At Thirteen, A Change Agent Meets a Suspicious Crew

nealshapiro2 At Thirteen, A Change Agent Meets a Suspicious CrewOn the afternoon of Jan. 18, dozens of staffers at Thirteen-WNET, PBS’s flagship station in New York, shuffled into a conference room at headquarters on West 33rd Street for an address from Neal Shapiro, the station’s boss.

According to a source at the meeting, Mr. Shapiro said that in the digital age, public television employees should keep in mind the variety of ways in which people consume information. He praised the station’s recently revamped Web site. And he showed off a promotion, highlighting Thirteen’s new block of multiplatform, Saturday night programming dubbed “Reel 13.”

In early February, capping a year-long transition period, Mr. Shapiro will officially replace William Baker as C.E.O. of the Educational Broadcasting Corporation (EBC)—the licensee of Thirteen-WNET and 21-WLIW.

Mr. Shapiro, who served as President of NBC News from 2001 to 2005, is generally regarded as a smart, low-key manager with a solid track record. But over the past year, Mr. Shapiro has raised the hackles of some longtime Thirteen veterans, who are uncomfortable with the former “Dateline NBC” producer’s bottom-line sensibility, commercial background, and focus on technological progress.

Which is perhaps not too surprising, considering that Mr. Shapiro came into Thirteen vowing to shake up the old guard.

“As successful as Channel 13 is, everyone agrees there is still room to innovate and to change,” Mr. Shapiro told Current in Jan. 2007 on the eve of joining the station. “I think it’s interesting to take something and change it and mold it and make it better than it is. The status quo is rather boring.”

One former senior manager at Thirteen told NYTV that Mr. Shapiro has his work cut out for him—in part, because trying to bring a stepped-up commercial metabolism to the aging Thirteen staff is bound to provoke some teeth-gnashing.

“My mandate when I came in was to find ways to do things differently,” said the former executive. “But that wasn’t to be. There’s too much institutional resistance.”

Recently, Thirteen’s institutional resistance manifested itself in a complaint to the Writers Guild of America, East, which represents a number of Thirteen employees. A W.G.A. spokesperson confirmed that a complaint had been made but declined to discuss the specifics.

According to sources, a rumor has circulated recently among staffers that in February, Mr. Shapiro, taking a page out of the NBC-Universal-G.E. playbook (see Welch, Jack) will impose a round of staff layoffs. (Through a Thirteen spokesperson, Mr. Shapiro did not respond to request seeking comment.)

At Friday’s state-of-the-station talk, Mr. Shapiro did not say anything about cuts and, according to one source, suggested that the station’s fund-raising efforts were going well.

Whether the cuts were ever planned, the virulence of the rumor illustrates the siege mentality present at the station today.

Mr. Shapiro’s first year in public broadcasting will be remembered by some for the surprising departures of two longtime senior managers: Stella Giammasi, the former spokesperson for the station, and Tamara Robinson, the longtime programming chief.

In December, at the time of Ms. Robinson’s departure, a Thirteen spokesperson told the Observer that Ms. Robinson was taking a year-long sabbatical. But some staffers believe that their former colleagues were forced out and doubt that Ms. Robinson will be returning, citing as evidence her office at the station, which was recently cleaned out (When contacted via phone, both Ms. Giammasi and Ms. Robinson declined to comment).

“They were two of the most beloved executives in the building,” said one longtime Thirteen staffer. “They were worshipped. They were our Rabbis. They were delightful, wonderful people who understood the mission of pubic television. For those of us who have been here for years and years, it gives us severe pause.”

“The people that [Mr. Shapiro] has brought in are bottom-liners,” said the aforementioned staffer. “That’s the first thing they look at. Not, is it a great program? There are so many more suit types now–accountants, lawyers–than there were in the old days. That’s the main worry.”