Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Channel 13, New York’s Premier Public Television Station, Provides Promotion For The Ratner/Prokhorov Barclays Basketball Arena: What To Do About It?

All right, I have to admit it. This article is structured as crescendo of rage. So the further you read the more you will find that is absolutely appalling. I am writing about Channel Thirteen's promotional endorsement of the Bruce Ratner/Mikhail Prokhorov basketball arena being built where the brownstone neighborhoods of Park Slope, Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, and Prospect Heights converge.

Non-profit Sector as the Future of Serious, Dependable Journalism?

Some say the that the future of serious, earnest, in-depth coverage of important public issues will be in public-supported nonprofit sector, especially given the decimation that old-style media organizations have faced at the hands of the internet as those income streams of the days of yore (like the classifieds) have migrated to alternative, now independent venues (like Craig’s list). Newspapers, seem increasingly lightweight, compliant to the influence of press releases and money. Nonprofits like Pro Publica present a plausible alternative. Indeed, much of the best news coverage in this city, including coverage of local issues, comes from New York’s principal public radio stations run by WNYC and during their pledge drives they remind listeners of the increasing importance of the public model.

But it isn’t that simple. News reporting is part of media and culture in general and one thing inevitably bleeds into another so therefore everything is connected. And this means that money and monied interests keep asserting themselves even in what is nominally the not-for-profit sector.

Channel Thirteen Invites Support of Ratner/Prokhorov Arena?

The very beginning of February (February 3rd) I was watching evening TV when an intrusion presented itself on Channel 13, the city’s premier public television station, a station I gratefully thank for presenting programs such as the probing and analytical issue-oriented “Frontline,” “Nova” which frequently covers environmental important subjects as global warming, “The American Experience, which provides overviews of the American past and many more public affairs oriented programs including such things as local coverage of State of the State and City and budget addresses by the governor and mayor. What intruded into my theoretically `commercial free’ public television evening was a promotion for the new publicly-harmful “Barclays” basketball arena being developed by Bruce Ratner and Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov.

The intrusion might have been more tolerable if it had been clearly labeled as the commercially funded promotion it was. Instead it came in the form of a veiled product placement inviting Channel 13 viewers to support Channel 13 by venturing to the arena to see an Andrea Bocelli concert. It even made it seem that those Channel 13 viewers going to the arena at the station’s behest would be joining more closely to bond with the Channel Thirteen family.

Here is exactly what the channel directed at its viewers (the visual at the beginning of this article accompanies it):
New York public media has exclusive tickets to Andrea Bocelli live in concert on Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at the band new Barclays Center coming to Brooklyn.

Support 13 on any major credit card and for your $1250 gold level contribution: we’ll thank you with two prime orchestra or front arena side tickets plus the DVD Andrea Bocelli “Concerto, One Night in Central Park.*” Pledge at the $1000 Silver level for two tickets in the back orchestra and lower arena sides plus the DVD. Finally, for your $750 bronze level contribution, receive two lower-level rear tickets and the concerto DVD.

This is Andrea Bocelli’s only scheduled appearance in the New York area so don't miss out, join us.
(* Channel Thirteen broadcast the Central Park performance back in 2011.)

`Join' 13 by convening at the arena? “Don’t miss out”? Implying that the experience to be had at the arena would be a pleasurable one? What was the station doing by implying that going to the arena was endorsed by it as something that melded with and was an essential part of the civic good of supporting Channel 13?

Ratner PR Victory

The PR meisters working for Bruce Ratner and Mikhail Prokhorov had to be slapping themselves on the back about getting Channel 13 to sign onto this one. After all, a major problem they have always faced is that the citizenry that keeps track of public issues and assiduously keeps score concerning who is and is not living up to their civic responsibilities (i.e. essentially a large block of the audience that supports Channel 13), have viewed the arena for what it is, an inexcusable political theft and boondoggle extremely deleterious to the greater community of New York. There are those like me who wonder if any event of any sort could drag me with any happiness to the arena: Knowing its history could I ever be willing to relax and forget myself enough to have a truly good time there irrespective of what event was going on?

Serious News

The arena promotional immediately segued seamlessly into another announcement, the same announcer’s voice continuing without skipping a beat, making no inflection to punctuate a differentiation in the message he was delivering:
Join Charlie Rose and guests for stimulating discussions about today's top stories and late-breaking events. That's tonight on Charlie Rose.
“Join” the 13 community at the arena- “join” the group Charlie Roses and his group of guests for . . . what?: “stimulating discussions about today's top stories and late-breaking events.” The Ratner Prokhorov PR people must have been gleeful indeed!: Bundling all this together the Channel 13 people made it seem quite as if supporting 13 by going to the arena might be a way of doing your civic duty that was entirely congruent with a “stimulating,” intelligent and informed `discussion’ of the day’s “top stories and late-breaking events.”

