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Changing Channels: NJTV's Second Act

Amid criticism and a dearth of funding, NJTV endeavors to prove itself as a new network.

Posted August 13, 2012 by Joe Strupp

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NJTV
Members of NJTV’s executive team gathered at the State House in Trenton. From left: John Servidio, general manager; Mike Schneider, NJ Today anchor and managing editor; Michael Aron, chief political correspondent; Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of WNET; and Bob Males, NJ Today executive producer.
Photo by Joseph Sinnott/NJTV.

NJTV general manager John Servidio describes the public television station’s first day on the air as “hectic.”
That is putting it mildly.

When NJTV rose from the ashes of New Jersey Network, the state’s longtime public-broadcasting operation, it had no home studio, no funding and just one full-time employee.

The date was July 1, 2011. NJTV’s first nightly news program—NJ Today: Summer Edition—was actually shot in the studios of public broadcaster WNET in Manhattan. Rafael Pi Roman, a WNET personality, served as its first anchor.

“The most important thing, we felt, was to get something on the air,” recalls Servidio, a WNET veteran who was the only person on the NJTV payroll at the time.

When the state Legislature awarded WNET the rights to operate New Jersey’s public television franchise for five years, it required that the new station be up and running as soon as NJN went off the air.

So just hours after NJN shut down on June 30 following a 40-year run, NJTV was on the air—sort of.

Servidio says his team had learned of the state’s decision only five days earlier. “We scrambled around, we got a studio that was not complete…we put lights into it, we built a very temporary set,” he says.

Now, 14 months later, NJTV looks more like a true network, with its own staff, equipment and a studio leased on the campus of Montclair State University. The network’s signature news show, NJ Today, runs four times a day, with veteran newsman Mike Schneider as anchor and managing editor.

Over the course of its first year, the network has built a lineup of fresh Jersey-based programming—although its daily schedule is mostly filled with PBS perennials, from Bob the Builder to Antiques Roadshow. Among the ongoing Jersey-centric offerings: Tales of the Jersey Shore, highlighting Shore history and landmarks; Life & Living With Joanna Gagis, a half-hour magazine show; NJ Docs, a monthly documentary series featuring films from New Jersey college students; and Driving Jersey, capturing stories of people and places across the state. (A pilot for Best Places to Live, an original series presented by New Jersey Monthly, aired in July.)

Yet in fulfilling its promise of 20 to 25 weekly hours of Jersey-centric content, NJTV often looks much like its predecessor, with many former NJN programs returning to air on NJTV. There also are some familiar faces, most notably Steve Adubato Jr., host of several former NJN programs and president and CEO of the Caucus Educational Corporation (CEC), which provided content for NJN. Adubato (who also is a columnist for New Jersey Monthly) has been with NJTV from day one, interviewing Governor Chris Christie on that first news show and bringing several of his long-standing programs to the new entity.

In addition, 12 former NJN staffers are freelancing for NJTV or have been rehired by the network, including chief political correspondent Michael Aron, who served as senior political correspondent for NJN,  and senior correspondent Desiree Taylor.

“I think it’s coming along nicely,” Aron says of the new network.

NJN programs that are back on NJTV include One-on-One with Steve Adubato; Due Process; Classroom Close-up; State of the Arts; Caucus: New Jersey; and New Jersey Capitol Report. Two public-affairs shows hosted by Aron, Reporters Roundtable and On the Record, returned in February, after Aron signed on.

Still, there are major differences between NJTV and NJN. The biggest is the new network’s level of funding. In recent years, NJN had an annual budget as high as $30 million, enough to employ about 125 people.
The state had backed NJN to the tune of about $11 million in cash and facility contributions each year, according to public records. The rest of NJN’s funding came from corporate underwriting and private grants and contributions.

But NJN’s fate was sealed in May 2011 when, at Christie’s urging, the state Legislature cut off all funding for public broadcasting. 

Now NJTV is operating on an annual budget of $8.2 million for fiscal 2013. The operation has 26 full-time staffers and independent contractors.

The new network has faced criticism from the day the state Legislature awarded the franchise to WNET New York Public Media, largely because WNET is an out-of-state entity. WNET also operates New York’s Channel 13 and WLIW21 on Long Island.

“It was a huge mistake transferring it over to NET,” says Assemblyman Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Edison). “It appeared to me as though a conclusion was made to basically transfer the license, and then the facts were submitted to support it rather than really doing a thorough review of all options.”

Critics jumped on NJTV for failing to provide live coverage of key news events around the state. When Christie announced at a statehouse press conference last October that he would not run for president—a story that drew national interest—NJTV was broadcasting a children’s cartoon.

Amid the criticism and the lack of funding, Servidio had to cobble together a network. “We didn’t have the time you would need in a normal start-up,” acknowledged his boss, Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of WNET and a member of the board of Public Media New Jersey, the WNET affiliate created to operate NJTV.

First, Servidio needed a home studio—and it had to be in New Jersey. (In the early going, the station operated out of WNET’s headquarters at Worldwide Plaza on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan and its studios in Lincoln Center.)

