A panel of producers assembled for a discussion at NAB Show New York last week agreed that, for content creators, New York is a location unlike any other. Those who become familiar with its unique conditions and remain patient with its idiosyncrasies can tap a vast pool of talent and resources to tell great stories, they said.
“New York City is the greatest city on earth,” said Byron Harmon, VP and news director at WNYW Fox 5 New York, recalling his time as a line producer in the control room with crews chasing down fires, car crashes, and other sensationalized news of the day.
“There has to be more to New York City than that,” he remembered thinking. So, he said, he made it his mission to deliberately cover a broader range of New York stories beyond the usual crimes and disasters. “Who wants to sit around and watch that all day long? We’re doing more stories about New York.”
Asked what he would do if he could change one thing about New York, Harmon cited traffic and congestion. “For what I do, one of the main challenges is getting to the story,” he said. “And then there are 50 other stations, all with the same technology, trying to transmit.”
But Brian Donlon, a producer who’s worked at CNBC Fox Business Network and ESPN, noted that New Yorkers are at least more likely than residents of other cities to take the presence of a production crew in stride. “You can actually do your business without the gawking you get in other places,” he noted.
Later, Donlon acknowledged that media-savvy New Yorkers can also make his life more difficult. “When there’s an incident in New York City, everyone is a cameraman — and some of them think they’re journalists,” he said ruefully, explaining that he has decisions to make every time footage of a breaking-news event is captured by amateurs on the scene.
“You have to worry about whether it’s worth putting on TV” in terms of quality, he said. “And then they come out of the woodwork for money. Everyone with a phone has become a cameraman. That’s a great thing, but also a dangerous thing.”
Some only-in-NYC requirements can catch a production off guard. Donlon remembered ESPN’s Cold Pizza was caught off guard back in 2003 when it was informed that the brand-new production, headquartered at Manhattan Center on 34th Street, needed a new kind of insurance. “We were red-flagged,” he recalls. “We didn’t meet the requirements for terrorism insurance. That was a new thing in 2003, and it was expensive.”
Marc Perez, co-founder of Sirk Productions, agreed that while New York productions can be challenging, the market offers clear advantages. One of those is the ability to tap a vast pool of “up-and-coming” talent for projects where money is tight. “Cost is the biggest challenge,” he said, “but you can always get a crew member. Working in documentary film, sometimes you just gotta shoot, and in a big metropolitan area, you’ll find someone to do the job. There are plenty of talented people in New York.”
Harmon put a different spin on that point, thinking back to a time when he insisted on putting a news producer in front of the camera for the first time to take advantage of their expertise and enthusiasm for New York theater. “I don’t care if your stand-up is shaky. I don’t care if your voice is shaky,” he said. “I want your authenticity.”
Responding to a question about the biggest changes during her time on the air in New York, Ojinika Obiekwe, entertainment anchor at Pix11 News, cited the rise of giant social media companies and the direct line they give celebrities to interact with their fans. “Social media has changed everything,” she said. “One of the biggest stories this week is Jennifer Aniston joined Instagram. So it’s not just video we use [on the air]. We have access to social-media elements, as well.”
Harmon had a different take on social media giants, arguing that they’ve made traditional media companies more vulnerable. “We’ve built up Facebook, Twitter and Instagram,” he said. “We’re supposed to be trend-setters. Why haven’t we built up our own social media environment? Facebook knows more about my viewers than I ever will.”
And the discussion returned multiple times to New York’s generous tax incentives, which entice many productions. Donlon warned that New York’s production community shouldn’t take those incentives for granted, as the landscape nationwide is constantly changing. “Other states have gotten very competitive with tax breaks,” he said. “Georgia, Tennessee, Texas — they make it attractive. You look at your budget and think, well, maybe I can make this work in Georgia.”