The Thirteenth: Television and Loneliness

May 13th, 2008

Why do people talk to their television sets? Have television and real life become hopelessly intertwined? And scarier, have television sets literally become our friends? I recently spoke with Jonah Lehrer, author of “Proust Was A Neuroscientist,” about these and other questions.

T.T.: Do you think Proust would have watched television?

Lehrer: My sense is that he would have. He used to listen to live opera over the phone. In his essays, he comes back again and again to the way you are lost when you read, disappear into the medium. Books and television are both complex acts of disappearing.

T.T.: What actually happens in the brain when we read a book or watch television?

Lehrer: Television requires that we think a lot and invent worlds and keep track of characters, but when we watch the Sopranos, we’re all watching the same Sopranos. I think the most complete act of imagination is still reading words on a page. The brain provides an incredible feat of cognition when we read. It transforms symbols on a page into a movie we create in our head. It reads a sentence. ‘Jack was smiling.’ The abstract communication is translated, and our mirror neurons light up as if we were smiling, too, a hot new brain circuit. The mirror neurons are involved in how we understand how someone else is feeling. In science, we call this dual process. The frontal cortex rationally takes in the information and farther back in the brain, the limbic system responds.

T.T.: Does someone real or imagined make us respond in the same way?

Lehrer: The brain is constantly confronted with ambiguous symbols. It does really well in making sense of those ambiguities. We may not see the same color red, but we pretend that it’s all the same red. The visual cortex particularly excels at this. For example, we each have a blind spot in the middle of our visual field, but the brain seamlessly fills it in. Confronted with holes, we automatically make sense of it anyway.

You’ve written about how, observing just a few brush strokes in a painting by Cezanne, the viewer will fill in the scene.

Lehrer: Yes. And similarly, if you show people a computer screen with just a few pixels and lines on it, representing a face, people will hypothesize that it’s a face. As for television, its very nature is so cinematic that I think it is captivating to memory and naturally confuses us. Photographs can do this, too. I know that many of my memories are actually based on looking at family photographs.

T.T.: But you don’t talk to those pictures.

Lehrer: When our computers crash we yell at them because we invest them with the qualities of something that has agency or intention -– something that is alive. The brain didn’t evolve in a state including television. When the brain evolved, all animated creatures were living things, not electronic.

T.T.: So how do we relate to electronic communication?

Television has many human characteristics. It seems to be a little moody. It throws out different emotions. And the brain is slightly tricked by things that don’t have agency and are not really alive. So you could construct a hypothesis that we talk to our television set not because we are lonely, but because our brain thinks it’s “one of us.”



Haven’t sent your renga yet? Just send one along when you’ve got it… And come back June 13th, when The Thirteenth presents an extremely limited engagement of “Public Television: The Swimsuit Issue.”

Inside Thirteen blogger: The Thirteenth (Vickie Karp, Freelance Writer for 13)

WWII in NY, Through the Eyes of Teens Past and Present

May 12th, 2008

Inside Thirteen blogger: Andrew Yamato, Outreach Producer, Life After Broadcast

There was an op-ed column in the New York Times a few weeks ago about a recent survey of American teenagers in which 20% didn’t know who the United States had fought against in World War II. One quarter couldn’t even identify Adolf Hitler.

Statistics like these are partly why Thirteen commissioned Brooklyn-based Reel Works Teen Filmmaking to produce a half-hour documentary about World War II as part of our outreach effort for Ken Burns’ THE WAR. The completed film, titled Over Here, had its premiere screening on Monday, May 5th at Thirteen.

For this project, Reel Works co-founders John and Stephanie Williams assembled local high school filmmakers Derek Garcia, Zachary Lennon-Simon, Rebecca Kaplan, Niaz Mosharraf, Isaac Shrem, and Melinda Tenenzapf to work under the supervision of filmmaker and Reel Works mentor Maria Gambale. This “Team Thirteen” met with Thirteen staff last August to brainstorm fresh approaches to the well-worn subject of World War II, eventually choosing to focus on the homefront as experienced by New Yorkers who had themselves been teenagers at the time.

Reel Works filmmaker Zachary Lennon-Simon and interviewee Corliss Fyfe Whitney

Team Thirteen then went on to conduct extensive interviews with over a dozen subjects, weaving their candid recollections into a refreshing portrait of a “greatest generation” as diverse and opinionated as their city itself. Punctuated with eclectic stock footage and poignantly scored by composer Barney McCall, Over Here stands not only as a document of what happened over sixty years ago, but as an inspiring example of the direct and vital connection that can still be made between the wartime generation and the young people inheriting the world they helped save.