Early on, Susan Cole, the president of Montclair State University (MSU),  reached out to WNET, seeking a working relationship. The university, one of several entities that had sought the state’s public-media franchise, had recently made a multimillion dollar investment in a state-of-the-art TV studio inside the campus’s Dumont Television Center.

“The one thing that never changed was the university’s interest and commitment that New Jersey continues to have a strong public-media presence,” says Jack Shannon, MSU’s vice president for university advancement.

For Servidio, who lives in Montclair, MSU’s facility proved to be a perfect fit. “We searched around,” he says. “Montclair State provided the best facilities.” NJTV agreed to pay MSU $1.2 million over three years to relocate to the campus. NJTV moved into its New Jersey home in December. By then Servidio had added Schneider, a veteran of Bloomberg TV and WCBS in New York, as anchorman for NJ Today. Schneider, a married father of two, has lived in Bergen County since 1986.

Other members of Servidio’s management team are NJ Today executive producer Bob Males, whose resume includes Fox News Channel and other stations, and communications director Debra Falk, a former WNET staffer who had most recently worked at Rasmussen Reports, a polling company.

To beef up its video content, NJTV has carved out relationships with six state colleges, which provide student assistants and camera facilities for local interviews. The schools also make faculty members available as expert sources.

At MSU, undergraduates and post-graduates also work as production assistants. “They are operating a lot of the technical equipment, some are doing camera, some are doing graphics,” says Servidio. He stresses that none of the students work as reporters or are involved in editorial decisions.

To further its reporting efforts, NJTV has content-sharing agreements with the Star-Ledger, nj.com, the Press of Atlantic City, and other entities.

Servidio says WNET in effect bankrolled the operation for the first six months while NJTV acquired its status as a 501c3 non-profit organization. Its first pledge drive, in late February, brought in about $250,000. At deadline, NJTV did not have the final results of a second pledge drive, which ended in June. The network says contributions and memberships for fiscal 2012 totaled about $1 million. Additional revenue totalling $5.6 million includes an annual $2.5 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, plus income from tower rentals and spectrum leases.

But, says Servidio, funding “is really in the hands of the viewers.”

“It is never easy,” adds Adubato. “I have been raising money for public-affairs programming for 25 years.”
Adubato himself has drawn fire for NJTV. Foes have accused the ubiquitous media figure of wielding his political influence and that of his father, veteran Newark powerbroker Steve Adubato Sr., to get the New Jersey public television deal.

“I thought from the get-go Montclair State should have been running the TV station,” says state senator and former governor Richard Codey, who bristles at Adubato’s involvement. “At least you’d have someone who is independent and doesn’t have a political agenda.”

The younger Adubato considers the claim “absurd.” He points out that the CEC receives no money from NJTV and provides programming through his non-profit organization. He does, however, collect more than $400,000 annually in salary and benefits from CEC, according to tax records.

Having marked its one-year anniversary in July, NJTV reports that about 845,000 people watch the channel weekly.

“We’ve seen substantial increases in viewing to NJTV’s prime-time lineup, and data shows people are spending more time with the network,” Falk wrote in an e-mail.

The half-hour NJ Today is shown daily at 6 pm, with rebroadcasts at 7:30 pm, 11 pm and 6:30 am the next morning. Ratings indicate the average combined daily viewership of all four broadcasts has grown from 15,852 for the last three months of 2011 to 23,882 for the first six months of 2012.

That is far below the average combined daily viewership of 43,442 that NJN’s daily newscast enjoyed.
That the new channel got off to a slow start did not surprise its critics. Some, like Codey, opposed cutting off funds to NJN in the first place.

Paul Rotella, president and CEO of the New Jersey Broadcasters Association, finds the current product lacking but understands it is due in part to funding cuts.

“They have resource issues like any other industry today,” he says. “I would love to see more.” He questions whether NJTV can fairly be compared to NJN. “They are two different business models. I’m very happy we have something.”

One early critic appears to be cutting NJTV some slack. “You can see that their news-gathering ability is hampered by a lack of resources, but they are trying hard,” says Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli (D-Salem), who also opposed the elimination of state funding.

The new network now routinely offers live coverage of key events in Trenton, including budget hearings and Christie’s address before the special legislative session in June. And unlike NJN, it’s all in high definition.
NJTV’s New Jersey Capitol Report made headlines in February when Vincent Giordano, the executive director of the New Jersey Education Association, said of families who cannot afford the option of private-school education: “Life’s not always fair.” The comment drew angry reaction from many officials, including Christie, who urged Giordano to resign.

As for the future, NJTV officials know they still have funding challenges and that demands for solid reporting and interviews will only grow in advance of next year’s  legislative and gubernatorial elections.
“We’re working hard every day to make NJTV a resource for Jersey-centric news, information and entertainment,” says Servidio. “We’re excited about the future and have so many ideas about how to grow and make the network even better on-air and online.”

Joe Strupp writes frequently on media matters for New Jersey Monthly.


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