TRENTON - Some New Jersey lawmakers are taking a critical look at a deal to transfer operations of the state-owned New Jersey Network to one of New York's largest public broadcasting stations.
U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) has asked Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski to determine whether the deal is "consistent with the public interest and with FCC rules governing broadcast licenses."
He questioned whether the deal is in the best interests of New Jerseyans. "The deal will end the current NJN nightly news program . . . and will take other high quality New Jersey-focused news shows off the air," Lautenberg said in his letter. "It is difficult to see how the loss of such programming is in the public interest of New Jerseyans - especially considering the state's lack of commercial broadcast television news access."
Under the deal announced this week by Gov. Christie, the state would keep ownership of the broadcasting license but would enter into an agreement with WNET-TV in New York to operate the network.
Christie has said New Jersey doesn't need and cannot afford its own television station.
NJN would be known as NJTV and would continue to provide a nightly news broadcast and live broadcasts of major Statehouse events. The deal also calls for it to provide 20 hours of New Jersey-centric programming, half of which would be provided by the Caucus Educational Corp., headed by Steve Adubato Jr., son of a major political power broker in Newark.
WNET President Neal Shapiro said that the news ramp-up would be slower this summer, with fewer news stories and longer interviews as the station gets going. But he promised that there would be cameras and reporters on the ground in addition to the use of new technology, such as Skype - allowing for more interviews to be done remotely.
On Thursday, state treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff was grilled by Democratic lawmakers on the Assembly Budget Committee for more than two hours about the deal, which the Legislature can veto.
The treasurer said that layoffs still are planned for July 1 and that there's no guarantee the station won't go dark if there is a veto. "There is no Plan B?" asked Assemblywoman Joan Quigley (D., Hudson). "You have your hands around our throats."
The treasurer said the state spent about $13 million a year in net appropriations but noted that the nightly news broadcast had an average audience of about 20,000 viewers - proof, he said, that the station was too costly to keep under state control.
"I don't know that should be the deciding factor," Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden), told him of the viewership numbers.
Unions and other groups are suspicious of the political motivation behind the change, questioning whether WNET had a lock on the deal and whether political agendas will control the content.
"We were also surprised when, while the bidding and negotiating process was still going on, managers at NJN were requested to provide confidential passwords to WNET," said Dudley Burdge, with the Communications Workers of America Local 1032, which represents the remaining 130 NJN employees.
Sidamon-Eristoff said there were five bids for the television network with two finalists, WNET and Montclair State University, but that Montclair State didn't have the necessary capacity and experience to take over the operation of a full schedule of television broadcasting.
The treasurer also said that because Montclair State receives public money, its "proposal would have meant continued reliance on what is, in fact, an arm of the state government."
"We thought we got the best deal possible under the circumstances," the treasurer said.