The Oral History of NY1

The Oral History of NY1

The story of the little channel that took on the big city, as told by the people who lived it.

As told to Hannah Miet (@HannahMiet)

It was summertime in New York City, 1992. David Dinkins was mayor. The city was mourning the 27 passengers who died aboard U.S. Airways flight 405 after it crashed upon takeoff at LaGuardia. The Real World had just wrapped its first season at a loft down in SoHo. And in a modest studio on 460 W. 42nd Street, 28 freshly hired on-air reporters were sweating through “video journalism bootcamp,” preparing for the launch of New York City’s first 24-hour local news channel, Time Warner Cable’s NY1. Their training ground was the former home of Univisa, a Spanish language television network. Their mission was as groundbreaking as it was earnest: to tell the “eight million stories in this Naked City”—with no fluff, filler, or regard for areas outside of the five boroughs.

Before NY1 hit the air in September of '92, there was no channel to flip to for New York City specific news. The broadcast stations in the region were limited to roughly three hours per day of local stories, divided between NYC and every other town in their Designated Marketing Areas.
 
All this uncharted territory in America's biggest city excited the newsmen who got NY1 off the ground. Richard Aurelio, then the president of Time Warner's New York City Cable Group, founded the station, hiring WCBS-TV’s then-news director Paul Sagan as vice president of news and programming. Sagan hired Manhattan native Steve Paulus, who had been at WCBS-TV since 1978, as news director. (Paulus is now a senior vice president at NY1.)  
 

Their mission was as groundbreaking as it was earnest: to tell the 'eight million stories in this Naked City'—with no fluff, filler, or regard for areas outside of the five boroughs.

 
 
Their budget paled in comparison to their broadcast competitors. They had a bare-bones staff and 1970s-esque graphics. Reporters focused on facts, not on personality. Their unflashy reports were delivered against a simple blue backdrop. The New York Times dubbed them “The Little Channel That Could.”
 
In the early days, when NY1 rolled up on the scene, a joke emerged among reporters for other outlets: They call it NY1, it was said, because they always send one person. Its reporters were often "one-man bands,” fumbling with tripods while holding their own cameras and microphones. NY1’s anchors were also reporters. NY1’s reporters were also videographers. NY1’s producers knew how to speed-edit.

Nothing, however, was more earnest than the content. In addition to the major stories of the day, NY1’s beat reporters covered park openings, rat infestations, and local-gal-done-good stories—deep into neighborhoods the networks barely grazed. They served the five boroughs and did it with pride.

As with so many other institutions, everything changed for NY1 on the morning of September 11, 2001. The channel’s reporters dodged falling debris to broadcast live from the scene. When CNN’s signal was ousted by the attack, they put NY1’s reporter on the air; NY1 footage was broadcast across the country. The one-man bands that were once a source of ridicule were essential in that time of chaos. Kristin Shaughnessy was alone and on the air when the first tower collapsed—just a couple blocks from where she stood. NY1’s fleet manager and courier captured footage of thousands of dust covered New Yorkers walking over the Brooklyn Bridge.

In the months following the 9/11 attacks, as other stations shifted back towards a normal news schedule, NY1 stayed with the story, dedicating an entire show, “New York Tonight,” to aftermath coverage for four years. The station received awards for its 9/11 coverage from New York Cares, The Uniformed Fire Officers Uniformed Firefighters Association of NYC, The American Red Cross, and The Geological Society of America. Their coverage on the 10-year-anniversary of the tragedy was extensive. Their follow-up stories continue to this day.

NY1’s public service during and after 9/11 did not directly increase its budget, according to Steve Paulus, the channel’s vice president of local news and programming. However, Time Warner Cable had no issue with funding NY1’s programming when other unforeseen expenses—like covering Hurricane Sandy—occurred. In the past decade, Paulus said the channel has had no budget cuts. They've increased the size of their staff and added Washington and New York Stock Exchange news bureaus, live traffic reporting, a Spanish-language version of the channel (called “NY1 Noticias”), and a Hudson Valley news channel.

It became clear that NY1 had outgrown its 25,000-square-foot Midtown studio. The station moved in January 2002 to a 55,000-square-foot space on the sixth floor of the Chelsea Market, which was once the set of HBO’s prison series Oz. At first, it “really looked like a jail,” NY1 Engineering Director Jeff Polikoff said in a (meta) NY1 report on the channel’s own move. "There were cells, there were isolation areas, there was a mess hall, and there was a gym.”

But the channel spent two years transforming that space into a state-of-the-art newsroom. The 35-foot column-less ceilings were a selling point, since they allowed the creation of multiple TV studios, offices, and desks. Six clocks were placed prominently in the newsroom. They were labeled "G.M.T.," (Greenwich Mean Time) "Bronx," "Queens," "Brooklyn," "Manhattan" and "Staten Island."

By the time the station celebrated its 20th anniversary last September, NY1’s household ratings had risen 86 percent since they were first measured by AC Nielsen. Roughly 4.5 million viewers were watching it on channel 1 in their homes, in addition to more than 10,500 corporate offices, 1,900 restaurants and bars, and 60,000 hotel rooms. NY1 became the go-to when major motion pictures and sitcoms (most recently, 30 Rock) needed a New York City reporter to explain a plot point. (In Cloverfield, for example, NY1 anchor Roma Torre reports on the earthquake that precedes the arrival of the monster.) According to a Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker, Pat Kiernan has portrayed himself a dozen times, in TV shows like Law & Order and movies like Night at the Museum 2.

The channel’s presence became so ubiquitous that its society reporter, George Whipple, got shouted out on rap tracks by The Beastie Boys and Action Bronson. Last March, when Time Warner execs first announced plans to change the station's name to "TWC News"—as part of a rebranding that would likely include a graphics makeover and new theme music—diehard NY1 fans did not take the news well, using social media to register their displeasure. (The plan has since been put on hold.) Clearly NY1 is no ordinary TV channel.

Here's the story of a news station that became a phenomenon, as told by the people who made it happen.

 

THE PLAYERS:

 

Steve Paulus – Vice President of Local News and Programming, NY1

Matt Besterman – Executive Producer, NY1

Jamie Shupak – Morning Traffic Reporter, NY1

Pat Kiernan – Morning Anchor, NY1

Errol Louis – Host, “Inside City Hall,” NY1

Dean Meminger – Criminal Justice Reporter, NY1

Kristen Shaughnessy – Weekend Anchor/Reporter, NY1

Budd Mishkin – Host, “One on One,” NY1

Roma Torre – Mid-Day Anchor and Theater Critic, NY1

John Schiumo – Host, “The Call,” NY1

Lewis Dodley – Evening Anchor, NY1

Action Bronson - Rapper

Anthony DeRosa - Social Media Editor, Reuters

Amanda Massa - Video and Social Media Manager, NBCUniversal

Hamilton Nolan - Senior Editor, Gawker

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