Money, Money, Money

Admittedly it is to be observed that the influence of money also regularly intrudes into the Charlie Rose show. Every show announces how the program broadcasts from the Bloomberg Building, effectively making New York’s mayor Charlie Rose’s landlord. Bloomberg doesn’t charge Rose rent. And the mayor is not only mayor: While Bloomberg has been mayor his wealth multiplied several fold and he became the wealthiest man in New York City. (Recently he has dropped down to number two). It is safe to say that without his wealth Mr. Bloomberg would not be mayor; further, without his wealth the City Charter would not have been unprecedentedly changed to specially permit Mr. Bloomberg the third term he is now serving. As of 2009 Rose was in debt to Bloomberg for another favor: Bloomberg Television started rebroadcasting his show in primetime around the world and pays him for it.

(above, the Bloomberg credit, an animation, that appears on Rose's shows.)

Fell Liked

Rose’s interviews are notoriously softball: His interview style is to appear to immensely like and respect almost anyone he interviews. That’s not the easiest of tasks on those occasions when he sometimes interviews some pretty controversial figures. Rose has, for example interviewed Holocaust-denying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad six times. (September 27, 2007, August 22, 2008, September 28, 2009, May 3, 2010, September 20, 2010, September 20, 2011.)

Ahmadinejad seemed to like his interviews well enough to keep coming back for more. Interviews with such characters are important to bring about. Where these good interviews? Inevitably, there will be many who are hard to please when conducting an interview like this. Here is one commenting viewer calling Rose in one of these interviews a “televisual fluffer.”

I’ll have more to say about Rose as a “televisual fluffer” when we proceed further, particularly as it pertains to the Barclays Center. Still, it should be acknowledged that Rose is very smart and typically well prepared. His interviews demonstrate that softball is not necessarily antithetical to stimulating.” Nevertheless, the question must be asked whether whenever, for example, Mayor Bloomberg or someone else to whom Rose might be beholden appears on his show, that softball deference may prevail to a much greater extent.

More: Mondo Cane

But first, back to what that Channel 13 announcer back in February said next, going on, once again, with no inflection to punctuate a differentiation in the delivered message:
Announcer: What happens when you expect more? You ask more! You discover more!

The next line was delivered by another PBS interview talk show host, Tavis Smiley: And you become more!

Back to the station announcer: Now celebrating 20 years in broadcasting, Tavis Smiley keeps pushing the envelope.
Given that we are talking about PBS promotion of the Ratner/Prokhorov Barclays arena, it is worthwhile to note that it is Tavis Smiley who, when he wants to remark philosophically about authentically adhering to your principles refers to a quote he attributes to friend Jay-Z: “You can SAY what you SAY, but you ARE what you ARE.” Jay-Z is the pop superstar who, having been given a small piece of the action, has, together with his superstar wife Beyoncé, been uncomfortably promoting the damaging Ratner/Prokhorov arena.

Frankly, in terms of `expecting more,’ I am expecting more and would like to demand more from Channel Thirteen.

Serving the Public

Is it serving Channel 13 to be promoting the Ratner/Prokhorov Barclays Center in this way? Doesn’t the channel risk alienating its subscriber base in much the same way that the Brooklyn Museum did when, in 2008, the museum betrayed the Brooklyn community and besmirched the memory of Augustus Graham, one of its principal founders, by awarding its Augustus Graham award to real estate developer/subsidy collector and eminent domain abuser Bruce Ratner, even as he was trying to force through pending approvals of his proposed Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly spearheaded by the arena? The honoring of Ratner from whom the museum had received funds and who has unfortunate further influence via Museum Trustee appointments resulted in a well-publicized protest the night of the award ceremony.

The museum was asked to apologize for its actions. Certainly, in retrospect events of the intervening years have proved that an apology was owed to a far greater degree than earlier defenders of Ratner might have expected since virtually every negative predication about Ratner and his mega-project have come true, compounded by a slew of additional negatives that were never envisioned. Even so, the museum has never offered the community the apology it requested in 2008. I for one, have never since renewed my museum membership as a result.

Sotto Voce

It is to be acknowledged that Andrea Bocelli has a sweetly beautiful voice. I remember how the sweetness of his voice was used prominently to good counterpointing effect in one of HBO Soprano’s episode when Camilla, the wife of Mob Boss Tony, falls in love with his voice. An arena is also probably a good venue for Bocelli to sing in. He often sings operatic melodies, but since he does not have an opera singer’s voice his singing needs the amplification which he regularly employs.

Was I too sensitive when I was startled by Channel 13's promotion of the Ratner/Prokhorov arena in early February? Was I just making it up or imagining things to think that there was a seriously flawed lack of perspective and neutrality in Channel 13's promotion of the arena? Did it really cross the line and endorse the arena as a public good somehow comparable to Channel 13 itself?

Fluffed-Up Production Values

I don’t think I was being too sensitive. I didn’t know then what I am about to tell you now but this should put to rest all doubt on the subject. To go into that we need to come back to that criticism we cited above: That Rose can sometimes be little more than a “televisual fluffer.” On March 10, 2012 Charlie Rose broadcast what was in effect a half hour high production value infomercial for Bruce Ratner, his arena and his proposed Atlantic Yards for which Channel Thirteen is even now running continuing follow-ups.

