Monday, December 17, 2012


It was a strange weekend. As it happened, your blogger was on duty for an offset workweek, and master control operated "Saturday Night Live." I had the feeling I was taking a small part in something historic, as that episode went beyond the extra mile. It was also a welcome break from the hours of heartbreaking news coverage. It sounds trivial and whiny, but we in television hate this stuff. It wreaks havoc with our schedules, we have to move commercials, and live coverage means a trip to the men's room is out of the question. Like I said, it sounds trivial. But it's part of the job. We deal with it.

And what I had to deal with is nothing compared to the folks in Newtown have to do: hours spent in a live truck, gulping down another meal from a sack, and then feeling like human garbage when you finally get to go home. You sleep like a stone, but you wake up feeling like you never went to bed. And if the story lives on, you get to suit up and do it again. A lot of reporters and truck crew who were hoping to do their Christmas shopping this past weekend will be sending out gift cards this year.

There were some questionable decisions made during the early hours of the Newtown school shootings coverage. A Facebook wall dedicated to live truckers took an informal survey on whether young children should be interviewed, and the response was a unanimous and resounding NO. Techies aren't the only people questioning this practice. Now if we could only get that message across to the news directors and reporters.

One of the questions that arises from an incident like this is whether we really benefit from the round the clock live news coverage. Personally, there are times when I think we can break away from the coverage and take some time to gather facts while the viewers get a moment to relax. But news outlets have a responsibility to get the information out, and just because I've seen it all doesn't mean somebody just getting off work or waking up doesn't deserve breaking coverage. It's a tough decision, and the early hours of an event like this are grueling, especially for the local stations near the incident. The phones never stop ringing as parents call wanting to know what happened. (We don't know) Should they go get their child? (Probably not yet. We'll tell you when) Why won't you tell us anything? (Because we don't know anything. And speculating only adds to the confusion) It takes courage to look at the camera and say, "We don't know anything, and we're not going to speculate. We'll rejoin live coverage when we've got something confirmed." But I wish more news outlets would do just that.

Social media is playing a role in all this as well, and not all of it is good. Rumors and misinformation have clogged the pipeline, and there may be legal action taken if the rumormongers can be caught. Good luck with that. What's most infuriating about this is that no matter how off-base and misleading a rumor may be, an army of Walter Cronkites can't convince some people otherwise. If someone's friend of a friend posted it, then it must be real. The media is just hiding The Truth.

Without a doubt, somebody is already charging that the Liberal Media are beating the drums for gun control and the Right can't get their message out. To some extent, that's true. Yes, Hollywood, where some of our late night programs are produced, leans left. Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, and The Duke are gone. New York City, the epicenter of network TV and home to Letterman, Fallon, and of course SNL, is only about an hour away from Newtown. Most folks in NYC are in grieving mode right now... but this is New York, after all. Start flapping your gums about the Second Amendment right now and you very likely hear somebody tell you to shut the hell up. The result is that the silence from the Right is deafening; pro-gun politicians are staying out of the spotlight. But it's not for lack of trying on the media's part. Perhaps advocates for gun rights are exercising respectful restraint in our time of grieving. More likely, maybe they feel like they would be thrown to the wolves in a public forum right now. No matter how well spoken you are, trying to defend the right to own assault rifles with magazines that hold dozens of rounds is going to sound callous at this time. Whatever the reason, I'm sure AM radio is making hay out of it right now.

We're searching for answers. We're hurting, and we want someone or something to blame. That's a natural human reaction. I'm encouraged to see some discussion on how we treat mental illness in this country. Our current policy in America is for a doctor to say, "He has to want to help himself," - a gutless excuse to avoid liability and avoid admitting another patient into an overloaded and underfunded system. If a person wanted to help himself, he wouldn't need intervention. In the meantime, there are little things you and I can do to help... starting by taking the lethal weapons away. If we can say, "Dude, you're drunk. I'm taking the car keys," then we can also say, "Dude, you're in depression. I'm taking the AK-47. No, you don't need it for protection. That's what I'm here for." I'm not saying it's the perfect solution, but it's a start.

