If Down East were a television program, it might look like 207. Launched by WCSH6 in the fall of 2003, the nightly half-hour TV magazine show named for Maine’s area code features interviews with interesting Mainers, music, dance, and comedy performances, and cooking segments with the state’s best chefs. Sometimes hosts Kathleen Shannon and Rob Caldwell step out of the familiar brick studio and take viewers on a journey, say, behind the scenes at the B&M baked bean factory or aboard a nuclear submarine at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. On the occasion of 207’s tenth anniversary, we asked executive producer Becki Smith to reflect on the show’s success.
207 is a bit of a phenomenon. It’s very popular. How did the concept come about?
It’s one of the few shows of its kind across the country, so it’s a rarity, and even more so because it’s been successful for a decade. The concept began with our general manager at the time, Steve Thaxton, who wanted a local show in the 7 p.m. hour. It was exciting to start a new show. It’s like having a baby: you get to be right in it at the very beginning and shape it.
In the beginning we saw it as more of a news show following the NBC Nightly News. Our local news airs from 6 to 6:30 p.m., so the thought was we would recap the news headlines and the weather for those folks just getting home. The part of the show that is more like the 207 that you know today didn’t begin until about 7:13 in that half hour.
How long did you do it that way, and why did you change it?
We ran it that way for a few months. What we heard from our viewers is that they’d had enough news and weather by 7 p.m. They just wanted to relax and be entertained rather than be informed again.
Who was the featured guest on the first show?
Tim Sample, who rode up on his motorcycle. And we did a pre-produced story on the Portland Boxing Club. It was chilling to sit in the booth and watch the show that we had started planning in June finally hit the air in September.
What is 207’s viewership?
About thirty to thirty-five thousand people watch 207 on average each night, according to Nielsen. We reach close to one million viewers in Maine and New Hampshire [a program’s reach is the number of TV watchers in its viewing area]. We do that both through television and through the Web. We’re now live-streamed — that’s one of the biggest changes in the ten years. The other big change is the role of social media. When we started, we heard from viewers through emails and phone calls. Now we also hear from people through our Facebook page, through tweets — there are so many more ways that people can interact with us.
Does that make 207 the number one show in Maine in terms of viewership?
Unfortunately, we’re number two. Wheel of Fortune beats us — but we’re gaining on them!
What is your most memorable show?
We always love our anniversary shows because it’s fun to look back. When you do this on a daily basis, you’re so wrapped up in what you’re doing today and what you’re planning for tomorrow that you lose track of what you’ve done.
We are humbled by the number of people who we’ve met — by the musicians we’ve been able to bring to the forefront, by the authors we’ve been able to talk to about their books, by the politicians who have been willing to give us their time. We’ve talked to three of the five living presidents and three first ladies. We benefit from the New Hampshire primary being close to us — we borrow a little from area code 603!
Who were those presidents and first ladies?
President Bush 41, President Clinton twice, and President Obama. We’ve talked to Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Barbara Bush.
Did they come to the studio?
We went to them. But some of them weren’t too far away — President Clinton was at Becky’s Diner.
We’re happy to go to people, happy to have them come to us. In July we went to New York and talked with Mainer Andrea Martin, who had just won a Tony for her work in Pippin. We’ve had Roger McGuinn from The Byrds come to us. We’ve gone to the Lobster Festival in Rockland to talk to Don Rickles.
Which celebrities made a lasting impression?
Don Rickles was especially fun. He truly never stopped joking. At the same time, he is probably one of the warmest people we’ve ever met.
President Obama was interesting because when he walked into the room, he didn’t go to the person he knew would be talking to him; rather, he immediately went to the youngest person — a person who was probably too young to even vote for him.
President Clinton has an incredible charisma. You hear about it, but when you’re actually there . . . well, it’s probably stronger than anyone’s charisma I’ve ever seen.
John Bisbee, the artist, was a real character — fun to be with, exceptionally talented, and totally himself.
And then David McCullough, the author — you just want to sit and listen to him forever. You wish he’d been your grandpa with all his stories. He makes history come alive like no one else.
Tell us about some of the more unusual segments that took you outside the studio or otherwise departed from the show’s routine.
We did a series where Rob and Kathy went back and relived their old summer jobs. Kathy was a lifeguard, so she went back to a pool and lifeguarded again. Rob was a deckhand on Casco Bay Lines. He says he’d take that job any day!
We did a series where we went to all of the surrounding area codes for a day. We went to Vermont  and visited the Ben & Jerry’s factory. We went to Rhode Island  and visited the Newport mansions. We went to Boston [857/617] and did a Chinatown tour.
We did a show modeled on America’s Got Talent called News Center’s Got Talent, featuring some of our on-air staff’s hidden expertise — [anchor and reporter] Caroline Cornish played the violin. [Anchor] Cindy Williams, who is from New Orleans, has cooked Cajun food for us. We had Norman the Scooter Dog come on. The range is mind blowing —from presidents to dogs that ride scooters!
People love the cooking shows, don’t they?
They’re very popular. We’re able to track through our website which recipes the audience is most interested in.
What’s the all-time favorite?
Whoopie pies. There was a year when Amy Bouchard’s whoopie pies received more hits than any other news story for the year. She received tens of thousands of hits. So when they call her the whoopie pie queen, they’re not kidding.
When you have a guest come on and cook, what happens to the food after the show is over?
If they’re really nice guests, they leave it for us to eat, and the whole building enjoys it. But sometimes the food is made in such a way that it’s made for television and it’s not really edible because it hasn’t been cooked enough.
What is most surprising to first-time guests?
They all comment on how small the studio is. It looks much bigger on TV than it is.
And what would viewers be most surprised to learn about 207?
They’d be surprised at how many requests we get from people who want to be on the show. We get two hundred to three hundred requests for bookings per day.
Wow! How do you decide which ones to book?
We do it as a team — the producers, the talent, the cameramen, the social media manager. We look through every book and listen to every CD that gets sent. We review every email suggestion. We’re looking for what will appeal to our audience and what has the broadest appeal. Some ideas are wonderful ideas, but they may be better suited for a news story. Our segments are longer than the average news story, so there needs to be enough meat to them to hold a viewer’s attention for four or five minutes. Others, like investigative stories, are too big for us.