WNET CEO Neal Shapiro on NYC viewing habits - and that tote bag
Neal Shapiro, 54, is president and CEO of WNET, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this September. He lives on the UWS, with his wife, the journalist Juju Chang, and their three boys, Jared, 11, Travis, 8 and Mason, 4.
What would you most like to see accomplished in NYC?
No more injuries to the Yankees!
In your tenure at WNET, what have you learned about the viewing habits of New Yorkers?
New Yorkers are very curious and have a wide range of interests. You'd be wrong to profile people based on their age or what they do for a living. You'll have a business executive addicted to Downton Abbey and the ballet. People who are new to this country will quote me things from Nature and Nova verbatim. Everybody's favorite topic is themselves, so it's not surprising that when we do something with an ethnic component (like "The Irish in America," "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience" or "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews") people with some kind of connection to that are more inclined to watch, but our viewers really love to celebrate the diversity of NYC and learn about other cultures, too.
What is your favorite WNET show?
That's like asking, "which of your children do you love the best?" I love them all! I love them all in different ways.
Were you a member of the Downton Abbey Addiction Club?
I was shocked how much I loved Downton Abbey. I rarely get hooked on English dramas, but I even told my wife -- she's very busy, so I try to be careful about telling her what she needs to watch -- "You have to see this." We sat down to watch Season One at 7 p.m. on a Saturday and finished Sunday at 3 a.m. We watched all of Season One straight through.
What made that particular show so sticky?
It managed to take all those great values that PBS brings combined with more modern story telling techniques. The rhythm of the show is much faster paced (than those of Upstairs/Downstairs and other English dramas). There are more scenes in the show and more things happen. They use steady cams. People are dancing and the camera is swirling right around with them.
Do your kids have to watch Sesame Street and educational shows all the time, or do you let them view brain candy?
They get to watch some things I wish they wouldn't. My oldest son likes some Disney comedy that is popular with 'tweens. We have five TVs -- we can't monitor them all the time. They watch a lot of public television, but I don't want to make things forbidden.
New Yorkers watching your Saturday night movies know they are presented with the help of the Sy Syms Foundation. With the Syms and its sister stores, Filene's Basement, going bankrupt, will WNET's Saturday night movies be affected?
The Foundation is separate from the company. Funding is not affected.
Speaking of funding, nonprofits are really suffering in the current climate. What are you doing to guarantee yourselves another 50 years?
It's a challenging environment, no question, but there are positives: The cost of production has come down a lot. We can research things more easily, edit more easily and shoot more easily. There are challenges, but public TV fills in the gaps of commercial television's market failures. We don't sell tickets to amusement parks, so our shows about education are really what educators think are best. If you care about arts and culture, symphonies, music, dance and art -- well, there's no commercial market that covers that.
Are you one of those stereotypical Upper West Siders schlepping around your Channel 13 tote bag?
I carry it around a lot! There are few things in life where utility and mission come together so well. I use it for lugging the papers to work -- and it's great advertising. People see that bag who also watch 13 and know they have something in common with your. It's like being overseas and seeing someone wearing a Yankees cap.
Happy birthday. What do you see ahead for the next 50 years?
Our challenge now in the avalanche of content is to continue to make shows that engage the mind and lift the heart. All cable channels have to make a buck. They choose programming based on what advertisers want. Look at what happened to the channels that promised to deliver on culture, like Bravo and A&E: Now they're doing shows about ice fisherman, pawnbrokers, dysfunctional housewives and swamp people. Reality TV is really carefully contrived -- engineered circumstance. It is truly a sea of empty calories. The news magazines now on commercial television have become tabloid crime shows. The in-depth news magazines, like the Frontline shows we do -- well, they are fewer and fewer on commercial television.
And for funding?
We will always have to have (major sponsors and contributors) but when we say, "our biggest source of income is people like you" we mean that. We may do more on line, like video on demand, say, "hey, if you liked this show, give us a dollar." We may find different ways in which people can contribute.
What do you want for your 50th birthday?
More engaged viewers! We have 200,000 members and seven million viewers a month. For a lot of people who grew up in New York, WNET was a part of their life. We've asked online for people to "tell us what 13 means to you." One woman said she grew up poor in the Bronx with no opportunity to see any performing arts, but watched Great Performances and decided, "I'm going to be a professional dancer." And she became one! Kids with no exposure to nature might see a show on nature and decide to become a biologist. I grew up in Albany. My mother worked for the New York State Health Department and she brought The New York Times home every day. We had something like two theaters in Albany and I'd look at The New York Times and see all the Broadway shows and movies there and said, "one day I'm going to live in NY and go to those things." WNET exposes its viewers to new vistas in a similar way. We're watched by the housebound, the infirm, and the economically deprived. With increasing class stratification, 13 is even more important because we can blow the doors off any event (that some people may not be able to afford to attend.). We can give you a front-row seat to almost everything. When I got hired four and a half years ago I said to the search committee, "we live in the most exciting city in the world but that's not apparent when you watch 13." I told them that 30 -- 40% of our coverage should be local arts and culture." It is now.