Interview with Bob Feinberg, General Counsel at WNET New York Public Media
Bob Feinberg joined Educational Broadcasting Corporation (“EBC”) in March, 2008 as Deputy General Counsel and was appointed Deputy General Counsel of WNET in September, 2008. In September, 2009, he was appointed General Counsel of WNET, where he is responsible for overseeing staff covering Legal Affairs, Government & External Affairs, Labor Relations, Talent Relations & Administration, Corporate Records, and the Board of Trustees Administration.
Prior to joining EBC, Bob was general counsel and deputy general counsel at a number of print and online media companies, including American Lawyer Media, publisher of The New York Law Journal. Previously, he served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York (Criminal Division). Earlier, he was as an associate at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP and a law clerk to the Honorable Magistrate Judge Naomi Buchwald, U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Bob has been an Adjunct Professor at Fordham University School of Law since 1991, where he has taught media law, criminal law and legal writing. He is a member of the New York City Bar Association, Communications and Media Law Committee. He is admitted to practice in New York and New Jersey and is a frequent contributor to legal and general interest publications and websites.
Bob earned his J.D. degree from NYU School of Law (1987) and his A.B. degree, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Cornell University (1984). He lives with his wife and two children in Montclair, New Jersey.
M: Hi Bob, great to see you again. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Why don’t we start with you telling me a little bit of how you ended up at WNET?
B: Sure. After I Graduated from NYU Law School in 1987, I clerked in the southern district. After that I went to Debevoise, and after that to the US Attorneys office. At that point I realized I didn’t want to be a litigator and I was able to get a few in house positions – with the common theme being that that they were all IP oriented. At a certain point I was when was looking to make a move from a magazine publisher, were I was general counsel, and I was lucky enough to reconnect with a partner at Debevoise (which has represented Channel 13 for decades) who knew of an opening at Channel 13.
M: Interesting, so while you had good amount of experience in a number of media companies, you also had experiences such as being an AUSA and an associate at law firm – did those experiences help prepare you in any way for the type of work that you currently do in you position at WNET?
B: Yes. In fact, shortly after I arrived at Channel 13 the station became the subject of a civil investigation regarding a number of our federal funders. This was largely an accounting based inquiry. There was a long period of discovery and negotiations, and the matter was referred to the US Attorneys’ Office where we worked out a compliance plan. So, my 5 years in the US Attorneys’ Office helped with that experience. More generally speaking, at both the law firm and the US Attorneys’ Office people were committed to what they were doing, and they were very rigorous. Being a young lawyer at a big law firm, I got to learn the basics about being a lawyer – you learn to do things over and over under they are 100% perfect. And at the US Attorneys’ Office you are working against very skilled adversaries and with very tough judges – so you learn how to play at the best level of the game. If you get this type of experience early in your career it stick with you.
M: Great. Let’s expand on that a little bit. What are the types of things that you do as the GC of a WNET, from both a day-to-day perspective and in a larger sense?
B: As general counsel I am responsible for all the legal aspects of the organization. Channel 13 operates in a very regulation rich environment (Channel 13 hold FCC licenses, it’s also a 501c(3), etc.) so it is a great place to be a lawyer because there is a ton of law. Also, it is a fairly visible non-for-profit (it’s in the largest TV market in the country and is one of the largest member in the PBS family). So most of the time is spent interacting with other senior players in the organization and having a seat at the table when we are making strategic decisions, when we are making economic decisions. I also oversee a department of 20 people – half are lawyers, and half are not lawyers but do legally related things. Luckily, most of them are great at what they do and work hard, so I serve as a second chair when they are negotiating an agreement or when they a need a second set of eyes to look over something At this point, its rare that I sit down and crack open a fresh document, or draft from scratch, but I get to kibbutz a lot when other people are doing it.
M: Switching gears a little bit, technology is always something that is changing and advancing, especially as far as providing and accessing content (online, DVR, etc.). How important is it for you as GC to be aware and up to date on the latest technologies?
B: It’s very important in the world in which we operate. We are a non-for-profit, but really we are a creator of content. Equally as important as the quality of the content is being able to get that content out there as broadly as possible. In fact, we’ve recently taken to calling ourselves NY Public Media because our content is also available streaming, on mobile platforms, and for download to own. Many lawyers who have experience operating in the broadcast space think of the 70s ad 80s – when cable TV came out – as a great revolution. That was a little before my time, but I feel like we are at a similar inflection point. As we track our audiences, the online broadband audiences are doing nothing but growing while our traditional audiences are still there, but they aren’t seeing the growth that we are seeing from the online delivery.
M: Jumping off from that, what do you consider to be the biggest legal hurdles/challenges in the near future that someone in your position will need to deal with?
The technology hurdle – mastering the technologies and understanding what our options are and making the right deals with the right partners. Also, as a non-for-profit, we are always challenged by the tenor of the philanthropic environment. We are quite lucky in that we have a diverse set of revenue streams but every one of those is constantly under challenge, and in tough economic times everyone thinks longer and harder about philanthropic contributions – so that’s a challenge for us.
M: Lastly, what type of advice would you give to someone who wants to try and have a legal career in media/IP/Entertainment?
I think the IP realm is one of the realms of the future, I think that the nature of the practice of law is changing and the traditional paths of getting into the practice of law are changing. I think people should try and be as creative as they can and get as much experience early on to help them figure out what it is that will really ignite their interests and what they will be passionate about. Specifically at Channel 13, we have lots of interns who work here and get experience. We try and give them the best experience we can and we get great work and new ways of thinking of things in exchange – so the opportunity to get out and intern and volunteer with media companies is really invaluable for so many different reasons.
M: Thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Max Schwartz is a J.D. candidate, ’15, at the NYU School of Law.