Atlantic Yards journalist and expert Norman Oder has already done a thorough dissection of Rose’s March 10, 2012 `interview’ of Ratner denouncing Rose for his “spectacularly uninformed sycophancy.” (See: Monday, March 12, 2012, Uninformed sycophancy: Charlie Rose interviews Bruce Ratner about "Atlantic City Yards" (sic), betrays zero recognition of controversy.)

In the Drink

In an earlier piece about the Charlie Rose interview before Mr. Oder had an opportunity to actually see the interview (he had only been able to read the very promptly-appearing quotes from the NetsDaily) Mr. Oder pointed out that “Rose's skein of sponsors includes some supportive of or doing business with the arena” and linked to a 9/28/09 David A. Kaplan article in Fortune, a good portion of which is about the interrelationship between the sponsors of Rose’s show and its content: “Why business loves Charlie Rose.” Within the Fortune article Oder found some interesting quotes. To wit, here's one:
The fundraising produces a web of peculiar interconnections between Rose and the people he covers.
The Fortune article says that, “By far the biggest underwriter is Coca-Cola” and Mr. Oder notes that “Coca-Cola has a deal with the Barclays Center.”

(Above, from Coca-Cola corporate support spot on Charlie Rose.)

The Kaplan Fortune interview says that “Rose has to scramble to meet” the budget of his independently-funded show and notes that “late last year” (presumably 2008) “he had to lay off a third of his staff because of fundraising woes.” Intriguingly, Kaplan quotes Rose as saying, “I make more from speaking than I make at PBS.” That provides contextual insight in connection with one of Kaplan’s criticisms of Rose’s disclosure of conflicts of interest:
When Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coca-Cola, went on the show in June, Rose disclosed Coke's underwriting tie of "many years" at the outset. He has done similarly with other guests, showing laudable transparency.

And yet the "fullness" of the disclosure can be in the mind of the discloser. Should Rose, for instance, have disclosed that in 2002 he had served as emcee at the Coke shareholders meeting, at which he declared, "It is a privilege to be associated with the Coca-Cola family"? Rose says this is "nitpicking to a fault." "I wouldn't take their money if I didn't want to be associated with them,*" he says.
(* Paul Krugman has a new column that concludes by informing us that Coca-Cola is amongst a group of behind-the-scenes companies supporting, through “ALEC”- American Legislative Exchange Council- a “hard-right” crony capitalist agenda of corrupting corporatist privatizations.)

(Above, from Coca-Cola corporate support spot on Charlie Rose.)

Notwithstanding, the Bloomberg and Coca-Cola support that flows in, Kaplan suggests that Rose is not driven by money and is, in fact, a rather poor business man distracted by the love of the art of what he does.

There is no question that Rose has conducted some remarkable interviews but Mr. Oder’s suggestion that Rose’s fawning interview of Bruce Ratner was a nadir is exactly on target.

Interviews That Facilitate Messages

Analyzing Rose’s typical friendly interview style designed to put his guests at ease Kaplan quotes Rose's most frequent guest -- New York Times columnist Tom Friedman: “It isn't that he doesn't ask hard questions, but he does it in a way that is designed to give you the best chance to make your case for your point of view.” Similarly Warren Buffet favors going on Rose’s show as a vehicle for getting his “thoughts” out to the American public because “Charlie is smart, and by the time you've spent an hour, if you haven't got your point across, it's your fault, not the medium's.” If you are a frequent watcher of Rose you know that Rose typically interviews subjects from the standpoint of facilitating what they themselves want to present the way they want to present it. So, for example, you can probably hear him ask in your your head his version of a hard question, usually something like “What do you say to people who say. . . [Insert some well-known criticism the guest might be eager to refute].”

All of this facilitation can involve going way overboard as Rose did with Ratner. In what was a virtual parody of a late night infomercial Rose asked Ratner questions and provided fill-ins that were nothing but cue cards for every talking point Ratner probably arrived intending to make. In fact, you can read Rose’s questions to Ratner without reading Ratner's responses to know approximately what Ratner came prepared to say and ultimately did say during the interview. Here is a Noticing New York breakdown and analysis in that regard if you would like to know more about the interview: Monday, April 2, 2012, Charlie Rose Does Infomercial For Forest City Ratner.

(Above, Rose asking Ratner his questions while visibly referring often to index cards.)

Time For The Press Kit

Throughout the Ratner interview Rose assisted Ratner to present PR slides, many of them just the typically suspect strategically-illuminated architectural rendering with sonorous announcer-voice glitz and unjustified exclamations of praise. In a recent, interview of French actress Audrey Tautou that ran just over 18 minutes, one minute and 40 seconds was taken up by showing the theatrical trailer for her new film, another minute and 5 seconds was taken up with a clip selected from that film, and all of this was supplemented by a two minute, thirty second montage of Tautou's past performance highlights. In all that's five and a quarter minutes from Tautou's press kit out of an 18 minute interview. Maybe it’s appropriate to treat an actress this way and to see her film, even selected highlights, is actually to see her work. Is it appropriate to treat real estate developer Bruce Ratner the same way? Between unpacking Ratner's press clips and helping Ratner get out all his talking points there was nothing more to the interview.

