By Christopher A. Pape
In the mind of New Yorkers, there are few institutions that have as much gravitas and dignitas as WNET Channel 13. Even for this curmudgeon, I remember, with fondness, watching Sesame Street and Nature (which is actually produced by Channel 13). The station only brings fond memories. But the truth of the matter is that it had become staid - as up-to-date as a typewriter.
That has all changed with the hiring of their new President and CEO, Neal Shapiro. With his many years at NBC he has brought a renewed sense of purpose; infusing this great institution with energy and passion. He sat down with us to talk business and the improvements he has ushered in.
Resident (R): What does it mean to be New Yorker?
Neal Shapiro (NS): It means living in the most exciting city in the world, there is nowhere else like it. I grew up in Albany and I dreamed of living in the city. When I used to read the New York Times as a kid I would see pages and pages on Broadway and even then I couldn’t wait to live here.
R: How did you get into the business?
NS: My first job was at ABC News for 13 years, then NBC News, where I was executive producer of Dateline NBC then president of the News Division and I was there for 13 years again before going to Channel 13.
R: How was your experience at NBC?
NS: It was an interesting time. Looking back, I think people would say I worked in the golden years of broadcast journalism; when I joined NBC, most programs were in rough shape and it was just slowly coming together. One time we were on five nights a week and no other news show had done that. This experience for me was a combination of jumping on News of the Day plus the long form magazine work that I did at ABC. I went back to the 20th anniversary celebration at Dateline and it was great! People said I was the best boss they ever had, and we were doing things then that people had never done before. Afterwards, I was promoted to president of NBC News, which was just before 9/11, which marked the beginning of a very busy time for me up until Hurricane Katrina.
R: Tell us about the move from NBC to here.
NS: When I left NBC, I got called in for an interview at WNET and they asked me what I think of the channel and I said I had always admired it but I said it’s a little like visiting older relatives, you go to the opera but then you leave, I think the channel should reflect the diversity of the city, and then they said that’s right!
R: Can you try to enumerate the differences you brought to the station?
NS: Well, when I got here I tried to bring my past experiences. Recession made us downsize from 510 to 380. We are more productive now. We are more technological savvy and we built a new studio in Lincoln Center, which has a camera run by remote control. When people give us money I want to ensure that they get the best resources on screen and cut out anything that gets in the way. It is all about efficiency. Our job is to serve the public.
R: What are the challenges you have faced in public TV compared to public radio; how is fundraising different?
NS: I think radio is doing better at the moment; we are similarly challenged. Radio is cheaper to do so you can do a lot more with it for the same amount of money, and the other advantage for a lot of people is that you get an audience at drive-time in the morning and evening. I think public media is great on both sides. Laura Walker, who runs WNYC, is terrific and we spend a lot of time worrying about content and raising money. I think when TV does things the experience is more profound; people have an unforgettable moment on TV but not so much on radio. Pictures and words together are a powerful combination.
R: How do you keep in touch with New Yorkers?
NS: In one sense it’s impossible because it’s a gigantic market, but the ways you can are through social media; we get calls, write-ins and views; they tell us their thoughts. We form links with other parts of the community such as education and social services. We just finished a survey to get a sense of how New Yorkers view public TV.
R: And how do they view it?
NS: Well, there is a half not watching, but that means there is a half that does. There is a halo effect to public TV, a stamp of quality; if it’s on our air they know it’s good. Sesame Street has given a good childhood memory to PBS.
R: Could you talk about MetroFocus and what other shows have you brought in?
NS: I changed movies to Saturday night, and I did promos which were great fun. We have done more independent movies and short movies locally made, we brought an art show called Sunday Arts, which also moved to Channel 21 and then we moved it to primetime. We changed the name to NYC-Arts; it’s been a huge success. From this summer we will be sharing content with other stations. We hope to make a monthly show in fall for Metro Focus; a cross between smart interviews and great stories because we think local news is a great angle. The more important issues like education, health care, poverty and infrastructure, aren’t covered on a very informational basis. We want to tap in to all the talent in New York.
R: You have a program that helps high school students to finish school and graduate?
NS: The high school dropout crisis is one of the biggest crises in the nation, barely 50% of kids graduate! That number is astonishingly low and we need to raise awareness for that not just in New York but also across the nation. New York is at the fulcrum for that, so we will do an informational telethon on Saturday, September 22nd. Every half hour, we will highlight different organizations that help to alleviate the dropout rates. People can donate money, or offer to be a volunteer or mentor. It gives non-profit organizations a chance to reach many, many people that they normally could not.
R: Is there a new development for next year, a sneak peak?
NS: Well we are celebrating our 50th next year so one thing we are doing is digging through archives to find things and highlight the best of ‘50s, ‘60s and so on. Every day we are finding new stuff and interviewing new people. It’s very exciting! •
Pioneers of THIRTEEN, The ‘60s – Experimental Days will air Monday, September 17, at 8 pm on THIRTEEN.