes a divinity degree: He's an ordained Baptist minister.)
"'Moyers & Company' will essentially be my probing other people's ideas, and intelligence, and experiences," he says.
This brand-new weekly hour promises to be no less important, thoughtful and far-flung in its interests than his past TV projects, addressing subjects that range from politics to poetry, and with a nuanced approach that defies the polarization endemic to most TV interview programs.
Oddly, Moyers first considered leaving television as a TV newcomer. Then in his 30s, he was hosting a public-television interview show called "This Week With Bill Moyers," but couldn't quite crack the TV style.
"This isn't working," he remembers his producer tell-ing him that first season. "You're not an undertaker!"
"I was ready to retire," Moyers recalls, "and go back to newspapering."
But the producer urged him to give it another try and, when he was on the air, to imagine he was speaking to just one, familiar person. He chose his grandmother.
"And it really did work," he says. "It was a turning point." The next season the program was renamed "Bill Moyers Journal" and began to catch on.
Only years later did Moyers tell his grandmother she had been his designated viewer while he did his show.
"But I've been curious," he asked her. "Did you watch?"
"She said, 'Oh, I never missed a program.' And I said, 'What did you think?' And she replied, 'I thought you were so pretty!'"
Moyers laughs affectionately. "It didn't matter what I said!"
But it has always mattered to Moyers. However unapologetic about his own liberal views, he is a humanist who investigates the world with a calm, reasoned perspective and robust curiosity in the service of his audience: "I'll turn the corner and run into an idea and I say, 'I've got to share this. I've got to tell others about this.'"
No wonder TV has always exerted a special siren call for him. Over and over.
When he came back to TV in April 2007 he dusted off the name "Bill Moyers Journal" from 1972, which "seemed fitting for this last round," he said at the time, certain it was the last round.
Then it wasn't.
"I couldn't exactly tell you why I came back," Moyers says now, during a chat in the mid-Manhattan offices of Public Affairs Television, the production company he founded a quarter-century ago. "Except, nothing else was as interesting. I had done some writing and speaking, but I love television. It lets me work with colleagues and comrades. And I had breath and I had energy and I had funders."
Through the years, Public Affairs Television has raised every cent for its hundreds of hours of documentaries and series, and there were funders standing by, ready for word that Moyers was prepared to slip out of retirement again.
"The Carnegie Foundation primed the pump," he says, "and in four weeks I'd raised the money."
"Moyers & Company" is thus funded for two years, at which point, Moyers declares, he'll be 80 and will definitely, finally retire.
The series will be primarily interviews - or, in Moyers' hands, meaty conversations.
But the first three hours are actually a self-contained documentary inspired when, in summer 2010, Moyers discovered "Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class," by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.
The book deals with "the gross inequality that has overtaken us, and how it was politically engineered," Moyers says. "Most people think it was the result of globalization and the invisible hand of the free market. But in fact it was created by political decisions in Washington under the influence of powerful players from the corporate and financial world."
Moyers met with the two authors, who agreed to cooperate in producing the documentary. Last fall, Moyers interviewed them on-camera. He also sent a film crew to the lower Manhattan site of Occupy Wall Street, where self-identified members of the
99 percent had flocked.
"Through that process," says Moyers, "I made the decision to come back with a weekly series.
"Things just happened," he says, "and I couldn't say no to the knock on the door. I might have been the one knocking - but I couldn't say no."
'Moyers & Company'
Premieres noon Sunday on WHYY-TV 12