BOY WONDERS AND TV'S FUTURE

By Published on .

Most Popular
When the Sunday sports section of The New York Times starts to make jokes about you (oh, ha ha ha), I guess you've arrived. And that seems to be what's happened to something we have here in New York called NY 1 (pronounced New York One), which is a cable channel that is on 24 hours a day and is only seen by New Yorkers and is total news, all news all the time as radio station WINS says in its promotion.

A small but promising company called Time Warner owns NY 1 and it has been run since it went on the air in September a year and a bit ago, by a fellow named Paul Sagan.

Considering that the rascal once fired me (well, he declined to renew my contract at CBS), I have considerable affection and even admiration for Mr. Sagan. And I intend to tell you stories about him. But first, that rare bit of New York Times wit:

In a recent column predicting things sure to happen in the year ahead in sports broadcasting, Richard Sandomir wrote, "Feb. 14. New York 1 buys the rights to telecast the New York City Marathon, replacing ABC. The city cable news outlet vows to use four cameras to cover the 26.2-mile road race, a distant cry from ABC's lavish production. Three of low-budget New York 1's reporters will run while pointing the cameras at themselves, while a fourth will be mounted on the cap of the race director, Fred Lebow."

The humor inherent in this (not quite a Letterman monologue, was it?) comes across only if you realize, as New Yorkers do, and as Mr. Sagan intends, that NY 1 really is and was always intended to be a bare-bones operation. The days when a news crew went out with a reporter, a camera-person and a sound guy, to do an MOS (man on the street) reaction to the Bobbitt family's travails, for example, are in Sagan's view, long gone.

He is a tall, lean young man who looks just old enough to be attending one of the country's better graduate schools and bookish enough to be getting straight A's. He was for several years news director of WCBS-TV, the network's owned & operated New York sta- tion. I was their nightly news celebrity inter viewer. A cou ple of years ago Sagan sur prised almost everyone by walking away from CBS and what appeared to be a brilliant future. He had some ideas about communications and broadcasting and so on and wanted to try them on.

Then along came NY 1. I asked him the other day how that came about.

"It wasn't my idea. They contacted me. The idea (for an all-news local cable television station; New York has two all-news radio operations, WINS and WCBS-AM) was Steve Cohen's and it was Dick Aurelio who recruited me."

The station went on line in September of '92 with an initial subscriber base of 900,000 and is now carried in 1.2 million homes in the city's five boroughs. And not one inch beyond. I can catch NY 1 at my Manhattan apartment but not out on Long Island at East Hampton. The operation gets additional exposure through 45,000 hotel rooms and some 3,500 offices and restaurants. Once again, all within city limits.

Sagan says the station ended 1993 with advertising revenues of about $6 million. The guy who sells the ads is Larry Fischer, an independent contractor.

And Paul acknowledges what he calls "raw edges." "Sure," Sagan notes, "especially with a launch crew of some two dozen on-air journalists, many of whom had scant broadcast experience." And since Sagan and his people set out with a cocky attitude of, "We began with a mandate to revolutionize the way television news is produced in New York," there were some ruffled feathers. And the unions weren't all that happy either, especially with the elimination of so much of the usual techie staffing.

More recently, even its critics have been talking about NY 1 and the job it's done covering local news and its growing sophistication.

Time Warner and Mr. Aurelio certainly seem to be content, and have promoted Sagan to senior VP of cable programming and moved him into the Time-Life Building, from where he continues to be responsible for NY 1 news, now under the direction of his handpicked aide from WCBS-TV, Steve Paulus, the VP of news.

And there are expansionist plots, you can be sure. Sagan and Time Inc.'s Walter Isaacson are working on a trial of interactive TV news in the Orlando area and, as Sagan says, "the day could come when NY 1 is seen by cable viewers outside New York, given the healthy appetite for news about the city in the greater metro area and beyond."

The fun in all this for me is having worked with Sagan when he was a boy producer, and not that long ago. And now here is this bright, intense, obviously talented kid, becoming a major player in what clearly will be one of the industry's areas of growth. You remember the kid; you recall the fun and the excitement.

Like the afternoon that Grace Kelly died and Paul and I did an ad hoc obituary about as fast and about as good as those things can ever be and when I came back into the newsroom after delivering it on air with Paul's quick tape montage, we both got a standing ovation. I worked for WCBS-TV News for six years and that was the one time that ever happened!

So there was something of a bond between us and then he was promoted eventually to news director. And then I was working for him and not with him, at least until that day in 1987 (the CBS budget cuts were at full throttle and heads rolled this way and that and Mr. Tisch worked on the bottom line and the price of the stock) when Paul Sagan (he does things with style) took me to lunch at the Four Seasons and said, "With what I pay you for five minutes a day, I can hire two-and-a-half street reporters to work 40 hours a week."

How can you argue with logic? And so ended my brilliant television career. Nice to know Mr. Sagan's is still moving so briskly ahead.

But for a while there, we were a pretty good team.M

In this article: