The City's TV Station Is All Bloomberg, All The Time

NYC Media, making Mayor Bloomberg's home movies

Mike Bloomberg's trip to Copenhagen last December for the U.N. talks on climate change put him on a global stage, which he didn't seem to mind a bit.

After his speech on environmental reform, reporters and photographers literally chased him through the conference center halls. His words and picture ran in more than 100 publications. New York's dailies sent reporters who relayed hourly dispatches back home.

Despite this wall-to-wall coverage, the mayor's office insisted that the city have its own camera crew on hand to record him. On December 12, a couple of days before the mayor flew out on his private jet, a pair of technicians from the city's TV station, NYC Media, grabbed their camera equipment and took a taxi to Newark Airport. They paid an extra baggage charge to stow their gear, flew overnight to Copenhagen, put up at decent hotels, rented a car, and followed the mayor around, grabbing a bite when they could.

All told, the five-day trip cost $11,220. You can add another $1,500 for a week's worth of wages for the hard-working cameramen who had to hustle through airports and foreign streets. Net benefit to the city? Their video footage ran for awhile on Channel 25's "City Scoop" program. Then it went on a shelf in the archives, where it remains today.

Just why it is that taxpayers pay the tab for these out-of-town mayoral movies is a mystery. The Voice reported in March that Bloomberg is the first mayor to insist on a traveling video crew wherever he goes. (See "Bloomberg: The Movie (At Your Expense)" from March 16, 2010) More than $142,000 was spent to film him on his world tours from January 2006 to May 2009. It took nine months to pry that information loose from the city's Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, so an added request was made to find out what was spent in the interim. The answer, as of April, was that another $16,000 went to film seven more outings, including the Copenhagen spree, and $2,200 to film the mayor shaking hands with federal health officials in Atlanta.

This mayoral moviemaking also puzzled Manhattan City Councilman Daniel Garodnick, the new chairman of the Council's Committee on Technology. At a hearing last month, he asked top station officials about it: "So if I wanted to take a trip to Los Angeles to explore infrastructure issues, and I wanted NYC Media to film my activities, would you come along?" he asked.

The question jolted station manager Todd Asher, who envisioned 51 Council members each demanding their own camera crew. "I don't know," he said nervously. "The challenge we have is you are a much larger body. Following each of your activities would not be possible physically."

Sitting beside him, Asher's boss, Katherine Oliver, rushed to confirm this. "It's a resource issue," she said. "We just don't have the resources or budget to supply that."

Garodnick relieved their anxiety. "OK, well, I wouldn't ask it, either," he said. "I also wouldn't ask it of the mayor. I think there are a lot of ways for us to get the necessary clips of the mayor speaking in Copenhagen than to have our own city, taxpayer-funded cameras following him around."

For a tiny agency that should be right in the mayor's sweet spot of expertise—he is, after all, a media mogul—NYC Media has had an awful lot of headaches since Bloomberg took over.

This week, the former chief of operations began serving a 15-month prison sentence for embezzlement. After he was nabbed, the executive said he'd gotten away with his scheme because the station's general manager was never around to check up on him. Five other officials were forced to resign. The ex-manager, a former Bloomberg campaign aide named Arick Wierson, was cited for using city workers to run personal errands and work on a private movie.

None of this has ever been acknowledged by Bloomberg's City Hall. But when tough questions started coming their way at the April 15 Council hearing, the current NYC Media executives were quick to say how bad things were at the agency they inherited.

"When I was asked to take responsibility, it was immediately following a publicly reported arrest of a senior member of staff," testified Oliver, who also heads the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting. "It was a very troubled agency that had not been managed effectively." She ticked off a laundry list of unhappy management indicators, including a workforce in shell shock from a lengthy investigation. "You can only imagine what it was like," said Oliver.

Basic tasks also went undone. At the hearing, a casual question about the availability of city stations on satellite TV evoked a startling admission: "Unfortunately, in the past, we failed to file a document to continue our coverage on DISH TV," Asher said. The lapse meant that tens of thousands of potential viewers were locked out.

That was the old regime, Oliver and Asher emphasized. But questions were also raised about what had happened on their own watch. Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams asked if what he had read in another Voice story was true: that recent high-level hires at NYC Media have come from a small circle of friends, all of them white. Williams said he was concerned that "people of more color," as he put it, were "being disenfranchised."

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