A number of people on social media have posted that the mass killings in Newtown are the fault of America being a "godless country." I'm having trouble following that reasoning, even if you accept America is godless, but it sounds like somebody at Westboro Baptist Church learned how to use the Internet. Research shows America is actually a very spiritual nation, with the overwhelming majority claiming to be Christian. So saying America is godless is an insult to all Christians, as well as those who practice any other faith. Personally, the inference seems to be that the Newtown shooting spree was the result of banning prayer in schools. If that's the case, someone really needs to do a little research, first on Prayer in Public Schools, and then on what happened at Columbine, before that person hits the "share" button.

Sorry, I rambled. Back to the media. Inevitably, the question arises, does violence on TV cause violent crime. That question has been brought up countless times ever since parents questioned the violent content of "The Untouchables" back in 1959. There may be a connection, but hard evidence is scant. We do know young children are influenced by what they see on TV, which is why parental guidance is often suggested. I do believe, and it's just my opinion, that a person living on a steady diet of violent TV and movies, internet content, and shoot-to-kill games, can develop a distorted view of the world. Just like watching nothing but one news source without taking in a variety sources and considering the different points of view, a person can develop a "video game" mentality. It's possible that a person could carry out an act of violence, then experience that gut twisting moment of realization that what they have done is real and irreversible, and then turn the gun on himself. It's just a theory, but it makes me wonder. But remember, fiction, regardless of the medium, tends to be a refection of the society in which it was created. Gansta Rap wouldn't exist without the real experiences of the artists. So does violence breed violence, or do we learn from it?

We don't have easy answers, but the conversation seems to be starting. And that's a sign of hope. Baby steps. But I think we'll get there.

Monday, December 3, 2012

You Say You Want a "Revolution?"

Over the weekend, I received word that my high school physics and homeroom teacher Jon Doughty passed away. I've had many teachers over the years, and many left an impression in some form or another. But it was Mr. Doughty who taught me how to take something that looks like this...

Visualize it as this...

And translate that into a scientifically based reason why our live shot dropped out when the wind picked up.

He was the guy who used Road Runner cartoons to demonstrate Newton's laws of gravity, or the violation there of. (It was Bugs Bunny who said, "I know this defies the law of gravity, but you see, I never studied law.") But he was also one of that rare breed of teachers who understood Real World application; he knew that every working electrical engineer walked around with Ohm's Law written on a scrap of paper in his wallet, or taped to the back of his calculator. He let us use these things...

knowing that we would in the Real World - and I do - but it would be no substitute for understanding what we were calculating.

And so, it was Mr. Doughty who inspired one of my favorite fictional creations. In honor of Mr. Doughty, it's time now for a visit from the man who spoiled "Star Wars," (in order to produce enough power to destroy a planet in one shot, the Death Star would in all likelihood destroy itself in the process. And besides, the "trigger" is clearly a Grass Valley video production switcher.) and asked us to ponder the inexplicable and trivial (Does Superman worry about tooth decay?) here now to ruin "Revolution" is


Riddle me this: a man walks up to you with a bottle in his hand. "In this bottle," he says, "is a miracle of science. Inside is a liquid that turns anything it touches invisible." How do you know he's lying?

To wit: If I tell you I have a device that will cause all the electricity in on the planet to disappear, and continue that state until I turn it off... how do you know I'm full of beeswax?

It's a paradox. In order to stop power, I need power... probably a lot more of it than I'm stopping. And then I have to figure out a way to keep the device from affecting itself. In order to stop electricity, you're building  a device that stops the flow of electrons. So, what stops it from destroying the flow of its own electrons, thus shutting itself down, or possibly even altering the nature of matter at a sub-atomic level within a near field of the device? In other words, I wouldn't want to be standing right next that thing.

"Don't take another step, Doctor Quest, or I'll throw this switch and everybody in this room will be dest- Ah, hell. I didn't really think this part through."

And then there are these pendants that, over a limited range, overcomes the electricity eating device. So now we have a device overpowering a device that is overpowering, oh let's call it The Laws of Nature. Wow. Somebody's pushing a lot of juice through a piece of jewelery. If it's anything like the CPU in my computer, I'll bet that thing gets pretty hot in a big hurry... too hot to hold in your hand for more than a second.