(An aside on all these film actor and director interviews Rose does: Does Rose really like absolutely every actor and every movie he sees? Does he really actually see every film? In the old days of Siskel and Ebert they saw every film they reported on and plenty of what they saw they didn't like.)

(Below, some of Ratner's renderings cooed over by Rose during the interview. More, available in NNY's review of the interview.)

Topper For My Next Trick

Unbelievably, what immediately followed the Charlie Rose Ratner interview program without so much as a second of daylight in between was another promotional spot for the Barclays Center Bocelli concert, similar to the one I’d seen at the beginning of February. It began:
Thirteen offers our supporters exclusive seats to Bocelli’s December concert at the Barclays Center, his only New York appearance.
This one was accompanied by complementary visual renderings of the arena (below) that were indistinguishable from those just seen on the Rose show itself. It concluded with Andrea Bocelli in Central Park saying “I am Andrea Bocelli. I hope you can join me at my concert with some very special guests.”
Trust Thirteen

A split second later the screen was filled with the word “Trust” and then esteemed PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer appeared on screen as lead man in a tag team of successive PBS personages delivering this message:

The American people have named PBS . . .

. . the most trusted source of news . .

. . . and public affairs . .

. . . and the most unbiased institution in America . .

. . . for the ninth year in a row.

Trust, . . .

. . . the American People have spoken. . .

Thank you.

Thanks for trusting Thirteen

It is Charlie Rose who, amongst the other personages, delivers the line “and the most unbiased institution in America” and it is Tavis Smiley who gets to deliver with quiet emphasis the single stand-alone word “Trust” (Momentarily appearing on screen before he utters it). Of course, the 2012 Harris Interactive “Trust Tracker” study being referred to said that PBS, not Thirteen, was the trusted entity and the tagging on of (Channel Thirteen President Neal Shapiro’s) “Thanks for trusting Thirteen” was probably done locally just as it probably was done at other local PBS stations. Similarly, it is also only fair to point out that while PBS runs the Charlie Rose show it is only local PBS station Channel Thirteen that is intertangling its showing of this spot, the Charile Rose Ratner interview and the station’s promotion of the Ratner/Prokhorov Barclays arena.
(Above, Travis Smiley with "Trust" and Thirteen President Neal Shapiro with "Trust Thirteen")

Support- Who Again?

The thanks-for-trusting-Thirteen spot was followed by another chance to make a contribution and then a Thirteen-March-Support-Great-Programs mix-up of spliced program clips in which appeared, again, Andrea Bocelli.

The station has been continuing with frequent Barclays/Ratner arena-supporting clips. There is an advertising strategy of making different commercials of different lengths: You show the long expensive commercial perhaps only once or just a few times in an environment where you know it will get attention and then you follow up with frequent very shot spots that serve as a reminder of the long one you invested in. Almost as if it is doing this, Thirteen recently followed a March 16th Charlie Rose show (an interview with Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff Martin Dempsey talking about national security, together with the Audrey Tautou interview) with a newer arena promo spot with more hype stirred into it. It began:
If you were in the audience of Andrea Bocelli’s sold-out Central Park concert in 2011 you know it was a night that neither you nor he will ever forget.
Bocelli then speaks on camera with subtitles about earning an audience’s affection. Then the announcer picks up over promotional images of the Ratner/Prokhorov arena:
Bocelli returns December 5, 2012 to the new Barclays center for his annual holiday concert. Thirteen offers you an exclusives early opportunity to enjoy his only New York area appearance, live in Brooklyn, only minutes away by subway or Long Island Railroad.
Notably, this arena entreaty (ending in “Don’t miss it!”) is followed by informing the listening audience that they can support Thirteen by buying tickets to an Adina Menzel concert at Carnegie Hall. (At $300 for a pair the tickets in this more intimate environment are considerable cheaper.) Unlike the spot for the Ratner/Prokhorov arena, the Adina Menzel concert spot doesn’t promote Carnegie Hall or tell you how easy it is to get there. (No, I’m not referring to the time-honored “practice man, practice!” joke.) This was all immediately followed by another version of a clip advising viewer to “Trust Thirteen,” this one beginning with Charlie Rose himself:
The America people have named PBS the most trusted source of news and public affairs .
Then Tavis Smiley: . . . and the most unbiased institution in America for the seventh year in a row.
And back to Rose: Trust, the American People have spoken.
Channel 13 announcer: At Thirteen you can count on us.

Channel 13 president Neal Shapiro: Thank you.
This is then followed by a repeat of exactly the same Trust-Thirteen spot that followed the Rose Ratner interview program. One extra niggle of a problem though: One of these spots tells us that the American People have named PBS most trusted institution for the seventh year in a row, the other tells us it’s the ninth year in a row.

"All In The family"?

