Signal Trouble at Freedom Tower

A deal to broadcast 11 stations from atop the planned Freedom Tower has fallen apart, seemingly bringing to a close years of negotiations. According to multiple people familiar with discussions, the Metropolitan Television Alliance, a consortium of local television stations, last month informed the Port Authority that it would not be proceeding with a deal for its members to broadcast from an antenna atop the 102-story tower at the World Trade Center site.

The collapse of the deal further strains the finances of the Port Authority at the Lower Manhattan site, as a basic agreement struck with the MTVA in 2003 called for an annual rent of about $10 million, on top of a $20 million payment to build the antenna. The Port Authority owns the site and is building the Skidmore Owings & Merrill-designed Freedom Tower, known officially as 1 World Trade Center.

The agency is now considering whether to build a less costly antenna—the price was north of $20 million—with the hopes of striking a new deal later on, or to build a spire that has an aesthetic function alone. Antenna deal or not, the agency still plans for a spire atop the $3.1 billion tower to bring the building to its symbolic height of 1,776 feet.

“This continues to be part of the design,” Stephen Sigmund, a Port Authority spokesman, said of the 408-foot spire. 

The formation of the MTVA, along with the plan to put an antenna atop the skyscraper, came after numerous stations went black following the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the city’s main television broadcast antenna went down with World Trade Center Tower 1.

Since, technological changes in the industry—including a switch from analog to digital broadcasting—have lessened the need for a new major antenna in Lower Manhattan. Already, there are two buildings where owners say they can accommodate all the television broadcasters in the city on their antennas: Wien & Malkin’s Empire State Building and the Durst Organization’s 4 Times Square.

“We’ve got a tremendously robust system,” said Tony Malkin, president of Wien & Malkin. “Every single broadcaster will be supported.”

“We are open and ready for business—plug and play,” said Jordan Barowitz, a Durst spokesman.

Still, the MTVA’s president, Saul Shapiro, said that there are technical benefits of having an antenna at the World Trade Center, and the group is still in talks with the Port Authority for a deal of some sort. “We have not ruled out going to the Freedom Tower,” he said, declining to comment on specifics about the discussions.

However he did acknowledge that some MTVA member stations have pushed back against a new downtown antenna, in part due to the large investment needed.

“Some of the members have different finances, and are looking at broadcast in a different way going forward,” he said. “Locating at 1 World Trade was not the ideal solution for all the members.”

ebrown@observer.com