World Trade Back In NYC Broadcast Picture

Following 9/11’s destruction of the World Trade Center's twin towers, New York’s TV stations moved their transmission facilities back to the Empire State Building, where they had been from their early days until the early 1980s. They’re likely to stay there, but management of the fast-rising 1 World Trade Center (pictured) is hoping to lure them back. This is the fourth in a TVNewsCheck series this week on how broadcasters responded to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and how the attacks affected the business.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 struck at the very heart of broadcasting in New York, bringing down the broadcast tower and transmitters of the city’s leading stations atop the north tower of the World Trade Center and killing six broadcast engineers who were manning the transmission facilities within.

The stations had direct feeds to the major cable systems and the satellite operators, meaning that as many as 80% of viewers experienced no disruption in receiving the stations’ non-stop coverage of the attacks and their aftermath.

Nonetheless, the broadcasters scrambled to restore their over-the-air service as quickly as they could, jumping to back-up facilities on the Empire State Building or other towers in the area. Most were back on the air by week’s end, although, in most cases, with reduced power and coverage.

And in the months and years that followed, the broadcasters’ remained committed to restoring their over-the-air service, even though their over-the-air viewership continued to shrink (to about 10% of homes now).

Organized as the Metropolitan Television Alliance (MTVA), they sought a new permanent home for their transmission facilities that would deliver the best possible signals to the most homes in the country’s No. 1 TV market.

That effort eventually led them back to the Empire State Building, which the broadcasters had abandoned for the higher ground of the north tower in the early 1980s. They are ensconced at Empire now and are likely to remain.


But in the past few months, the Durst Organization has reportedly begun trying to lure broadcaster back to Ground Zero, to 1 World Trade Center (formerly known as the Freedom Tower). The first skyscraper to rise from the 9/11 rubble, 1 World Trade will top out in 2013 at a symbolic 1,776 feet. Today, steel for the building has risen to the 78th floor.

“There has been talk of that, but I have not seen [a firm proposal] yet,” says MTVA President Saul Shapiro. “They are trying to make the numbers work.”

The family-owned Durst Organization last year took a equity interest in the building, which is primarily owned by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. As part of that deal, it is taking an active role in finding tenants — so far Conde Nast is the big one with a third of the building’s planned 3 million square feet of office space — and other ways of monetizing the building.

Durst is well known to New York broadcasters. Among its other considerable real estate holdings is 4 Times Square, which is currently the third tallest structure in the city and whose 1,143 feet includes a 300-foot broadcast tower, mostly for FM stations. (It will soon fall to fourth place as 1 World Trade continues to add floors.)

Earl Arbuckle, the Fox engineer who manages the transmission needs of WNYW and WWOR, said that Durst is taking the same approach with its broadcast transmission marketing of 1 World Trade as it has at 4 Times Square.

Durst is trying to make the cost of 1 World Trade “much more reasonable” by building a common infrastructure — things like back-up generators and cooling — that all the stations could share, he said.

Arbuckle said that Fox is open to Durst’s pitch and that it is possible that its two New York stations could end up with transmitters on both Empire and 1 World Trade. “Certainly 9/11 taught us that it would be smart to have redundant facilities.”

Durst did not return repeated calls to comment for this story.

According to Shapiro, the MTVA membership includes eight broadcasters with 11 stations: NBCUniversal, ABC, CBS, Tribune, Univision, Ion Media, WNET and Fox.                                                                      

In the immediate wake of 9/11, having determined that Empire was inadequate for the long term, the MTVA made a big push to find a site for a new broadcast tower, possibly a free-standing one that would provide the market coverage that stations were unable to achieve either at Empire or the World Trade Center. Such a project would cost around $200 million.

One of the more attractive sites was the 172-acre Governors Island, just off the southern tip of Manhattan. But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had other ideas for the island, which was just then being handed back to the city by the federal government. He squashed that plan.

Another possibility was Bayonne, N.J., a port city on New York Bay just southwest of Manhattan.

After plans for a free-standing tower failed the pan out, MTVA reached an agreement in 2003 to move the broadcasters to 1 World Trade, which was then controlled by Larry Silverstein. Terms were not released. At that time, the target date for the building’s completion was 2008.

As the construction fell further and further behind schedule and control of the building passed from Silverstein to the Port Authority, the MTVA’s enthusiasm for the project waned, and it walked away from the deal. The 2003 agreement was not binding.

Shapiro says it was mainly a matter of money, but also timing. Nobody could say for sure when the building would be finished.

One happy consequence of the 2003 deal, Shapiro noted, is that 1 World Trade was designed to support broadcast transmission facilities. In fact, he said, the MTVA owns a fuel tank for back-up generators in the building below ground.

While the World Trade deal was unraveling, the broadcasters began settling in on Empire, some with long-term leases. Today, according to FCC records, the landmark is home to 11 TV stations: WABC, WCBS, WNBC, WNJU (Telemundo),  WPIX (Tribune), WNET (PBS), WFUT and WXTV(Univision), WPXN (Ion Media) and WWOR and WNYW (Fox).

Some of the broadcasters maintain backup facilities elsewhere. For instance, should something go wrong at Empire, WNBC, WCBS, WNYW, WWOR and WNJU can switch to a tower in West Orange, N.J., about 20 miles west of Manhattan. The 400-foot tower, owned by Richland Towers, sits on a 600-foot ridge, giving the antennas a 1,000-foot perch.

Other backup options are another Richland tower atop the Bloomberg Tower on the east side of Manhattan at Lexington Avenue and 58th Street and Durst’s 4 Times Square.

Having backup is still important, says Arbuckle. In addition to the remaining over-the-air viewers, he said, some outlying cable systems in the New York market still pick up the stations’ signals off air. They can’t retransmit what they can’t receive.

Shapiro said that Durst may have a tough time prying broadcasters off of Empire. The broadcasters are doing fine on Empire, although some would like to improve service by filling holes in their coverage, he says. It’s not “mission critical” for any to move to another site.

The Malkin real estate family, which acquired control of the building five years ago, are taking out some of the old analog antennas and transmitters to make more room and to site the digital antennas better, Shapiro said. “They’re creating a nice piece of real estate that could result in better service.”

Frank Graybill, director of engineering for WNET, one of the three VHF stations at Empire, says he has a long-term lease for Empire and is not looking to move. “It’s still seven years out before we would have to do anything.”

The histories of Empire and broadcasting are intertwined. In the building’s first year, 1931, RCA began using it for its experimental TV and FM broadcasts and eventually the launch of WNBC. After 1950, other stations began migrating to the building.

According to Fox’s Arbuckle, city broadcasters first organized as the Television Broadcasters’ All-Industry Committee in the late 1960s to protest the construction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which, they contended, would interfere with their signals from Empire.

The broadcasters’ suit was settled with an agreement, under which the broadcasters would move to the north tower, with the Port Authority picking up some of the cost. They made the move in the early 1980s and broadcast continually from there for two decades — until 9/11.

Read the other stories in this Special Report here.

Comments (2)

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Hope Yen and Charles Babington says:

August 13, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Don’t overlook how WCBS-TV switched back to their ancient GATES transmitter atop the Chrysler Building and used those antennae up there, that had been dormant for decades, immediately after the WTC attack.

Ashley Messina says:

January 28, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Tom, didn’t you mean the ancient Gates rig at Empire? CBS had left the Chrysler Building decades ago when they moved to Empire…