In case viewing all of the above on air didn’t suffice, here is what I got from Thirteen in a March 19th e-mail subject-lined “All in the Family”:

A Channel Thirteen representative informed me that the Andrea Bocelli arena concert is also being run on Thirteen’s affiliated PBS sister station WLIW21.

Commercials From Public Broadcasting?

Does all this Noticing New York painstaking dissection seem a tad over-compulsive given that we have all become inured to the way that longer and ever more elaborate corporate sponsorship messages have caused public television to increasingly resemble commercial television? In early 2004 Public Broadcasting Service, loosened its guidelines on the content of the credits according to the New York Times (see, Advertising: On Public TV, Not Quite an Ad but Pretty Close, by Nat Ives, March 28, 2005) and that same Times article noted that:
Since the mid-1990's, the underwriter announcements that precede and follow many public television programs (and usually conclude with the narrator thanking "viewers like you") have gradually adopted many trappings of regular advertising, despite appearing on "commercial-free" television.
More recently in May of 2011, the Times reported that PBS was planning another shift, inclusion of promotional messages and branding within PBS shows breaking to into them like commercial television every 15 minutes rather than just at the very beginning and end of programs. (See: Advertising: PBS Plans Promotional Breaks Within Programs, by Elizabeth Jensen, May 30, 2011). PBS shows currently run 50 minutes or more without such interruptions. So far I haven’t observed an implementation of these proposed very frequent interruptions.

The progression toward this great resemblance to commercial television has been gradual and over an extended period over time. In 1984 Federal Communications Commission gave permission to PBS to relax its very tight, original 1967 limits on underwriter credits and allowed non-promotional logos and “value-neutral” descriptions of products or services. “Enhanced Underwriting” appeared in 1993 or 1994 but that underwriting was not allowed to have a “call to action,” or to use superlatives or say that the company’s products were better than others. In 2003, PBS introduced 30-second underwriter messages. These messages often include marketing slogans and images from the sponsor’s advertising campaigns.

(It is not just commercial sponsors that are a concern. There is also concern about money that is “donated” by foundations that may have agendas not compatible with balance or the public interest. See On The Media, March 31, 2001, Foundations and Public Broadcasting, Should audiences be as concerned about foundation grants as they are about corporate money?- Transcript available here. Incorrectly audio filed here staring at about 25:20.)

The Distinction of Endorsement

So amidst this accelerating slide toward commercialism why should Channel 13's promotion of the Ratner/Prokhorov Barclays arena command attention? Almost all advertising, even when collapsed into the sliver of a several second announcement strives to strike the key notes of a classic formula: create/identify a need, identify the product being sold as the solution, end with a “call to action” (buy the product) and make sure the audience remembers the product name. These are the elements that public broadcasting underwriting guidelines have sought to rein in, particularly the “call to action.” The boundary being crossed with the arena promotions that makes them distinctly different is not just the presence of a “call to action” (the entreaty to go to the arena) but from whom that call to action is emanating, Thirteen itself rather than a sponsor.

Normally underwriting credits are a disclosure of funding (and therefore also disclosure of a possible conflict of interest) wherein the sponsor itself gets a chance to say in its own words something nice about itself, for the most part mainly just patting itself on the back for supporting the show. In the case of the arena promotions Thirteen is running it is the PBS station itself that is endorsing the product and even associating it with the public good. It hearkens back to what we frequently saw in the early days of television, and much more rarely see now, when on programs like the Today show hosting personages like Dave Garroway would themselves shift from the content of the program to present and personally endorse products.

Brooklyn and The Proper Narrative Matters

It’s not that Channel 13 doesn’t have the free speech right to endorse the arena as a civic benefit for the public, it’s that Channel 13 hasn’t earned that right by engaging in the hard analysis that would allow it to reach such a conclusion. The slovenly Charlie Rose interview of Bruce Ratner certainly doesn’t count in this respect. At the very least, Channel Thirteen needs to start with a recognition of the extreme controversiality of the arena and its associated land grab. It should understand why that is.

Instead, Channel Thirteen has avoided chances to cover these issues. The first significant documentary about Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project was Isabel Hill’s 2006 “Brooklyn Matters.” The negative predictions about the mega-development in that documentary presaged much of what ultimately came to pass. Had it been more widely aired it might have changed the sorrowful course of events seen unfolding in the subsequent 2011 Atlantic Yards documentary “Battle For Brooklyn,” which made the short list for best documentary Academy Award nomination over such other films as “Page One: Inside the New York Times.”

Channel Thirteen rejected the “Brooklyn Matters” documentary for local airing even though it would have been very much in line with the kind of independent film making it regularly shows on programs like “POV” (for `Point of View’- “TV's longest-running showcase of independent nonfiction film”) and notwithstanding that its IRS filings say that its mission is to deliver to New York “media experiences of lasting significance” and that it endeavors to “serve the underserved” and “facilitate responsible citizenship” and “adhere” to the “highest standards” of “editorial integrity” in reflecting and respecting a “diverse and complex world.”

It will be interesting to see whether “Battle For Brooklyn” will wind up playing on Channel Thirteen’s air given that its narrative so directly contradicts the kind of Ratner hype associated with Thirteen’s promotion of his basketball arena.

