At 5 a.m. on the morning of Monday, March 9, after many months of planning, NBC Universal at long last unveiled its 24-hour hyper-local newslike cable channel, called New York Nonstop (Channel 161 on Time Warner cable!).
Some 12 hours later, Chuck Scarborough, who for decades has been the face of NBC’s local news in New York, kicked off the nascent channel’s premier hard-news program, New York Nightly News. For the occasion, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had stopped by for an interview, toting a mayoral proclamation declaring March 9 “New York Nonstop Day.”
The 65-year-old veteran looked at Mr. Bloomberg, who is two years his senior.
“My producer … has asked me to ask these questions,” said Mr. Scarborough, somewhat apologetically. “I have no idea why.”
Then the humiliation began.
“Do you have any tattoos?” asked Mr. Scarborough.
“No,” replied the mayor.
“One-word answer,” Mr. Scarborough continued. “John, Paul, George or Ringo?”
By the time Mr. Scarborough had concluded his inaugural excellent adventure in Nonstop-land, he had interviewed NBC’s new Late Night host, Jimmy Fallon, and also Sara Gore, a chipper correspondent for NBC’s lifestyle channel, LXTV.
“Somebody brought up if New York is losing its mojo?” said Ms. Gore, who sat in the studio across from Mr. Scarborough, her black lacy bra peeking out from behind a plunging neckline. “I think that’s completely insane because how could New York really lose it mojo? … We are survivors.”
NBC Universal dreamed up New York Nonstop in an all-out effort to attract the kind of audience that no longer seems particularly interested in traditional local TV news. In short, young people.
For a veteran broadcaster like Mr. Scarborough, who survived the excruciating process, a spot on the new network is supposed to make him feel pretty lucky.
The upheaval began calmly in the spring of 2008, when NBC executives announced that facing declining ratings and revenue, they were dismantling the newsroom at their flagship station in New York, WNBC-4. In its place, they would be creating a newfangled “content center,” capable of feeding a range of multiple platforms, including broadcast TV, the Internet, taxi cab screens and, eventually, a 24-hour hyper-local newslike cable channel.
Along the way, a new crew of “content producers” and “platform managers” gradually replaced many of the station’s experienced reporters, editors, anchors, photographers and editors.
On Monday, all across town, local TV journalists of the newsroom variety sat glued to their screens to get a preview of their collective dystopian future.
The fun got started on Monday morning well before dawn. After a quick rundown of the top local and national stories, a meteorologist in jeans and a black, form-fitting V-neck sweater did the weather. The graphics, throughout the day, were a spectacle of innovation. On the right-hand side, a series of colorful boxes continuously slid down the screen, eventually tipping over to reveal pearls of information on New York’s weather, news, events and “buzz.” It called to mind a remedial game of Tetris.
Nearby the chyron alternated between horoscopes, cheeky imperatives (“Talk Back,” “Chill out”) and Webby-punctuated questions: “Whatcha doin’? Answer: Watching New York Nonstop!”
The channel’s debut feature story involved correspondent Ida Siegal interviewing a store owner on West Broadway about how his shoe business was faring in the economic downturn. “Can Soho keep its edge, its trendiness, its exclusivity—can Soho be Soho in this economy?” she asked.
“On to the fun stuff,” she said later. “You can get some really, I mean ridiculous sales, really good deals.”
Shortly thereafter, New York Internet attention jockey Julia Allison popped up onscreen with her buddies Meghan Asha Parikh and Mary Rambin, as part of a recurring videoblog, TMI Weekly. The threesome discussed office attire. Ms. Allison flashed her naked feet at the camera and complained about guys who don’t wear ties because they’re uncomfortable. Suck it up!
As the day progressed, Nonstop cycled through a series of quirky news bits, spurred on by a frenetic soundtrack, heavy on the electronica. The programming ran the gamut of youth interests from comedy to skateboarding to break-dancing to Jimmy Fallon to fatty foods to Julia Allison to shopping to pizza to partying to Jimmy Fallon.
If the corporate synergy didn’t quite run amok, it’s probably in part thanks to the fact that General Electric and NBC Universal currently manufacture neither designer jeans nor pizza.
Across town, staffers at NY1, the city’s established, slightly nerdy hyper-local 24-hour news channel, snuck peeks at the new, slightly cool kids on the block.
“There are elements of what we do in the morning that are offered there,” NY1’s a.m. news anchor Pat Kiernan told The Observer on Monday evening. “But the package seems less news-driven. I think that’s good for us from a competitive standpoint. … They’re going for a younger, off-the-tripod look.”
“I wouldn’t call it a news channel,” said NY1’s general manager, Steve Paulus. “Obviously, anytime a 24-hour presence is established in the market, we’re going to take a look at it. From what I’ve seen, they seem to be doing an adequate job of trying to cover lifestyle. But to me it does seem a little Manhattan-centric.”
David Diaz, who teaches media and politics at City College, and who for many years worked as an anchor and reporter at WNBC, checked out Nonstop on Monday evening. It reminded him of a mishmash of MTV and E!
He liked the energy of a feature about the different styles of break-dancing, but found it slightly annoying that several of the people interviewed were never identified, graphically. At one point, he flipped over to Channel 4 to compare what was happening on the old station. He noticed, by coincidence, that one anchor, David Ushery, was appearing on both channels at almost the same time. On Channel 4, he wore a jacket and tie and spoke in clearly punctuated sentences. On Channel 161, his shirt collar was flung open, and he delivered the news in an easygoing, conversational patter. Mr. Diaz felt bad for the talented newsman. He couldn’t imagine having to pull off the act. Trying to make news hip to youngsters.
Not long ago, Michael Horowicz, WNBC-4’s news manager, told staffers that their “pieces should not look like traditional news pieces” and warned employees that if they failed to follow his guidelines, NBC Universal managers would probably “turn it into a lifestyle channel and we’ll have one less platform in which to showcase our work, and you know what will happen next.”
On Monday evening, Mr. Diaz noticed that people on the new channel seemed to be repeating certain keywords over and over again, as though by tossing out the words “edgy” and “buzz” as often as possible, you could dress up something fusty and unappealing—i.e., news—as something new and addictive. Content!
At one point, he was struck by a horoscope at the bottom of the screen, which seemed appropriate. It read: “The truth is too obvious to hide.”