It is true that electrical disruption is possible over several hundred miles by detonating a nuclear bomb a hundred miles or so above the earth. This is called The Pulse, and it is the byproduct of sending a whole lotta superheated atoms with all their electrons scattering into the atmosphere at a very high speed. This is called electromagnetic interference. (EMI) But the effects are temporary, just long enough to shut off radio and television signals, screw up the Emergency Alert System, and cause general mayhem if not panic among the population... as the enemy attacks their true objectives.

Creating The Pulse requires an outpouring of power that truly represents the pinnacle - or nadir, depending on your point of view - of human technology, but at a terrific cost, and even then the effects are temporary. Imagine keeping that going for 15 years.Why would you bother? After about six months without electricity, a large part of a our population would be ready to kill to survive. Just ask anyone living in Rockaway.

It's fascinating to see a vision of how our society would devolve over time without electricity. It's true that we rely on it for a lot we take for granted. But I can't help but think that somewhere, maybe on college campuses densely populated by industrious students and professors, somebody would figure out all they have to do is build Faraday cages. Ohio State and other universities could build Faraday caged diesel engines and create a much more efficient revolution. Then again, it's my understanding that a number of military vehicles already are rolling Faraday cages with high-voltage ignition systems designed to - at least in theory - overcome a pulse. But that would make for a very, very short TV show.

So, we're asked to believe that the planet Earth has been robbed of all electricity, including it would appear lightning in a thunderstorm, for 15 years in order for "Revolution" to work; somebody pushed a button, and all the electricity all over the world just stopped, except when one of these pendants is activated. Uh-huh.

Go ahead. Try to stop this.

Fortunately for NBC, the creators of this show are keeping the exact science behind all this a mystery - the MacGuffin, if you prefer. That's a smart move, because other than providing a central mystery to arc over then entire life span of the series, it also conveniently gets the messy physics of such a scenario out of the way. Perhaps, in the end, it won't really matter how they did it. If the writers, actors, and everyone else pull this thing off right, we the viewers won't care. Like the final episode of "M*A*S*H," we don't really care about how the Korean war came to an end. All we care about is Hawkeye and friends.

Mr. Physics likes the bow and arrow stuff. It reminds me of Robin Hood and his merry band outwitting the Sheriff of Nottingham. And I like when a good guy does get hold of a gun, it often jams or malfunctions in some way, which is accurate. It's been 15 years since anybody made any gun oil.

But Mr. Physics has noticed that The Blackout hasn't stopped the manufacturing of toothpaste.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Ripped From Yesterday's Headlines

When I think of hard-hitting, gritty, relevant TV drama, I tend to think of shows in the 1980's. "Hill Street Blues" is often considered the police drama that blew away the conventions laid down by NBC's "Dragnet" back in 1949, and paved the way for the Law & Order, and CSI franchises. In fact, in the book Brought To You In Living Color by Marc Robinson, Hill Street creators Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll put Fred Silverman, Brandon Tartikoff, and everyone else at the Peacock on notice that their new show would make "Dragnet" look like a nursery rhyme.

But what really made "Hill Street" and it's progeny break away was the addition of multiple story arcs among the various character. "Law & Order" actually marks a return to a more "Dragnet" simpler character arc format, as the soap opera usually takes a back seat to the procedural, and if things do get personal, it's usually the focus of one character per episode. Sure, "Hill Street" added stronger language and put some sexual tension in the squad room, but the blood and guts of police work was nothing all that new. And if you think hot-button issues didn't turn up on prime time until the 1980's, think again.

Let's go back to a simpler time and see what's on WIMA-TV in Lima, Ohio for Thursday August 14, 1969. All programs listed in the Toledo Blade on this date are in color unless otherwise noted. The Blade makes it a point to inform us that WIMA is on "UHF channel 35." And WBGU is on "UHF channel 70." Let's see what's on after the six o'clock news.

