NY1, Time Warner Cable's (NYSE: TWC) round-the-clock local news station, celebrates its 20th birthday on Saturday. Reportedly the most-watched channel among Time Warner subscribers in New York City, the 24-7 news carrier was only the third of its kind in the country when it launched in 1992.
"This was not something a lot of people had done before," said Steve Paulus, who was NY1's founding news director and is currently the regional vice president and general manager. Though there was some outside skepticism, Paulus and his colleagues had no doubt NY1 would succeed. "New York City, ironically, was an underserved market for news," he said. NY1's hyperlocal focus -- serving the five boroughs exclusively -- makes it easier to tailor content in a way that promotes viewer loyalty, unlike local broadcasters, who cater to a large, sometimes unwieldy audience.
"At NY1, we can say 'the mayor' and not have to clarify that it's the mayor of New York City," Paulus said.
As any Time Warner Cable subscriber knows, NY1 is the "power on" channel - when you turn on your television, there it is. And if you turn on your television between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m. on weekdays, there is a good chance you will be greeted by Pat Kiernan, who has been anchoring the NY1 morning news since 1997.
"There's not a lot on TV that's directly comparable to what we do in the morning," Kiernan said. "Morning TV is very personal -- you get attached to the person who brings you the news."
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And New Yorkers certainly have become attached to Kiernan. The Canadian-born anchor has become a local treasure in recent years, beloved for his winking, deadpan delivery and unflappable professionalism. He has rewarded his loyal fan base with trademark accessibility -- he regularly interacts with his 20,000-plus followers on Twitter and hosts a hipster-friendly trivia night at the Bell House in Brooklyn.
Kiernan said he understood why he's become something of a cult hero. "My presentation of the news is a little more off-the-cuff and honest and conversational than a lot of what you see in local television," he said, giving equal credit to the competitive advantages of being the early bird.
"Any other time of the day, you've been exposed to the news," he explained, but the pre-commute hours are "not a time when you're inclined to be sitting at your computer clicking. You want something you can turn on in the background and have somebody deliver the news to you.
"I think for television news in general I have landed in absolutely the best spot as far as the changing economics and patterns of the news business," Kiernan continued. "As the day goes on, television is finding that is has to do more context and analysis and less of the straightforward delivery of news. I think we are, if not entirely exempt, a bit more immune to that change in the morning."
NY1's newsroom staff also has some immunity to profitability demands, enjoying unusual editorial freedom in an age in which most news outlets are struggling -- often compromising -- to remain commercially viable. Both Kiernan and Paulus spoke of the channel's unflagging commitment to creating news, not revenue.
"We just don't feel a lot of pressure," Kiernan said. "If the mayor has a press conference and we want to take it live for 37 minutes, we can do that." They can also go three weeks without putting on a single commercial, as NY1 did following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We felt it would have been inappropriate to air commercials when we were reporting on the events of 9/11 constantly," Paulus said. "While it may have cost us revenue in the short term, it reinforced our commitment to our viewers and residents of New York City."
Indeed, Time Warner Cable does not count on NY1 to boost profitability -- at least not directly. The value NY1 brings to its parent company is subscriber loyalty. "If our news channels prevent churn [subscriber loss] that is worth real dollars to the parent company," Paulus said. "People will not leave TWC if it means losing NY1."
But what if NY1 loses its favorite anchor? The 43-year-old Kiernan has made no secret about his broader ambitions -- bringing his NY1 audience along for his informal, protracted public audition to take over Regis Philbin's vacant seat on ABC's morning show "Live! With Kelly." He served repeatedly as guest co-host with Kelly Ripa as part of the network's search for a permanent Philbin replacement. When the job ultimately went to former New York Giant Michael Strahan, Kiernan published his disappointment on his blog and joked on-air with his sidekick, traffic reporter Jamie Shupak, that she would have to put up with him for a little while longer.
"I'm sorry it didn't work out because it would have been a fun job," Kiernan said, "but I am in a perfectly good spot and I never want people to read into it that there's dissastisfaction at NY1 or that I'm not perfectly content to keep doing the job that's been so good to me." (Earlier, he had mentioned having gotten into some hot water for calling his NY1 job a "stepping stone" in a 2011 interview with New York magazine.)
Asked how Kiernan's open desire for a higher-profile job affected the internal climate at NY1, Paulus was circumspect. "If he was talking about getting an anchor job at a broadcast in New York City, I think people would be upset," the senior executive explained. "I don't begrudge him ambition," he said, adding, "I am glad that he didn't get the gig."
Indeed, as Kiernan pointed out, his wandering eye has very likely benefited his current employer.
"Ultimately, from NY1's perspective this is the best case outcome, because we got tons of buzz," the anchor said. "We got all that press for the last few months but they still got to keep me," he continued, laughing.
Of course, while Kiernan certainly seems comfortable to stay put for now, we can't expect him to stay there forever. One of these days, a national broadcast is bound to scoop him up. But Paulus, for one, says he's not worried.
"I don't want to say that the channel is bigger than the individual, but people will watch no matter who's anchoring," he said.
That remains to be seen, but people are certainly watching now.
Your cable box serves as a built-in analytics tool for Time Warner, though the company cannot legally make the data itself public. The data collected by the set-top boxes showed that for a period of five months NY1 was the most-watched channel offered by Time Warner Cable - and all of TWC's news channels are among the top five most watched in their respective markets.
"The bottom line is that people turn us on all the time," Paulus said. "It's an amazing story, and we are still trying to figure out how to tell it."