Volume 17 • Issue 8 / July 16 - 22, 2004

Young guns running the city’s TV network

By Erica Stein

Downtown Express photo by Ramin Talaie

Seth Unger, NYC TV’s 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 weren’t going to be able to steal people from NBC, so they took a chance on us,” he said.

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.

The city’s 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 city’s 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 network’s official Web site.

One of NYC TV’s first programs, “City Drive Live” – a half-hour, constantly updated report on traffic conditions throughout the city – and the channel’s daily coverage of the mayor, council and other government functions, might be found on any of the country’s more than 1,000 public education and government channels. But Seth Unger and Arick Wierson, NYC TV’s 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 you’ve 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 wouldn’t get to see on MTV”) and an endorsement of small businesses: “if you own an indie record label, then that’s what you are.” The food show, “Cooking at Gracie Mansion,” provides culinary tips to viewers, a look inside the mayor’s 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 TV’s creative director. Unger, 29, lives in the West Village and worked in event promotion before becoming a city employee. “I’m not government. I’ve always worked in entertainment. I came in to make it something it wasn’t. 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 Bloomberg’s mayoral campaign and, after learning that City Hall wanted to improve the network, approached the administration with their vision. “They knew they weren’t 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, ‘don’t cut my budget, cut police?’ ”

Wierson compensated for the cuts by rethinking NYC TV’s 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 weren’t. Then I had to think what I could do differently from other channels.” Wierson’s 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 it’s like there.”

Wierson says he’s 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 don’t, we show it. We’re meant to be a window into government. But there’s no reason I can’t shoot the meetings or hearings in widescreen and make them look slick so people will want to watch.”

Unger says “We’re in more than 2 million homes. If you get basic cable in this city, you get us. And I’ve 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 it’s 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. “They’re not interns,” says Unger. “Interns make coffee. Ours make TV shows. They’re people who want to volunteer for the city. Half of it’s 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 we’ve officially had the program. We’re halfway through and it’s 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 it’s 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 network’s manager of post-production and overseer of the internship program, said it is a great opportunity. “I keep telling the kids this isn’t 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, we’ll air it. You want to do something about City Hall Park? It’s on. You can’t do that anywhere else.”


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