6:30 - The Huntley-Brinkely Report. NBC. This was the Big Daddy of evening network newscasts through the '60's, but on this date a change was in the wind. Walter Cronkite's knowledge and enthusiasm during the Apollo moon landing coverage had won over viewers who found CBS coverage more interesting. In few more years, Cronkite would become "The most trusted man in America," while NBC's John Chancellor would be that other guy and Huntley-Brinkley would be as outdated as a Studebaker Lark.
 7:00 - I Love Lucy (b/w) Syndication. Episode details are not listed, but I'm guessing it's the one where Lucy gets into trouble and Ricky says something in Spanish. WIMA master control is running a 16mm film that by now is starting to look rather beat.

7:30 - Daniel Boone - NBC. Fess Parker stars in one of the last of the frontier/westerns of the era. Episode details are not available, but The Blade runs a feature article on co-star Patricia Blair who says she likes being on the long-running show. Rosie Grier will join the cast in the next and final season.

8:30 - Ironside - NBC. Raymond Burr stars in the role of a detective in a wheelchair in the days when it assumed a wheelchair meant you were helpless. In tonight's episode, a female officer goes undercover as an unwed mother to catch people performing illegal abortions. The Blade features this episode in its reviews and notes it stays away from controversy. Still, just the mention of the word "abortion" in 1969 must've put some people on edge.

9:30 - Dragnet - NBC. Revived from the 1950's, this era of "Dragnet" is now in color, co-stars Harry Morgan as Friday's partner Gannon, includes the new Miranda warning with every arrest, and has a subtitle for the year of the show, thus the full title is actually "Dragnet, 1968" since this is a rerun of the latest season. Tonight, Friday and Gannon search for the mother of a baby found in a trash can. Good thing we put the kids to bed back when "Daniel Boone" went off.

10:00 - Golddiggers - NBC. Dean Martin's variety show was the number one show in America. Living the lifestyle Quagmire only dreams about, Dino surrounded himself with fly girls dubbed The Golddiggers. In this summer special, the girls host the show without Dino. Musical numbers, dance routines, and cornball sketches fill the hour.

Note that the network takes over at 7:30; the Prime Time Access rule wouldn't come along until the 70's, pushing network prime time back to 8:00 in the East. This rule actually only affected the top markets, but as New York City goes, so goes the rest of the affiliates. In fact, NBC's master control was channel 4 WNBC.

It is assumed that parents control the TV, and they will send the kids to bed at 8:30. This used to be called The Family Hour.

I can find no "Viewer Discretion Is Advised" warnings on the listings.

Two heavy-hitting dramas are followed by a burlesque show. This may seem weird, but the general thought of the day was that Mother goes to bed before Father, who stays up for the news and maybe Johnny Carson. Dean Martin's playboy club type atmosphere appealed more to men.

So there you have it. Sweet, innocent TV from the good old days. Stay tuned for "Laugh In."

Monday, November 26, 2012

R.I.P. Deborah Raffin

Over the weekend, we heard about the death of Larry Hagman, the actor best known for his role as J.R. Ewing in the prime time soap "Dallas," and beloved by a lot of kids my age as Captain Tony Nelson in "I Dream of Jeanie." Condolences go out to his family and Barbara Eden. Many others have written much about Hagman, and all the accolades are well deserved. Please click on the link to the right and scan for the "News From ME" blog to read Mark Evanier's wonderful story about Larry Hagman.

Hollywood lost another actor late last week that you may not have heard of. Deborah Raffin died at the age of 59 of blood cancer. She appeared in a number of movies and TV shows from the mid-70's through the 80's. Her most infamous role was as college student damsel in distress in the made-for-TV grind house epic "Nightmare in Badham County." (1976) See, these two girls are driving through some outtake from Deliverance when their car breaks down, and... Well, you get the idea.

The obits I have read overlook one of her better made-for-TV efforts. "Sparkling Cyanide" (1983) was an updated SoCal version of Agatha Christie's whodunit (also known as "Remembered Death" in the US) costarring the about-to-be former-MASH star Harry Morgan. One of the screenwriters on that project who gave Raffin a little more to do than just being helpless was Sue Grafton, who had just finished "A is for Alibi."

Raffin's real calling came about when her husband Micheal Viner won a backgammon game against novelist and "I Dream of Jeanie" creator Sidney Sheldon. (That silly show left quite a footprint.) Sheldon lost $8,000, proving he may have been a prolific writer, but a lousy gambler. Instead of taking his money, Viner worked a deal to produce audio books - then known as books on tape - of two of Shelden's bestsellers. From that was born Dove Books On Tape in 1985. The company was a leader in attaining well-known actors and personalities to narrate the books, some with actual previous voice acting experience such as William Conrad.