Focus For Metro Events

How Channel Thirteen steps up to cover local issues is all the more important in that we have voids in coverage from different and necessary viewpoints when developer-friendly Rupert Murdoch buys up the local community papers and a paper looking askance at eminent domain abuse like the Sun folds. In March of 2011 Channel Thirteen was unveiling its new its web-based MetroFocus stepping in to cover, “local news, culture and life in the New York City region.” That new media organ has the potential to go a long way in filling that void, successfully providing intelligent insightful coverage of urban design and development issues much akin to what like listener-supported WNYC has accomplished. In addition to broadcasting local public radio, WNYC provides excellent web-based journalism accompanying the on-line availability of its broadcasts complete with extensive archives.

Thirteen’s Metrofocus has been addressing itself to urban design and development issues and has covered Atlantic Yards and the Barclays arena which, given their criticality, are stories Charlie Rose seems to have skipped over.

MetroFocus has provided the following Atlantic Yards coverage:
Timeline: Atlantic Yards Grows, Slows in Brooklyn, by John Farley, July 19, 2011, Updated: August 24, 2011

A Story of Three Arenas: Of Sports, Money and Democracy, by John Farley, August 1, 2011
Occupy the Movies: OWS Moves Out of Zuccotti and Onto the Silver Screen, by Georgia Kral, December 7, 2011Link
The Battle for Brooklyn is Over, but the War Rages On, by John Farley, July 11, 2011

What Would Jane Jacobs Say? by Sam Lewis, September 16, 2011
LinkAnd Atlantic Yards gets mentioned here:
Q&A with ‘Gridlock Sam’ Schwartz: Why We Need Cyclist Bridges, by Georgia Kral, March 27, 2012

A Block Party Without a Block: A Community Survives Long After Its Homes Are Razed, by Sam Lewis, October 18, 2011
Notwithstanding MetroFocus, the real money and resources you see from Thirteen are what you see on the broadcast on its Channel 13 and 21 TV stations.

Wherefore Funding?

How television, broadcasting and public broadcasting in particular are funded is very important. There is strong argument to eliminate government funding for public broadcasting given the potentiality for politically-motivated government influence over what ought instead to be a check and balance on government itself. However where Bloomberg, as mayor of New York provides Charlie Rose with his studio rent-free and also pays the Charlie Rose program ongoing syndication income it is hard to think that those checks and balances are in place even if Bloomberg, the man who became the city’s wealthiest citizen, is nominally doing this only in his personal/business capacity. Also, while a separation of public broadcasting from government may be a laudable goal in terms of abstract principle it hasn’t always been a practicable possibility: When the Public Broadcasting System was created in 1967 (by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967) after FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow’s 1961 “vast wasteland” (“Television and the Public Interest”) speech, setting up a television network required a prodigious amount of capital. At the time the existing three networks were essentially an oligopoly, control of which had been seized by the small group of companies that prior to that had already seized control of he radio networks. (See: Columbia Law professor Tim Wu’s excellent book “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires”.)Link
Channel Thirteen’s IRS filing 2010 IRS documents say that the station received $22,424,003 in government grants and contributions. That’s almost equal to the $27,400,263 Thirteen lists as having received in membership dues. The membership dues figure are, in turn, only 24.7% of the $110,795,564 listed for its total gifts and grants revenue figure. Further, that $110M+ “gifts and grants” figure doesn’t include all the station’s revenue. And WNET’s IRS filings say that it received another $1,477,792 in government grants and contributions.

Channel Thirteen’s public relations department informed me that, “Thirteen’s viewer support constitutes approximately 22.9% of our donations per year.” They also informed me that “about 1 in 12 Thirteen viewers are members.” That’s down from the 1 in 10 figure I remember Thirteen reporting during is pledge drives in the 90s when it was saying that, by comparison, the ratio of viewer support was 1 in 7 for the PBS station in Los Angeles.

"Listener Supported" vs. "Public Broadcasting"

It is to be noted that there is a difference between `listener-supported' and `public broadcasting.' It might be said that the HBO subscription pay-TV model is far closer to a `listener-supported' model than is the PBS Thirteen model. And indeed, answering to its listener subscriber base HBO has broadcast some important documentary films like: Josh Fox’s “Gasland” (about hydraulic fracturing and in 2011 was also in the running for an Academy Award), “Hot Coffee,” (about the efforts to limit the ability of the public to get redress from the courts) and “Hacking Democracy” (about how voting computers in use such as Diebolds are easily susceptible to hacking, nominated for an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism).

Relationship With Audiences That Can . . .

Obviously, in the free enterprise system, attention must be paid to the demands of the viewing audience, particularly when, as with HBO, one does not engage in the compromises of generating so-called `free' TV by accepting advertising. But advertising -supported broadcasting needs its audiences too. Rupert Murdoch has owned and controlled many press outlets in his empire: He nevertheless doesn’t conform their content to make their points of view identical or too perceptibly identical to his own. When he bought the Wall Street Journal he knew he would lose its audience if he stopped providing what its readers considered reliable news and made its content like that of the Fox network or his tabloids. (Even if the Journal is looking more tabloid-ish these days- see picture.) It is around the edges together with wherever it is critical where you see the results of Murdoch ownership and control.

