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Changing the Channel

Changing the ChannelTufts graduate Neal Shapiro, president of New York's public television station WNET, is trying to change the way public television does business.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.04.08] Since coming to WNET Channel 13, New York's public television station, Tufts graduate and former NBC News president Neal Shapiro, has emphasized programming with a local angle. And his strategy is paying off.

When PBS aired Ken Burns' World War II documentary "The War," for example, Shapiro wanted complementary programming that highlighted New Yorkers' memories of the war. Defying suggestions that viewers would not support such local programming, WNET raised $455,608 from individuals and larger sponsors for the programs "New York Goes to War" and "New York War Stories," according to The New York Times.

"We've never had a performance like that, ever," Shapiro, a 1980 graduate of Tufts, told the Times. A similar approach was used for "The Jews of New York," which ran alongside the national program "The Jewish Americans."

According to the Times, "Locally focused programming and community ties have emerged as the core of Mr. Shapiro's vision for WNET." This month, Shapiro, also assumes the title of chief executive of the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, which includes WNET along with Long Island's PBS affiliate, WLIW Channel 21. He has launched a new blog, Inside Thirteen, to directly communicate with viewers about changes and new ideas.

Under his leadership, Shapiro has also sought to change the way public broadcasting develops and funds its programs.

For instance, when Shapiro wanted to "spark a national dialogue" about adolescent mental illness in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy last April, the Times reported, he appealed directly to viewers asking for donations to fund a documentary on the topic.

The process of turning a program from an idea into a reality can often take as long as three years, reported the Times. But "A Cry for Help: A Generation at Risk?"-the result of Shapiro's initiative-is expected to air sometime this year, after receiving $180,000 in funding from nearly 3,100 station members.

"One of the things that I think I can bring here is to try to make us a little more nimble," he told the Times.

Other changes to WNET's programming, the Times reported, include revamping Saturday night movie programming to include recent independent films and movies submitted and voted on by viewers, and an upcoming Sunday afternoon block of local cultural coverage called "SundayArts," hosted by Shapiro himself.

"It makes me crazy to go to a cocktail party and hear people talk about the latest exhibit here or there, and Channel 13's not there," Shapiro told the Times.

James S. Tisch, president and chief executive of the Loews Corporation and chairman of the board of the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, vouches for Shapiro's changes.

"I see a responsiveness to viewers and the marketplace and just a new edge that I think will be very popular with viewers," he told the Times.

Part of that edge, with projects such as "A Cry For Help," is Shapiro's determination to advocate for his programming and work to expand its broadcast reach.

"I want to push something, and I'm going to try it," he told the Times. "Just through stubborn determination I am going to get this on television."

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