March 21, 2023

CUNY TV Station Turns Over an Old Leaf, Transmitting by Air to Widen Its Reach

That is the way most viewers got their television signals before cable and the Internet came along, starting in the days when television was still something of a novelty and programs like “The Honeymooners” and “Your Show of Shows” were hits.

But now, in the wired and wireless world of the 21st century, broadcasting over the air has expanded the reach of CUNY TV beyond the five boroughs, where CUNY TV has had a steady, modest presence on cable systems since the 1980s.

Its fans say it is public television without the pledge drives.

CUNY TV sill reaches the 1.7 million households in the city that have cable. But the over-the-air transmission has, for the first time, put the station on sets in the city that are not connected to cable and in suburban communities where the channel is not carried on local cable systems.

The signal, transmitted from atop an office building in Times Square, covers about 35 miles, far enough to reach White Plains in Westchester County; Levittown on Long Island; Greenwich, Conn.; and Edison, N.J.

The executive director of CUNY TV, Robert S. Isaacson, said the change quadrupled the number of households that could receive its programs.

“This is a miraculous lift in our coverage, in our audience base and in our ability to reach people who want to see our kind of content,” Mr. Isaacson said.

Adding an over-the-air signal makes sense, said Mark J. Colombo, owner and editor of the Web site

“Over-the-air TV is still viable,” Mr. Colombo said.

“In fact, the latest statistics continue to show that over-the-air television is gaining in acceptance. People are thinking about cutting cable and satellite subscriptions to save money, and they’re moving to a combination of free over-the-air TV, which gives them the major networks, plus online video to supplement that.”

CUNY TV is broadcasting on Channel 25.3, alongside WNYE-TV, the city-owned station that broadcasts on Channel 25.1 and is operated by NYC Media, part of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. NYC Media also broadcasts hearings from the City Council, news conferences from City Hall and other municipal events on Channel 25.2, known as NYC gov.

(Those channel numbers may confuse cable customers accustomed to a one-number, one-channel lineup. Televisions made in the past few years have built-in tuners that can receive such channels, and converters are available for older sets. CUNY TV remains on Channel 75 on most cable systems in the five boroughs; WNYE-TV is on Channel 74.)

For Mr. Isaacson, whose résumé includes consulting on television for The New York Times, the over-the-air signal was the result of two developments, one a fact of life in the digital age, the other a marriage of sorts with WNYE-TV.

The fact of life was the federally mandated change from analog to digital signal transmission in 2009, a switch that many cable customers were oblivious to. Digital transmission let stations like WNYE-TV broadcast more than one signal over the air at once (though the second and third signals — like CUNY TV’s, on Channel 25.3 — can be seen only on sets new enough to receive digital signals, or on older sets with converters).

That increased the number of channels and gave cable-only stations like CUNY TV a chance to find a place on the broadcast dial, something CUNY TV badly wanted.

As Mr. Isaacson put it, “We had to figure a way to get this university off the wire and into the air.”

A merger of technical operations with WNYE-TV made it possible. WNYE-TV left its longtime base in Brooklyn — next door to a City University branch, the New York City College of Technology — and moved its broadcast control center into CUNY TV’s space at 365 Fifth Avenue, at 34th Street, where WNYE could take advantage of CUNY TV’s more advanced technology.

Marybeth Ihle, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, said the move “was done to make use of a modern, single, centralized location that was close to public transportation.”

The programming on WNYE-TV is separate from that on CUNY TV, though both are locally oriented. Mr. Isaacson said CUNY TV aimed to be “quintessential noncommercial TV, not quintessential public TV.”

CUNY TV’s week is arranged by subject, with people-oriented programs on Monday, science shows on Tuesday, public affairs programs on Wednesday, foreign-produced programs in their original languages on Thursday and arts programs on Friday.

“More power to PBS,” Mr. Isaacson said, “but public stations don’t really serve local communities.”

To do that, CUNY TV has recruited a number of journalists who had worked in commercial television in New York, among them Gail Yancosek, who was the executive producer of “Good Day New York” in the 1990s.

Working with her are a number of television reporters whose names and faces may be familiar to New York viewers, including Ernabel Demillo, who was a reporter on “Good Day New York” when Ms. Yancosek was in charge and is now the host of a new monthly series called “Asian American Life,” and Carol Anne Riddell, who was an education reporter and a weekend anchor at WNBC-TV and is now a reporter and host of a CUNY TV monthly magazine, “Science U!”

“The most significant difference for me is time: time to tell a story, time to work on a story,” Ms. Riddell said. “It’s also the time to think.

“I spent most of my career in local news. For me now, a piece could be anything from five or six to seven minutes. That is an eternity in local news. I came from the school of ‘Give me your best 90 seconds.’ ”

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