That connection was movingly evident as both filmmakers and subjects spoke of each other with deep respect and affection during the Q&A panel discussion which followed Monday’s screening. For myself and the other Thirteen staff present, it was a great opportunity to see the impact of our outreach efforts on such a personal level, and we’re looking forward to future collaborations with Reel Works.

You can watch Over Here on Thirteen’s NEW YORK WAR STORIES website.

It will also soon be downloadable from iTunesU—Apple’s collection of free educational podcasts.

A Transformative Handshake

May 9th, 2008

There aren’t too many people on the planet that I can say I’d be honored just to pass in a lobby, but that’s exactly how I feel about author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. We just ran into each other downstairs, and I got to exchange a few words with a great man. He was here shooting an interview to coincide with our broadcast of Visions of Israel.

When I asked the crew how the shoot had gone, they could not have been more complimentary. One of our staffers told me that “when Elie Wiesel shakes your hand, it’s a handshake you’re going to remember for the rest of your life.” I couldn’t agree more.

Visions of Israel will premiere on May 14th, 2008.

An Ordinary Tuesday?

May 6th, 2008

Inside Thirteen blogger: Neal Shapiro, President

It looked like my usual Tuesday morning:

8:00 a.m.: Dropped my son off at school.

8:30 a.m.: Breakfast meeting with someone interested in our new international news program.

9:30 a.m.: Meeting about Great Performances.

10:30 a.m.: Senior managers’ meeting.

12:30 p.m.: Meeting with Mayor Bloomberg and Sting.


That’s right. At a press conference at 1 p.m. in Times Square, Mayor Bloomberg, Sting and the Police announced their very last concert ever in NYC. The proceeds from the concert will be donated to our public television stations, Thirteen and WLIW, and they will also fund planting 10,000 trees in NYC.

I was there to represent Thirteen and to thank Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers for their generosity. My colleague, Terrel Cass, president of WLIW, was also there.

We gathered just off Times Square while we waited for the mayor. Perhaps you were wondering if The Police were one of those bands who travel with a huge entourage and keep to themselves.

In fact, they were very approachable and friendly. They patiently posed for pictures, including a few with the real police as we chatted about life on the road.

Sting and Neal Shapiro

I asked if they had a chance to enjoy the different cities they visited. Stewart said that life on the road is a blur and even if you are in a great city, they are often too exhausted to enjoy it. “Better to go back when you have more time,” he said. “though I always love New York.”

I asked Andy if they always played the same set…if they ever decided to sing in a different order. He said the band might like to do that on occasion, but there are all kinds of lighting and stage cues involved in each song, so making a change on the fly is very difficult.

Finally, I told Sting that my wife and I had seen him on his recent tour and I was struck by how much he invited the audience to sing along with him, often times stopping a verse in the middle so the audience could complete the song. “Well, mate,” he said, “just means less singing for me!”

By now, you may be saying, “Enough with the backstage banter. Where is the concert? How do I get tickets?”

Well, we are still working all that out. So, as we say in tv, stay tuned.

Cyberchase Day at Shea Stadium

May 2nd, 2008

Inside Thirteen blogger: Kelly Lafferty, Associate Producer, Cyberchase











Why were thousands of kids screaming “pentagon!” at a Mets game on Wednesday, April 30? Cyberchase Day at Shea Stadium! Over 10,000 kids were captivated (that’s right, 10,000 kids were quiet in a baseball stadium) as Matt “Harry” Wilson and Digit LeBoid hosted an interactive pre-game show featuring Mets players John Maine and Aaron Heilman. With his voice booming through the stadium and his face projected on the huge Jumbotron screen over a Cyberspace background, Maine asked the kids if they could name the geometrical shape of home plate – and NYC students’ thunderous reaction proved they understand the connection between math and sports.

Cyberchase’s 25-minute pre-game show demonstrated ways that math can be used in sports. Kids were even challenged to estimate how many hot dogs are consumed during a game. With 30,000 people at a game, about 1 out of every three people will chow down on a hot dog – so kids discovered that ~10,000 hot dogs are devoured.

Throughout the game Harry & Digit made field appearances with Mr. Met to the delight of cheering fans of all ages. Wednesday was the second time that Cyberchase was invited to Shea Stadium … and both days have proven a “home run” (sorry but i had to!) for the WNET team, the Mets, and most importantly, Cyberchase fans.

Cyberchase Day at Shea is part of Cyberchase’s Math & Sports initiative, which gives kids tools to develop winning game strategies while encouraging them to get active with math. Go to Cyberchase for math & sports online games, episode information, and activities for teachers and parents.

The Secrets Behind the Stories

May 1st, 2008

Inside Thirteen Blogger: Debra Falk, Communications

Last week, The New York Times ran a feature on Thirteen’s own SECRETS OF THE DEAD, a series I have publicized for the majority of its eight seasons. After seeing the piece, someone came up to me and commented how great it was that the Times’ story happened, and asked me if I knew they were running it…so here’s a behind-the-scenes look into that process.

