Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Letter to Santa

Dear Santa,

How have you been? Did you have a nice summer? How is the missus? Are the elves giving you any trouble? Does the Air Force fire missiles at you when you fly over Washington?

I have been a good boy this year, but you already know that because you are omnipresent: you see me when I'm sleeping, you know when I'm awake, and you issue nationwide Elf Alert System (EAS) tests. Anyway, I've held up my end of the bargain, so could you please use your quasi deity-like powers to give me the following items on my Christmas list?

Please tell CBS I want to see more football and less promos of their lame prime time programs. Oh, and if "Two and a Half Men" is America's #1 comedy, then I'm dating a Kardashian.

The next commercial pitchman who uses the phrase "(holiday or season) is just around the corner," should have Rudolph drop a dukey through his open moon roof.

Please make the FCC require all news programs that air segments on The Muppets (a Disney/ABC property), Justin Beiber, SpongeBob (a Viacom property), or Lady Gaga, to run a banner at the top of the screen for the duration of the segment stating THIS IS NOT NEWS, THIS IS A PROMOTIONAL PIECE.

When an advertiser uses his offspring in a commercial, please ask the IRS to deny that child dependent status on the parent's income tax filing. If the kid can be a television pitchman, he's earning income.

Please limit the number of country music award shows to no more than one per year. There's not enough good country music to justify more than that. And while we're at it, just give Taylor Swift her own category.

I like Brian Williams, but when he is anchoring, his job is to deliver the news. Present the facts. Nothing more. Every time any news anchor tells me how I should feel about a news story, please have somebody sock him or her in the kisser.

Please change the name of HLN to TMZ and be done with it.

Please tell producers of television dramas that the most important element of their craft is something called Honesty. It comes from the actors giving a moving performance that is inspired by quality writing and illuminated by creative and thoughtful directing. One of the finest moments I've ever seen on television was Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker giving a eulogy for a coworker. Archie didn't know until now that his friend was Jewish. He is conflicted. He's forced to work through some emotions. The camera moves in tight... I mean extreme close-up tight. The studio is quiet. No mawkish music. No coached audience reaction. No motion control camera. No tricks. Just Archie, a mournful, confused, and frightened man realizing the world wasn't always as simple as he thought it was, and that look his eyes as he finds the right words. Please, Santa, tell the producers of "Parenthood" and other dramas to watch Archie in that scene and learn from it. Turn off the grating, manipulating music in the last five minutes, and let the cast and the writing shine. In a world filled with internet scams and politicians and talk radio snake oil salesmen telling us what they think we should believe, we want... we need more honesty.

That's all I want for Christmas, Santa... a little more honesty. That's a lot to ask of television. But it's worth a try.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Head Games

And now it's time to play every TV station manager's favorite game, "Wheel of Network Feed Screw Ups and Practical Jokes!" It's the exciting and unpredictable game where master control tries to outwit one of the Big Four network's technical operations center. Here's how the game is played.

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about how television works is the idea that local network broadcasters have full control over what they can air and when they can air it. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there are many times when a local station is at the mercy of conditions beyond their control. As a player of "Wheel of Network Feed Screw Ups and Practical Jokes!" your job is to try to predict what kind of out-of-left-field programming move your network will make, while trying to pour through the 50 emailed contingency memos and revised timing sheets they sent, and discovering they've told you absolutely nothing at all... at about the same time the network goes to color bars. The player who runs their station the smoothest without the viewers seeing this...

wins the game! Let's meet our contestants and see how they're doing.

On the Fox board we have Smedly Katrowsky, who is running the 2011 World Series. He has 81 emails from Fox TOC with attachments for contingency logs for a rain delay, stand-by programming if there's a rain out, and a map detailing the precise location of the Ark of the Covenant, but no format sheet for the actual baseball game! During the National Anthem he discovers he has to go to the Fox Affiliate Relations website and download the ball game format sheet. He's on the phone with his department head trying to get the password he needs to access the format sheet. Right now, somebody is hacking a bank computer and stealing Smedly's credit card number in order to buy four hundred Easy Feets, but Fox World Series commercial rundowns require a user name and a password that gets changed every three months.

Over on the NBC board we have Cynthia Narcolepsy, who should have an easy time of it because, as everybody knows, NBC has no sports. It's "The Biggest Loser," two hours of overweight people stepping on a scale in their underwear. NBC: Proud as a Peacock.

Running the Alphabet tonight, we have Waldo Rathskeller. He's going to need lightning reflexes, because ABC never sends a printout of timings; you have to scribble them down from an electronic display on a tiny network monitor screen as they scroll by like the end credits on "Entertainment Tonight." Whoops! What's this? A message on the monitor says affiliates taking the seasonal option should insert their legal ID upside down only at :05 past the hour, wear a fedora, put their left hand in, take their left hand out, and take their local breaks following this formula:

(S=program segment time, c=the speed of light, d=Disney's stock price, t=the number of men watching "The View")

Oh, and "20/20" is live tonight. Good luck with that, Waldo.