When the Murdoch hacking scandal broke in England the Wall Street Journal was reluctant to cover it just as Fox News was. This has been well covered by, for instance, NPR’s “On the Media” but PBS’s new Frontline, “Murdoch’s Scandal” provided a pithy summary of what happened. The Journal ignored the hugely important story the English paper The Guardian was breaking. The rest of the British press seemed afraid to join in the coverage. Then the New York Times joined in to pay attention to the scandal elevating its importance. The Wall Street Journal editorially criticized the Times for this. As Times got involved we saw an example of what has been called the “Times Effect” kicking in (there is probably also a PBS effect), the floodgates opened and it seemed every paper everywhere was jumping on the scandal except that the Wall Street Journal was still reluctant to report on it no matter its importance for American business.

Channel Thirteen needs its audience, no matter how fractionally small the membership contributions are that come from that audience. In other words, Thirteen cannot immediately drift too far afield from the standards that its audience expects. Nevertheless, long term, depending upon the diet upon which it is fed any audience can drift, migrate, reformulate over time. In some cases audiences can be simply jettisoned altogether. With the arrival of cable TV a great number of new channels were started directed to niche interests. Oddly, sooner or later so many of them were showing shows with no explicable connection to why the new channels were created to exist: Why is “Ice Road Truckers” on the History Channel as well as aliens? Haunted house visits on the Arts and Entertainment rather than on the SciFi Network? More ghost shows on the Travel Channel? (These are the ghosts left behind when stations alienate from their originally intended audiences?)

Years, ago TechTV, a 24-hour niche channel based in San Francisco, was a beautifully nerdy network about computers and technology featuring instructions on hugely outsized computer screens and discussion of all sort of intricate computer programming arcana. In New York Tech TV went to its viewers seeking their help it keep its place on the cable dial which the viewers did but shortly after that fight was won the station abandoned its programing and became the G4 network, dopily pitching hype about boy toys to a very different young, low-brow, audience. It would be a shame if in time there was a similar squandering of the entrusted legacy of Channel Thirteen and the rest of the PBS system by turning it into a conduit for the PR messages of the corporate interests and local real estate moguls, especially given the significant public investment it took to create the public system and the fact that once seized and so looted it could probably not be recreated.

Direction Comes From . . . ?

LinkAs Thirteen’s decision to support and endorse the controversial Ratner/Prokhorov Basketball arena is unlikely to have been reflective of any sensitivity to Thirteen viewer audience standards, where did this strange direction come from? Can it be blamed on Thirteen’s corporate sponsors? Channel Thirteen’s public relations representatives tell me that “corporate underwriting at Thirteen constitutes approximately 10.8% of our funding per year.”

It would be easier to blame the Thirteen board of Trustees. Certainly, if nothing else, any Trustees who are viewing what is on the station have not, by complaining about it put a halt to the arena promotions. But would the Trustees think anything of it, the way viewers like me are automatically appalled? Looking at the WNET board of Trustees you will see some very wealthy and recognizable names and, as might be expected, there is overlap and interrelationship with the list of the station’s very largest donors. Remember that most of the money is not coming from listeners since listening membership contributes only 22.9%.
Notably, a man with a name very recognizable in real estate circles has been appointed as chairman: James S. Tisch. Tisch (is President and Chief Executive Officer of Loews Corporation and is involved in construction through the hotel chain. Tisch is also on the board of the New York Federal Reserve with Kathy Wylde and Lee Bolinger, both of whom advocate abuse of eminent domain. According to the station’s IRS filings Mr. Tisch puts in an average of 4 hours a week for the station without compensation.

There are other names on the super donor and Trustees lists that are recognizably connected with real estate. By no means are all of the names so connected. That’s not the point. The point is: Of this list many of those who are not directly connected with the business of our local real estate barons are still in the class that is likely to be regularly hobnobbing with them. Even if it is true that Channel Thirteen aspires, as it says, “to serve the underserved” it might not be easy to pick out a preponderance of its board members who would be the best candidates to instinctually represent the interests of the “undersreved” over those of the real estate moguls like Ratner whom they are regularly encountering on the charity grand event circuit. For instance, Board Vice Chairman Ann G. Tenenbaum, a big donor in her own right, seems to do a fair amount of hanging out with various Tisches (Jamie, Alice, Jim) based in the number of event photos that Google at the top of the list. Ditto for Vice Chairman Dirk Ziff.

Was the board of trustees involved in the decision to promote the Ratner/Prokhorov arena? One would think that facing the inevitable controversy inherent in such an endorsement and the very heavy promotion that Channel Thirteen seems to have committed to that the trustees would have been involved or that the chairman or a board committee would have had such a role. The Channel Thirteen public relations department assured me that this was not the case:
This transaction did not involve anyone from our Board of Trustees.
I was also informed that: “The total number of tickets we will be receiving has not been set yet; we will receive NO Sky Box seats.” So the relationship has an interesting informality to it despite the investment in the commercial spots being broadcast.

