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WNET New York’s Shapiro Believes in Public TV Promoting Public Interest

Nearly a decade after leaving network news to head WNET New York, Neal Shapiro, the former NBC News president, has leveraged the PBS station’s public airwaves to drive awareness of community issues and support local programming. Long a big booster of public education, Shapiro, WNET’s CEO, in September orchestrated the station’s fifth annual American Graduate Day, a four-hour broadcast (Shapiro calls it a cross between Election Night and a Jerry Lewis Telethon) promoting the importance of staying in school. He also has been instrumental in furthering local content across public broadcasting by helping produce it for stations that don’t have the resources to do so themselves. Shapiro spoke with B&C’s Diana Marszalek about changing from commercial to public TV, working with broadcast brethren including his wife, Nightline anchor Juju Chang, and why he gets to use airtime in ways that others don’t.  An edited transcript:

You had a lofty career with the networks, including a stint as president of NBC News. How does working in public broadcasting compare?

We are able to do a lot of things that are harder for my colleagues in commercial TV.  First, we have the time. Our shows are 26 minutes not 21 minutes. They look at ratings and we are invested in people’s spirit, we can affect how they are feeling about something. I have never had anyone call me and say, ‘I am very disappointed in the numbers.’

How do you use that to your advantage?

Our production of American Graduate Day speaks to what public TV can do in a way that commercial TV can’t. We take our most precious resource, airtime, once a year and devote it to education but also partnering with others around the community and across the country. It’s the great confluence – the ability to take a public television station, and local groups and together focus excitement around the issue. We produce a big, live event that is a cross between Election Night and a Jerry Lewis Telethon.

Why education?

We started this as part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Spotlight Education initiative which includes projects stations can do throughout the year – some may do reading after school; some have meetings at their stations. We wanted to do what we could that could bring bigness and grandness to the effort. Education is very important. STEM is very important but even for local stations to rally around them

Yet few public broadcasters have the resources to pull off that kind of event.

Other stations are not going to be able to stage a four-hour live broadcast. The idea is to engage famous journalists we have had as hosts over the years – Soledad O’Brien, Brian Williams, Bryant Gumbel and JuJu Chang – and many PBS stations can carry it. There are ways for local stations to opt in, and where they can break in with their own local content, and 34 did this year. Eighty-three percent of the country saw it.

Do you work with those stations in other ways, too?

We try to innovate and involve lots of stations in doing so. At one point I said to the stations, ‘Why don’t you do a weekly arts and culture show?’ But that’s expensive. So then I said, ‘Why don’t you send me all your content and I will send you back a show that’s customized.’ Now NYC Arts has 33 different versions and 33 different hosts, and we do it all digitally. We also have SciTech Now which stations can take apart – and 23 stations do.

The payoffs of these efforts must be very different than the kind of you got at the networks.

Commercial TV has plenty of ads to sell, and it’s competitive. They have companies to run and shareholders to answer to. There is a huge difference in public television that is unique to what we do – educating kids, promoting arts and culture, research. It’s thrilling to stay on topics like education and to see every station around doing it too. And then the feedback you get from viewers, to have viewers tell you how touched they are by these programs.