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Last summer, NJTV hit the airwaves as the state’s new public television station, replacing NJN, which had operated for more than 40 years. Governor Chris Christie spearheaded the change, making it very clear that he no longer wanted the state to foot the bill for the station.

Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of WNET, which operates two public television stations in New York, approached the governor with plans to take over the network. Shapiro has a long history of media successes, including serving as president of NBC News and executive producer of “Dateline.” He has big plans for the new network, believing its time to bring New Jersey out of the shadows of New York and Philadelphia and focus on what this state has to offer.

 

What makes a television station a public station?

It’s your public station. It’s community-owned and community-operated. It’s not commercial. Our job is to do the best programing we can about things that are important. We don’t live and die by ratings. When you work in commercial television, you get rated every morning and every night, and there are consequences to that. Sometimes NJTV has huge audiences and sometimes we don’t. I’d like to have huge audiences, all the time but when we don’t, I don’t say we did the wrong story. I say we have to keep at it, and eventually it will grow. That’s the great thing about public television.

It’s great for our audience to know the things we put on television are not there because we’re trying to get people ages 18 to 24. That’s not our job.

 

How did NJTV get started?

Gov. Christie decided it didn’t make any sense for the state to operate its own television system. I watched from across the river and thought it was very important that New Jersey keep its own public television network. You need one network that is concerned primarily with news by and for the people of New Jersey. Since taxpayer support was going away, the only model I thought was going to work was to leverage a big organization. We needed to leverage the infrastructure we had.

I think it’s important for people to realize it’s not like we got to take over an existing structure. Part of the deal was we got no state facility, so we had to come up with something brand new in no time. We did the best we could. We had a few bumps in the road, and we had a few switches that didn’t turn out the way we thought they would. But over time we’ve made incredible progress.

 

What changes have you made in local programming?

Before we took over, you had about 20 hours of local programming in New Jersey. Now you have 25 hours of local programming. That, to me, in eight months is considerable progress, and you’re seeing a mix of programs, some are old, some are new.

Another difference – some of our programs started in New Jersey and then they aired for a larger audience in New York. We’ve reversed something that used to happen all the time – you’d see a program in New York and then it would finally get to New Jersey. It shouldn’t be that way. There are great things we have in New Jersey, and it’s about time things started in New Jersey and went the other way.

 

What are your plans for daily news coverage?

The centerpiece of what we do is a daily news show. We launched “New Jersey Today” with about three days notice, and the first couple shows looked like we had three days notice. We had a very smallstudio and a very small staff. We said to the governor’s people, ‘Look, it takes some time to start a news operation, so the summer programming is going to be done with a very brief news update and longer extended interviews, but that’s not what it’s going to evolve into.” And I’m delighted to say in a short amount of time we’ve turned it around. We’re getting closer and closer to what we want it to be.

 

What has been a highlight for you since starting the station?

The real measure of a news division is what you do with special events. So election night of 2011 was a real turning point for us. We wanted to demonstrate that we were very serious about covering the state, so we did some things that had never been done before: we had the first state coverage in hi-definition and the first state coverage to use the web, Twitter and Facebook to get people engaged before, during and after the election.

 

Where are the NJTV studios?

We’ve found a great home at Montclair State University. It’s a beautiful hi-def studio. We’re using students as part of it, so it’s a great learning experience for them. And we are going to build a studio right in the state house in Trenton. It will be where the gift shop used to be. Some shows, like “On the Record,” will be recorded right in the building. It will make it much easier to get guests, because the legislators are there.

 

What is the WNET educational program you are bring to NJTV?

Our education programs are something I’m very proud of. We piloted something called Video in Teaching and Learning, or VITAL. Younger kids have grown up in the information age; they’ve grown up using video. So we take our programs, cut them up into little bits and integrate them with state learning requirements. We build lesson plans that anyone can use, and then make them available for free to teachers and students.

When we were kids and we went to English to learn vocabulary, the teacher wrote ambidextrous on the board and said, “Who knows what this means?” The smart kids would get it right away. The not-so-smart kids would get it after the smart kids, and the kids who were disengaged didn’t learn the word. So we take a minute-and-a-half clip from a nature show and put an orangutan up there. We say, “Watch this, this animal is ambidextrous.” Then, because kids love animals, everybody is trying to figure out what the word means. Everybody’s into the game. We know when students see images and words fused together, that’s the best way to learn.

 

Does WNET own NJTV?

No, we have a management agreement. When I first met with the Governor, I said, “This is what I think you should do: I don’t want to buy the station. I think you should keep the tower. For one thing, to try to buy the station would take years. But more importantly, you should keep the tower and the license, because no one knows what that’s worth. In this changing world, no one knows what’s going to happen to media. Is wireless TV going to take off – or not? What’s going to happen with the frequencies? There’s talk in Washington that they’re going to change how the spectrum is allocated – no one knows how that’s going to affect your state. You should let us operate it for you and we’ll keep the system alive.” We have a five-year agreement with provisions to renew it twice. We have to hit certain marks, like the number of hours we cover the state, and report quarterly to the state’s Broadcast Authority.

 

Why doesn’t NJTV air the lottery drawings live like NJN did?

When they did it before, they had a special studio, special talent, and they spent $1.5 million per year to do the drawing live. I don’t have $1.5 million dollars but if I did, I’d rather spend it covering government or business or putting dramas on the air. But I suggested a cheaper way to do it. I said we could take these little cameras, lock them in and if the drawing could take the same amount of time each night, I could use a computer to edit it and get it on the air. They said that couldn’t be done, so now we put the winning numbers on the air. Maybe at some point, someone will give me $1.5 million, or better yet, the lottery people will figure out a way to draw the numbers in the same amount of time each night.

 

How is NJTV funded?

I’m incredibly proud that we took an operation that cost between $22 to 30 million, and it now runs on $10 million. That’s the good news. The bad news is we don’t have $10 million yet. Before, everyone in New Jersey could say they supported public television because their tax dollars did, but now they don’t. So we’re going to ask everyone to step up and be supportive.

 

April 2012
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