Young guns running the citys TV network
By Erica Stein
Imagine C-SPAN interspersing its interminable steady-cam coverage of the House floor with MTV2, IFC and the History Channel. The result would be something like the broadcast schedule NYC TV.
Downtown Express photo by Ramin Talaie
Seth Unger, NYC TVs 29-year-old creative director, in his Municipal Building office said the city has given him a chance to run a network. They knew they werent going to be able to steal people from NBC, so they took a chance on us, he said.
The citys official network, NYC TV, technically consists of channels 71 through 75, but the flagship station and focus of much of its creators energy is channel 74.
The network, whose production office is located on the 28th floor of the Municipal Building and is administered by the citys Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, was launched in June of 2003 to replace the decade-old Crosswalks and is now available in 2 million homes and on the networks official Web site.
One of NYC TVs first programs, City Drive Live a half-hour, constantly updated report on traffic conditions throughout the city and the channels daily coverage of the mayor, council and other government functions, might be found on any of the countrys more than 1,000 public education and government channels. But Seth Unger and Arick Wierson, NYC TVs creative director and general manager, have a definition of government TV that extends far beyond the norm.
NYC TV has created more than 30 new series since its launch, and many of the most popular Tribeca Film Festival, $9.99, New York Noise bear little resemblance to traditional government programming. What youve got to remember, says Unger, is that government touches every part of life in the city. We have a Department of Cultural Affairs helping artists. We have parks and museums and free concerts. All of that is part of government. Unger prefers programming that ties two or more strands of government together.
The music video-based New York Noise, for example, he regards both as a showcase for the arts (we try to play only videos directed by New Yorkers or performed by local bands that you wouldnt get to see on MTV) and an endorsement of small businesses: if you own an indie record label, then thats what you are. The food show, Cooking at Gracie Mansion, provides culinary tips to viewers, a look inside the mayors house and a trip to each of the five boroughs as the hosts and the chef hunt for ingredients.
The programming on NYC TV would have been unthinkable on Crosswalks, which, in its 10-year history, never had a programming schedule or an hour-long series.
At the launch, the mayor said we put this thing in the hands of two kids, said Seth Unger, NYC TVs creative director. Unger, 29, lives in the West Village and worked in event promotion before becoming a city employee. Im not government. Ive always worked in entertainment. I came in to make it something it wasnt. When we got here the equipment was dilapidated, there was no schedule. It was just constant Council meetings and one 10-minute show. No one was watching, said Unger.
Unger and Wierson, 32, a former investment banker and resident of Battery Park City, worked on Bloombergs mayoral campaign and, after learning that City Hall wanted to improve the network, approached the administration with their vision. They knew they werent going to be able to steal people from NBC, so they took a chance on us, Unger says.
They had to contend with the loss of one-third of their budget. There was a deficit, Unger said. What am I going to say, dont cut my budget, cut police?
Wierson compensated for the cuts by rethinking NYC TVs production budget. There was a focus operationally on using large expensive sophisticated equipment, says Wierson. An editing system can cost thousands of dollars. They were using Avids, which are basic film editing machines. But I can run six G5s with Final Cut Pro for the same price.
With a capital budget of about $7 million, Wierson and Unger depend on pre-existing resources such as independently shot footage to create a full programming schedule. In the beginning, I said that we do compete with other stations, said Wierson. Not for advertisers, but for viewers. So I had to figure out what I could give the viewers that they should be getting from us but werent. Then I had to think what I could do differently from other channels. Wiersons first project was City Drive Live, with Dept. of Transportation information.
A lot of the local stations do traffic updates, but they only focus on where traffic is, a few spots. The D.O.T. has traffic cameras all over the city. So say you want to know if you should take the F.D.R. or the Westside Highway. If you watch City Drive, within five minutes we cycle through to a shot of F.D.R. and you know what its like there.
Wierson says hes also tried to give the Council coverage a more professional edge by shooting it in widescreen or letterbox format: obviously, we never editorialize. Anything that happens, if we like it or if we dont, we show it. Were meant to be a window into government. But theres no reason I cant shoot the meetings or hearings in widescreen and make them look slick so people will want to watch.
Unger says Were in more than 2 million homes. If you get basic cable in this city, you get us. And Ive got people watching shows, which is great. But then, whenever there needs to be a P.S.A., I know I can get it to those people. Maybe its flu season. So I air a 60-second spot reminding people to get a flu shot right after $9.99 or I remind them about a free concert or nyc.gov or using 311.
Both Unger and Wierson say they have indicators that the network is doing well. I get e-mails from viewers all the time, says Unger. That never happened before. And some of them are from other parts of the country, because we stream on the Web site 24-hours a day. I have similar stations in Tuscon and Texas calling for advice.
Another way NYC TV compensates for its budget and small staff there are only 38 people in the production office in the Municipal Building is its Summer Production Associates program. Theyre not interns, says Unger. Interns make coffee. Ours make TV shows. Theyre people who want to volunteer for the city. Half of its running errands, but the other half is actually putting together shows. They leave knowing how to use the technology and with reels. This summer is the first time weve officially had the program. Were halfway through and its going very well.
Unger says that while some of the associates had at least a rudimentary knowledge of editing software, many, like Andrew Atiya, a student at Vanderbilt University who is home for the summer, knew nothing at all.
I met Seth at a party, says Atiya. He told me about the job, which sounded really cool. Since beginning the three-month program, Atiya has honed his post-production and editing skills on such shows as Steel Band Panorama. This episode is about the finals in one of the competitions. Atiya points to the screen of his iMac: This is really cool. The West Indian culture is interesting, and its really well shot. The people who do the contest shoot it themselves with about 6 cameras so it looks good, and then we cut in interviews and crowd reaction and graphics.
Walter Garaicoa, the networks manager of post-production and overseer of the internship program, said it is a great opportunity. I keep telling the kids this isnt like any other station, he said. If you have a good idea, if you shoot good footage, if you want to do something new, go out and do it. If you do well or we can fix it in post, well air it. You want to do something about City Hall Park? Its on. You cant do that anywhere else.