For this particular story, it went down like this: weeks prior to broadcast, my colleague Donald Lee and I determined which media outlets would receive materials about the upcoming SECRETS premiere shows. Screeners and releases were duplicated and sent, then we start leaving messages in inboxes and voicemails. When the moons align, we chat with a real, live person. “Did you get the screener? Do you need more info? We have producers and experts to interview…interested?”

We always try to hit everyone we think might be interested at the New York Times, from the Arts & Entertainment editor to the TV Decoder blogger–you never know who is going to bite on the story.

The “pitch” suggests packaging all the new episodes into a bigger story about the series and brags how successful the series has been over the years, and says that if you haven’t dug into SECRETS in a while, you should talk to its executive producer, Jared Lipworth. The response? Nothing. For weeks. We try again. Still no response.

I start getting a little nauseous at the prospect of no news = no coverage. Then about a week before the premiere broadcast, I get a call from the Culture Desk writer. Seems that the A&E editor I’ve been barraging wants her to do a round-up story on the new season, and wants to talk with Jared and representatives from all four episodes. I do an endzone dance in my cube. I high-five Donald. I call producer Jared (I think he did a dance, too). Then I realize that I have to round up all the shows’ experts, none of whom I’ve spoken with to date–and who are scattered around the world–to do interviews starting immediately. We have just a few days to make this story happen.

So I start off with the Aztec Massacre expert in the U.K.; I think I have her office number, so I call to leave a message. After all, it’s 11:30 p.m. there.’s her home number–she picks up. Not the way I’d hoped to make her acquaintance, but she’s good-natured about it, and excited about talking with the Times about her work. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice, so the rest of the calls wait for morning. It takes a couple of days to track down researchers that are in Crete for “Sinking Atlantis” (and Crete seems to be riddled with spotty reception), Jerusalem for “Escape From Auschwitz”, (and I’m trying to reach him over Passover, no less) and Seattle for “Doping For Gold” (I talk to him while he sits in the Boston Airport waiting for a plane). Meanwhile, Donald is hustling the photos through internet channels to the Times photo desk.

The day before the story runs, we’re on-call for last minute fact-checking. I drag my Blackberry everywhere–including the ladies room–just in case they need anything. I contact our research and Viewer Services department for more information. I re-send releases and transcripts and synopses to the writer.

That night, I throw pennies into a fountain and salt over my shoulder, wishing for the story to become real (because despite all this legwork, if big news breaks in the 11th hour, our story can get bumped). I hope that it says what we want it to say, and sleep very little.

The next morning, I spring out of bed and log on to the Times, and there it is. The story that just “happened”. After another endzone dance, it’s on to making the next one “happen.”

Coming Soon: An International Newscast for Americans

April 30th, 2008

Inside Thirteen blogger: Neal Shapiro, President

Today we announced plans for a new half-hour broadcast concentrating on international news that will launch on public television in this fall. It’s called Your World Tonight. (Like any production in development, the title is subject to change.)

As a bit of a news junkie myself, I think there is a huge gap in the area of international coverage on television. On 9/11, we were reminded in a graphic and tragic way how what happens halfway around the world can have devastating consequences for us here at home. But world affairs are not always so spectacular. From immigration to the spread of free markets, from climate change to the rising price of commodities, we can see how the world economy and globalization affect our economy, our society and our politics on a daily basis.

For more than a year, we’ve been thinking about what shape this new program should take. Marc Rosenwasser, who will executive produce the program, has worked at three network news divisions. And, just as importantly, he is a former foreign correspondent himself, having worked for more than seven years at The Associated Press, including more than two years as a correspondent in Moscow. Marc has a passion for international news and he’s been meeting with news organizations, reporters, analysts and experts to get this newscast off the ground.

There’s a lot of passion out there for international affairs, and we aim to deliver an innovative and compelling program to the millions of viewers who turn to public television for news coverage they can trust and public affairs programming they won’t find anywhere else.

We’ll be making more announcements about Your World Tonight in the coming weeks, and I’ll be sure to keep readers of this blog up-to-date on the latest developments as we approach the launch date.

Read our announcement on the subject.

The New York Times also covered the story this morning, so the word is already out.

Aaron Brown Brings Experience and Humanity to Wide Angle’s 7th Season

April 29th, 2008

By now you must have read the news about Aaron Brown joining as the new host of Thirteen’s Wide Angle series. I have known Aaron for many years, beginning when we were both working at ABC News. He is a skilled journalist and a wonderful writer, but he first caught my attention soon after he joined ABC News. He was the first co-anchor of the overnight news program and he was on duty during a very sad day.

