31 Skidoo

10/11/2007 10:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Some people won't be voting for Rudy Giuliani -- the co-star of Tuesday night's Super Debate Bowl XIX, or whatever number they are up to -- because he had more wives than co-star Mitt Romney. Some because New York City firemen doubt his claims about being in harm's way after 9/11. One report had him spending more time at Yankee Stadium than at Ground Zero. Others are against him because he drove the squeegee men out of town, leaving New Yorkers riding around with dirty windshields. Some are down on him for his role in the Bernie Kerik fiasco. Still others because of his flip- flopping on abortion, gun control and what have you.

Whenever I hear Rudy G. bragging about what a great fiscal manager he was during his terms as New York mayor -- as he did before, during and after the big MSNBC debate in Michigan -- I keep remembering how he bungled the sale of WNYC/31.

Ch. 31 was the only municipally owned TV station in the nation. The Federal government built it in 1961 as an experiment to test how UHF would work in a crowded urban media environment, and then turned it over to the city in 1962.

During the next decade or two, our other major public TV station, the famous WNET/13's, programming had grown highly forgettable. Do we really need public TV to re-run Fred and Ginger over and over again, critics were asking, or re-run "The Three Tenors" until their throats were sore?

Ch. 31 offered a public TV alternative. No other station would run the British soap opera, "East Enders." It ran outrageous British comedies and controversial dramas the establishment Ch. 13 wouldn't touch. Ch. 31 was the only place you could see the Italian network RAI news at six when local news was so boring. Maybe it was a sex show; it was interesting anyway. You could study Japanese by watching Fujisankei TV shows or Serbo-Croatian network programming on the leased time hours, all of which were so much better than infomercials on other commercial UHF channels.

Suddenly in August 1995, Rudy G. decided to sell the station. The summer of that year, you might not remember, was the height of the media frenzy. Media barons were running amok buying and merging. Every day it seemed somebody was even buying CBS. Everybody except you and me, and I wasn't interested.

In the auction Rudy mandated, the station went to a consortium of ITT and Dow-Jones for $207 million. Now this was a station on the UHF dial that was watched by two and a half people, whose ratings in the last Nielsen book for the New York City market were near Ch. 8 of New Haven and Ch. 10 in Philadelphia. $207 million? It was as if there was something in the water broadcasters were drinking.

Rudy immediately went on the balcony to deliver one of his pronuncimentos crowing about the deal. It was, the folks were led to believe, the most brilliant coup in the history of municipal finance since Peter Minuet swindled the Indians out of Manhattan Island for $24.

Look at what a fiscal genius I am, he basically explained at great length. Now he would be able to balance the budget, the second favorite indoor sport of the Giuliani administration. So what if the streets remained unpaved.

The question was why would such shrewd business people at ITT and Dow-Jones want a station with a viewer ship "barely measurable," the Nielsen term? They knew their FCC. They knew it was all about spectrum. The 1996Telecommunicationss bill was wending its way through Congress. In going from analog to digital, the FCC would rule with compression each channel would get five sister stations. Buy one, and get six. Each license was a potential cash cow.

The fiscally responsible quick fix artist Rudy G. had given away the whole cow barn.

By unloading the station for a crummy 207 million, Rudy G. bartered away the city's chance to make a real killing. Media sales were absolutely insane. A conservative estimate of six to ten times is, well, conservative.

Rudy had done what Harold Macmillan had condemned Margaret Thatcher for doing at the same time in the UK: selling off the family silver.

Thanks to Rudy's ingenuity, New York was eating with plastic spoons. A penny wise, pound-foolish mayor had cost the city a chance to have an annuity. True, the sweetheart deal won him many friends in the broadcast and cable industry, as the WNYC/31 commercial license changed hands faster than a three-card Monte dealer's, increasing in value as it skidded up the corporate merger chain the next few years. TV licenses, as well as sex, make strange bedfellows.

The irony in all of this is that the Federal government had a strong first claim for the money, not the city. Taxpayer money had built the station. If Newt Gingerich in 1996 wasn't so busy reading his glowing notices about the "Republican Contract" restoring fiscal integrity to Washington, he would have had the Feds step in and impound the station or at least cough up the $207 million.

The station was Federal property. What would Rudy do the next time he had to balance the budget? Sell off the Washington Arch?

I know this is a local issue. But as Tip O'Neill said, all politics is local.

Rudy Giuliani has proved he has many lives as a semi-neutered cat. He has made a name for himself as a crime-buster, a millionaire lobbyist, a husband of the year who let his last wife know he would be divorcing her on TV, a terrorist fighter, a volunteer fireman. Despite his personal charm and the comb-over, it still sticks in my craw to hear him utter those magic words of his current campaign slogan: " Fiscal. Discipline."