PBS flagship marks 50 years
To understand Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of WNET, you need to know that he really enjoys doing the promos for “Reel 13” – the Saturday night film series – in which bits of dialogue from the upcoming film are woven into his pitch.
“It’s my chance to act with Humphrey Bogart (his favorite), John Wayne, Ingrid Bergman,” he says. “It’s great.”
And his favorite film of all time? “Casablanca,” which Shapiro has seen more than 100 times.
“It’s a great story about love versus noble sacrifice. (Humphrey Bogart’s) giving up Ingrid Bergman is a pretty big sacrifice.”
But a necessary one, because “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” Shapiro says, quoting Bogie.
It’s that spirit of sacrifice and public service that fuels Shapiro’s passion for WNET – the parent company of Thirteen, PBS’ flagship station, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Shapiro could’ve continued a brilliant career in commercial television. When he joined WNET in 2007, he was president of NBC News. Before NBC, he spent 13 years at ABC News. His résumé speaks for itself – 32 Emmys, 31 Edward R. Murrow Awards, three Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Awards, positions on numerous academic and media company boards, plum assignments like the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But Shapiro – who favors shirtsleeves and striking suspenders in the sleek bullpen-style offices WNET occupies on Manhattan’s West Side – wants to touch people’s lives in a way he feels commercial television and cable don’t.
“It’s reaching out to people and partnering with other people,” he says. “It’s part of the reason Thirteen is a success and always has been.”
So the 50th anniversary is “congratulations to all the people at Thirteen and congratulations to all our viewers.”
Eye on New York
While Thirteen is saying “a million thanks” with “Pioneers of Thirteen” – a four-part salute to the station that has given us “American Masters,” “Great Performances,” “Live From Lincoln Center” and “Secrets of the Dead,” among many other memorable series – there’s also the community-minded programming that has been a Thirteen hallmark. It includes the recent “American Graduate Day USA,” spotlighting organizations working with high school dropouts; MetroFocus, which brings local news and cultural coverage to the tristate through a website, app and tips/resources toolbox; NYC-ARTS, a weekly prime-time cultural program hosted by Paula Zahn and Philippe de Montebello; and “Need to Know,” a current affairs newsmagazine anchored from the state-of-the-art Tisch WNET Studios at Lincoln Center. (See sidebar.)
Shapiro – who lives with his wife, ABC News correspondent Juju Chang, and three children in Manhattan – would like to see WNET produce more local and regional news coverage.
“I think we’re a part of the city’s life,” he says, adding that New York in turn is “a role model for what a city looks like. What happens in public education, transportation here has lessons for the whole country.”
This is especially true in the arts.
“We are the center of arts and culture,” Shapiro says. “We are on the cutting edge.”
That’s why WNET shares video and web arts content with other public TV stations that can then tailor it to their needs through the Major Market Group Arts Initiative.
‘Pledge’ of allegiance
Programming takes money. While the public television audience has held and even grown a bit – pbs.org is among the most popular websites – government funding has declined. Public television receives $330 million annually from the federal government, which comes out to about $1.33 per person.
“Governor Romney has talked about eliminating all funding for public television,” Shapiro says. “That would be catastrophic.”
But only 12 to 18 percent of WNET’s $150 million operating budget comes from the federal government, with 10 percent from corporations and 2 to 3 percent from New York state. The rest is from individual donors, hence the dreaded pledge periods that pop up in March, August and December.
“Pledging goes up and down,” he says. “When we’re in dire straits, we do better.”
While Shapiro is open to suggestions – including a joking one to subtract a minute of pledge for every dollar pledged – finding the right format and formula remains a challenge.
“Part of it is figuring out what the audience responds to,” he says.
Recent viewer favorites have included doo-wop specials and concerts by Judy Collins and James Taylor.
“Once we get something good, we run it a lot to make sure people see it.”
In part because Shapiro knows that for some, maybe even many out there, Thirteen may be their only opportunity to see a Collins or a Taylor. And also because the problems of a little public TV station don’t amount to a hill of beans when there are lives to be transformed.
As part of its 50th anniversary, Thirteen has been sharing letters and emails from viewers. One that particularly moved Shapiro was from a viewer who had been a poor immigrant in the Bronx.
“‘Because of you at Thirteen, I had a front-row seat at Lincoln Center, and now I’m a professional dancer,’” Shapiro quotes, adding, “That’s what public television can do.”
They’re the home of “Need to Know,” the Friday night public affairs program, and “MetroFocus,” a multiplatform look at the tristate. They’re where “Vine Talk,” with Katonah-born host Stanley Tucci, and the promos for “NYC-Arts” and “Reel 13” are produced. And they’re where WNET president and CEO Neal Shapiro and Rafael Pi Roman talk about the importance of public broadcasting during pledge week.
They’re the Tisch WNET Studios, a two-story, state-of-the-art facility that opened April 13, 2010, 16 blocks north of the public media company’s headquarters. Though the two studios are not especially large – they total about 1,000 square feet – they pack a wallop, thanks in part to their versatility. Monitors, rear projection and Kino Flo lighting enable producers to create any atmosphere they want. The control room is actually back at headquarters. Black shades and heavy black drapes shut out the noise and the street-level snoops, like the one who stops to peer in at us.
The spaces can just as easily be converted to a reception area and a small lecture hall.
When not in use, the Tisch WNET Studios are part of Lincoln Center tours.
Says Gloria Deucher, WNET’s director of volunteer services, “Just to have this presence at Lincoln Center reminds people of who we are and what we do.”