Sam Donaldson and his producer David Kaplan were in a convoy covering the Sarajevo peace talks when a sniper opened fire. Kaplan, a 22-year veteran of ABC News, was shot and died shortly later at a UN hospital. Aaron was at the anchor desk when Sam called in. As an anchor, there’s no way to prepare for a situation like that. Experience and instinct take over. It was a heartbreaking moment for everyone, especially for those of us who had worked with Sam and Dave. Aaron handled it superbly, perfectly balancing his journalistic duties to report the story with a deep sense of compassion for his fallen colleague.

As Wide Angle begins its seventh season on July 1st, I know that Aaron will bring a sure and steady hand to the program and his touch will make this season especially rewarding.

Aaron Brown photo by Bettina Hansen/ASU

Honoring WGBH’s Henry Becton

April 28th, 2008

Inside Thirteen blogger: Neal Shapiro, President

I spent Saturday night at WGBH, the public broadcaster in Boston, honoring Henry Becton. Last October, after 37 years as President, Henry stepped into his new roles as Vice Chair of WGBH’s Board of Trustees and Senior Editorial Advisor. The event not only honored a great public television leader, but the evening’s proceeds are going to the Becton Fund, which will award annual fellowships to promising young producers.

Henry Becton at WGBH

I had a little bit of déjà vu, since we just honored our own retiring Bill Baker. Like Bill here in New York, Henry guided Boston’s station through hard times and stood by what were some controversial programs. I know John Abbott, WGBH’s new President, feels as I do – that we both owe so much to the public television pioneers who preceded us.

Among the prominent names who were there to honor Henry: actress Kim Cattrall, star of the new Masterpiece program, My Boy Jack; Tony Award-winning singer and actress Barbara Cook; broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff; actress Jean Marsh, Emmy Award-winner for her work in Masterpiece’s Upstairs, Downstairs; PBS President Paula Kerger; Norm Abram of This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop; and Eric Jackson, radio host of WGBH 89.7’s Jazz with Eric in the Evening for 25 years.

Here’s a nice interview that the Boston Globe nabbed with Kim Cattrall right before dinner last night.

Throughout the evening, tapes of Henry in action were shown, including two in which Henry spoofed Riverdance and paid tribute to Judy Garland. Henry was a great leader: I knew Henry could walk the walk and talk the talk. Now I know he can sing and dance as well.

Neal Shapiro and Margaret Drain (WGBH VP of National Programming) meet Kim Cattrall

Connections: Neal Shapiro’s ipod and Thirteen

April 22nd, 2008

Thirteen Blogger: Kellie Specter, Director of Communications

I walked out of the office the other night and I noticed that Neal was listening to an ipod. I thought it was great that our CEO owns an ipod and I became very curious about it. I wondered… “What is Neal listening to?”

Before I came to Thirteen I worked in commercial radio and in the record business, so I’m a bit of a music junkie. I also studied psychology in college, thinking I’d someday be a psychoanalyst (believe me, all those classes have served me well in life!). But on this particular evening, both of my interests came together and I wondered not only what Neal was listening to, but what it said about him. I suppose because he’s the new leader here at Thirteen, a lot of us are curious about him.

So, I emailed Neal and asked him if he would send me 5 songs from his ipod (he graciously sent me the last 5 single plays). Then I rolled up my sleeves and did some research. It turns out that in 2002, scientists at the University of Texas at Austin did the first comprehensive study of the link between music preferences and personality traits. It’s a long but fascinating paper.

So…what is in Neal’s ipod and what does it say about him? Well, here are his 5 songs:

*Summer Wind by Frank Sinatra
*Heat Wave by Linda Ronstadt
*American in Paris, Seiji Ozawa conducting
*1234 by Feist
*Love Me Tender by Elvis Presley

Based on data collected from 3,500 people, the study identified four music preference categories:

Reflective and Complex
Intense and Rebellious
Upbeat and Conventional
Energetic and Rhythmic

This sampling of Neal’s music choices seems to indicate that he is in the Reflective and Complex category. According to a synopsis of the category,

“People with high scores on the Reflective and Complex music-preference dimension tend to be open to new experiences, creative, intellectual, and enjoy trying new things…wisdom, diversity, and fine arts are all important to them. When it comes to lifestyle, high scorers tend to be sophisticated…and after a hard day of work, if they’re not listening to music or reading a book, they enjoy documentary films, independent, classic, or foreign films.”

Classic and independent films? Fine Arts? Trying new things? Well, it would be simplistic to conclude that Reel 13, SundayArts and the other creative new projects that Neal is spearheading here at Thirteen are directly influenced by listening to Frank Sinatra, but it’s certainly interesting to think about.

As for the suspenders? I’m sure there’s a study out there somewhere…