Whoops! Fox is jumping to regular programming. Seems that instead of going for an hour, the big Ultimate Fighting extravaganza took about 30 seconds when one of the participants - get this - threw a punch. Quick, Smedly, cut to your recording of the back-up pre-feed that was sent at 4:00 this afternoon. What? Whaddya mean, "What pre-feed?" Hooboy. Looks like this Fox affiliate will be treating viewers to an extra hour of infomercials. Smedly is going to finish the competition in-

Wait a minute! We have a development over on CBS. Willie Fugett has dead air during the Republican Debate! Seems the moderator just told viewers that here in South Carolina we'll see the last half-hour of the debate... * but now the Eye has gone dark. And... wait for it...

Oh! I'm so sorry, Willie. Not only did you get hosed by a network switching error, but you just triggered a conspiracy theory that WSPA is run by dirty hippie liberals. But we have some lovely parting gifts for you backstage. Enjoy your next job answering the 800 number to order Easy Feet.

*Apparently, airing a debate in its entirety would have been a violation of the Letterman Act of 1992, which states that if the late night programs slide past midnight, Letterman will give the president of Viacom an atomic wedgie he won't soon forget.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Football on TV

I worked a master control shift Sunday, the first time I've run the NFL golden time, and I've got to tell you it was a learning experience. At home, I watch football with a fleeting attention span. I don't have to actually pay attention to the procedure of the broadcast; all I have to do is work the remote and yell at the referees who seem bent on turning the sport into a playground tag football league. If things get boring, I change the channel or get up and eat something. In master control, as I've said before, we can't change the channel, and there's no MUTE button. Like or not, I'm taking the same ride as the entire network.

My first complaint goes out to whomever decides the Lima TV market deserves to see Cleveland lose... again... badly... instead of Cincinnati coming from behind to win again in a game against the Titans that would, along with the Steelers losing that night, put the Bengals atop the AFC North. I know there are a lot of Dawg Pound fans around here, and the Browns have a lot of history, but the Bengals have actually played in a couple of Superbowls and have a small chance at one right now. We know they'll get their helmets handed to them in the first playoff game, and yes last week the cast from "Glee" could've beat the Seahawks, but that's still more fun than being subjected to the Browns. Come on, CBS, cut us a break.

Fortunately, in our facility we run all four networks through one master control, so I had the Packers on the Fox channel. Throughout the day, I noticed a few things about the two competing networks:

The pregame shows start more or less an hour before kickoff. That's a lot of time to kill before anything starts happening, even with 16 minutes of commercials. As a result, the networks put five guys in suits at a desk on a set that costs more than your house and apparently instructs the "talent" to be as goofy as possible. The desk is made up of the following cast members: the ex-coach who's a little addle-minded but a legend so he can say anything, the ex-star player who looks good in Brooks Brothers and knows Payton Manning is gunning for his chair, the "character" ex-player who's meant to stir things up when he goes "off script" and talks smack to the ex-star player, the analyst who makes predictions my cat could've come up with...

"If the Buccaneers hope to beat the Packers, they're going to have to score more points."

and the serious African-American guy in Armani who is acts as the "anchor" of the show and keeps a straight face as best he can while the others make us all wish the network would just fill the time slot with Three Stooges movies.

Once the game starts, we begin the television cycle of break positioning. It goes something like this: kickoff, 3 and out, punt, commercials, run plays, score, extra point, commercials, kickoff, commercials, run plays, review the last play with a commercial break, the touchdown is good, extra point, commercials, network promos for Animation Domination or CSI, kickoff, commercials, 3 and out, punt, commercials, final play of the quarter, commercials... and all the while the "truck" inserts computer graphics to look like there are more commercials actually on the playing field. This practice really bothers me. I wonder of the players down on the field, bruised and sore, really appreciate the fact there's a commercial being electronically painted on the field they're getting beat up on?

CBS is the king of not showing us the game. After a commercial break, they'll show a single play, then go to a promo for the CBS comedy lineup. (On any given shift, I run "How I Met Your Mother" at least twice, sometimes three times. They should give that show it's own channel.) All the while, we're not able to see what's happening on the field. At one point during the Cleveland game CBS went an entire 10 minutes without showing us football. It wasn't halftime, and as far as I could tell nobody was injured. It was just a collection of let's-stand-around-and-not-play-football moments that had CBS running at least two, maybe three commercial breaks, a promo run, and showing us a lot of players standing around not playing football. It's the sort of thing that leads viewers to channel surf or go out and do yard work.

I noticed the NFL is running a public service campaign for young people encouraging them to get up and play for 60 minutes a day. Maybe they should encourage their players to do the same thing.

Thanks, for the inspiration, Andy.