Rather than the board being involved I was informed that the decisions approving the December 5, 2012 concert promotion, and the approvals of the announcement and spots about the promotion that are being aired, when they will be aired and how they will be ordered and interleaved with other announcements has been the responsibility of Channel Thirteen President and CEO, Neal Shapiro*, executive producer David Horn of Great Performances (one Ratner connection popped up), and Thirteen programmer Kent Steele.

(* According to Thirteen’s 2010 IRS filings Mr. Shapiros’ annual salary is $524,995.)

Whatever one may be tempted to surmise about how overtures were made to effect the promotion, I was informed that, officially at least, the tickets for the Bocelli concert promotion are “furnished by Sugar Music, Bocelli’s management company.” When I asked about whether
the visuals of the Barclays arena (inserted into the promotions that Channel Thirteen has been running) were supplied directly by Sugar Music or came instead either from the one of the Forest City Ratner companies or from one of the public relations companies that have been working for the Forest City Ratner companies, I was told they came from a website. I am asking about which one and still awaiting word. The PR department says that “Thirteen has had a long and mutually respectful relationship with Bocelli.” As already footnoted Thirteen broadcast Bocelli’s Central Park Concert in 2011.

Future of the Concert

It will be interesting to see whether the Andrea Bocelli concert will be a success on any level at all. It is possible that it might not even happen given that the arena’s construction is apparently behind schedule (latest word here). If the arena construction does complete soon enough to host the Bocelli concert it will likely only be because of the uncurtailed breaches of construction rules and specially tolerated round the clock 24/7 construction schedule that has been inflicted upon the surrounding community residents. (See: Wednesday September 21, 2011, Construction of the Ratner/Prokhorov (“Barclays”) Arena Is Behind Schedule. Either That, OR a 24/7 Construction Schedule Was ALWAYS Intended.)

There may be more than enough tickets. No Land Grab reported that there were tickets were being sold on the secondary market as of February 6, 2012. (Also the stage configuration that might be used may involve a configuration closing one or more of the central interior entrances to the arena.)

Future of Thirteen

Channel Thirteen has long been a place where you could find chronicled many important public issue battles, many that were, or are, in danger of being lost. The human race may, for instance, be losing the race to counteract global climate change but despite the fact that David H. Koch’s money is prominently announced as funding every episode of PBS's Nova (and David H. Koch is on the Thirteen board as well), Nova and other PBS programs like Frontline keep bringing the issue of global climate change to the fore. Even when so many defeats are faced, the public broadcasting system has, at least, always provided a forum where we can collectively shake our heads in pity with an informed consciousness about what should be done or what should have been done. It will be a real tragedy if in the future PBS and Thirteen transition and we find that not only are these just and necessary fights lost but that an appreciation for their importance is then buried under false and uninformed the-victor-writes-the-history PR hype.

Loss of control over Thirteen is something we should all be on guard to prevent. I could offer an admonishment that in order to have more control we should all be listener supporters in order to have greater influence over the station. Or, looked at another way, is that a doomed strategy in a world where wealth has been increasingly redistributed from the 99% to the 1% in schemes like Ratner’s arena-associated mega-monopoly land grab? How can the 99% expect to keep up and compete? I don’t think anybody is about to put me on the Channel Thirteen board. Maybe the better strategy is instead to do exactly the opposite: To terminate membership support for Thirteen just the way I decided I had to terminate my membership support for the Brooklyn Museum after they falsely put Laurels on Mr. Ratner’s head at great sacrifice to the community they had a duty to serve?

Channel Thirteen is telling us as their audience that we should “Trust Thirteen.” At this juncture don’t we need to turn the tables and tell Thirteen that an essential element of trust has been lost? That the station is, indeed, breaching our trust in a deep and untenable way? Channel 13 Board of Trustees meetings are open to the public. The next board meeting is Thursday, May 10, 2012 3:00 p.m. (WNET, Worldwide Plaza, 825 8th Avenue 14th floor, Kellen Board Room).

Interestingly, May 10th is the same day that Bruce Ratner will, starting at 11:30 AM, just six blocks away, be the Guest of Honor at the New York Building Congress's 91st Anniversary Leadership Awards Luncheon at 1335 Avenue of the Americas. The strategy is to keep those accolades coming for Mr. Ratner as he steals from the public and thereby hopes that no one will notice. Tables to sit inside with Mr. Ratner start at $25,000. The luncheon underwriters are listed as Bruce Ratner’s own Forest City Ratner company, Rudin Management Company and (billing itself as one of the worlds most ethical companies) AECOM.

LinkNow why ever might it be worth mentioning the coincidence of these two events?

Putting it in Channel Thirteen’s own promotional vernacular:
What happens when you expect more? You ask more!
And we should demand more. We need to demand behavior from Thirteen that we can “Trust.”

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