When the independent station taking up space at Channel 13 became a non-commercial station, history was made. It was September 16, 1962. CBS News icon Edward R. Murrow introduced new WNDT (New Dimensions in Television), thus unveiling New York City’s first educational TV station. (Watch the video clip below)
Murrow opened the initial telecast saying, “Tonight, you join me on a great adventure… This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, yes, and it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.”
So it is only fitting that FishbowlNY honors the remarkable achievement with a series of articles commemorating the 50th anniversary of Channel 13.
FishbowlNY recently sat down with WNET president and CEO, Neal Shapiro.
While searching for clips to use in an anniversary documentary/retrospective, Shapiro says Channel 13, which became WNET in 1970, felt like more like a museum, unearthing station artifacts.
“Fifty years ago, the station was just starting and having to reinvent everything,” Shapiro tells FishbowlNY. “Fifty years later, we’re still doing some of that because in the process of discovering our history in turns out things were stored sort of haphazardly. The mediums are different…much of it uncatalogued.”
Shapiro became WNET’s sixth president and CEO in 2007, after many years at NBC and ABC.
Unlike his long commercial television career, Shapiro recognizes public TV is all about getting “Viewers Like You” for its revenue streams.
“Our big goal is to increase awareness and remind people about what our last 50 [years] have been like and where we want to,” Shapiro says. “We have a goal–we’d like to get 50,000 new members.”
WNET used the anniversary as another opportunity to say thanks to its loyal subscribers.
“We would not be here and would not be on the air to this day without the support of the public,” Shapiro admits.
The former NBC News president, Shapiro acknowledges getting a pit in his stomach twice a day when ratings were released. It’s not the case, though, at PBS, where Nielsen numbers take a backseat to quality programming.
“What are programs we think are important?” Shapiro asks. “What will resonate with the audience?”
He says that is especially true today, as WNET acts as a “counterbalance” to the myriad of reality-based TV shows.
“It’s empty calories. You watch it and it’s over,” Shapiro contends. “I don’t think people are still having big discussions about season one of Survivor and how it changed their lives. But shows in public television, people do have those discussions. People remember Bill Moyers‘ series from years ago. They’re so important to them.”
Those people have relied on Thirteen to fill a broadcasting void with programs about history, arts, and culture. With that mind, WNET used its milestone to ask viewers for feedback, what the shows meant to them. One longtime member grew up in humble circumstances in the Bronx. Her family never had the time, working several jobs, or money, to take the woman.
“Thanks to Thirteen, I had a front row seat and I’m a professional dancer,” Shapiro recalls the woman’s thoughts. “I found my life’s calling by watching public television.”
More widespread, Shapiro points to the millions of preschoolers (and illiterate adults) that learned to read and write by watching Sesame Street.
Another big transition for Shapiro moving to WNET was having an education department, something he never had in commercial television.
“This department’s goal is to make sure we take all the material we have and we integrate into free material for classes,” Shapiro says. “We’re an extension of America’s classroom.”
They treat that responsibility with gravitas, even more so because schools today are increasingly axing arts and culture from their curriculum. That strong committment to arts and culture was not prevalent on Thirteen in the pre-Shapiro era.
“We use our material to help teachers teach. We take little bite sized bits of video and we integrate it with the New York State Regents.”
Accentuating the station’s role as a electronic media educator, the 50th anniversary affords WNET the chance to further give back with a seven-hour special, American Graduate Day.
“It’s a year long effort we, and other PBS stations, have done to cut the dropout rate,” Shapiro says. “In New York, it’s particularly important. Given the size of our city, we probably have more dropout factors than any other city, just because we have the largest school system in the country.”
Although American Graduate Day is technically a telethon, Shapiro says the purpose to raise awareness not money. During the program, the work of several non-profit organizations will be highlighted, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Boys Club.
“The next step we see in us becoming engaged in the City is really about engaging with the community,” Shapiro admits. “It’s not just the great programs we do, it’s getting people involved, and using media to bring people together.”
WNET also has plans to bring people to the screens with a new series, Treasures of New York. It expands on the popular walking tours that David Hartman and historian Barry Lewis gave viewers.
“They were great. But we’ve walked everywhere we can walk,” Shapiro says.
So instead, with Treasures, detours and deep dives are taken into specific, historic buildings. The first installment is the Lincoln Center campus.
Plans are also in the works for the third prong of WNET news broadcast, MetroFocus. It started on the Web last year, later adding mobile device capability. Shapiro says three pilots were recorded over the summer. Once green lighted in October, it would be scheduled first monthly, before having a weekly presence, “and then, maybe even a daily show,” Shapiro says knocking on the table, indicating the superstitious “knock on wood.”
When MetroFocus does reach the air on WNET, the local newscast will have public television sensibilities.
“The idea is to borrow some of the smart conversation that Charlie Rose does with stories to cover the things that aren’t being covered by commercial television,” Shapiro says. “When we local news, we’re not going to do traffic jams or the crime of the day.”
Aside from the special programming and new shows, Shapiro takes personal satisfaction in helming WNET for such a milestone.
“I feel this is a trust,” Shapiro says. “I have been given this incredible opportunity and this obligation to run this incredible institution.”
But as WNET embarks on its next half-century, Shapiro admits it must evolve for survival.
“The media world is changing, maybe changing faster than almost any other part of our culture,” Shapiro says. “We need to change with it. On one hand we need to be true to our legacy and maintain all those qualities, and a lot of the great programs that we have. And also recognize if we don’t stop, we’ll be antiquated and we’ll go away.”