Raffin and Viner sold off Dove in 1997 after running afoul of controversy from publishing Faye Resnick's "Nicole Brown Simpson: The Diary of a Life Interrupted" (1994). Viner liked to push the envelope, but the timing was too soon, as Dove appeared to some to be capitalizing on the O.J. murder victims. Viner and Raffin divorced in 2005. Viner died of cancer in 2009.

So, whenever you enjoy a well-read audio book, you have at least in part Deborah Raffin to thank.

Welcome to Hell

It may coming on to Winter in the US, but south of the Equator, Summer is looming. Here is another demented TV commercial that would never get the nod in the states, this one for air conditioners in Argentina. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dumb Ways to Die

In the United States, public service announcements (PSA's) are a necessary evil supposedly aired to fulfill FCC requirements, but more than likely simply a time filler for unsold weekend or late night local break slots. While there are exceptions mainly aimed at children, most PSA's in America get their messages across with all the subtlety of a tsunami. To call this technique Shock and Awe, a military term, isn't far off the mark, as American PSA's for TV share their roots with "Refer Madness," World War II newsreels, and 1950's Atomic Age instructional films. If you're a good American, you'll sit up straight, pay attention, and take this as seriously as you do sex.

In recent years, blasting the viewer out of his comfort zone with harsh imagery and stark soundtracks, whether he deserves it or not, is believed to be the only way to break through the clutter... never mind that a continual onslaught of these images eventually desensitizes viewers to the point where they laugh at these things or simply reach for the remote. And does anybody really want something like this coming at them during Craig Ferguson?

Which is why I find this twisted little gem from Australia to be a breath of fresh air. It has everything most American PSA's - or commercials, for that matter - lack in abundance: eye-pleasing and attention-holding visuals, a catchy tune, and a message that doesn't screech at the viewer like Sister Mary Francis after getting hit by a spitball. Too bad something like this would probably never get cleared on most American TV stations.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bye-Bye, Ho-Hos

There's lots of wailing and moaning today about the demise of Hostess snack foods. It's a long, complicated road to bankruptcy that terminated in a labor union strike which has led to the usual outpouring of pro vs. con union arguments, and it's true that union relations between Hostess management and union officials was not exactly chummy. Unfortunately, this is a story that requires far too much detail, back story, and comprehension of financial terminology such as "hedge funds" for most television news anchors to handle. So the national conversation via the Big Three broadcast networks has been more about reminiscing about Hostess fruit pies on the lunchbox, and what's in those Twinkies anyway? Omygod! No more Twinkies? As Rush says, that's the Drive By Media reaction.

Here's a detailed chronicle of the Hostess demise courtesy of CNBC. As you can see, it's a story that involves thousands of people losing their jobs, a segment of the US economy taking a hit, and the loss of American icons tantamount to giving Tony the Tiger or Ronald McDonald the boot. This story demands a little more mental effort from the lens meat than simply giggling over the life span of a Twinkie.

(We used to have morning show radio DJ's to make Twinkie jokes. Nowadays, it's up to Matt Lauer.)

And, if you read deeper than just the punchlines, you'll see that what really killed Hostess wasn't so much poor vulture fund management, or labor union disputes. At the bottom of it all is that fact that Hostess sales were down. The products were outdated. It was junk food, pure and simple. We adults who ignored our doctors and partook of a Ding Dong once in a while - OK, maybe once a week - knew full well we were consuming a package of chemicals that, assembled in another form, might be used to construct a car bumper. Nowadays, we take our cholesterol meds and munch on carrot sticks or grapes, or anything that won't send me to the ER. And we found healthier alternatives for our children. If you must find a way to blame Democrats for this, point to Michelle Obama for insisting children eat healthy meals, although she's only picking up on a trend that began decades ago. Hostess management, AND the labor unions, had plenty of time to read the writing on the wall, but failed to respond to changing American eating habits and concerns for child nutrition. The demise of Hostess ultimately rests on the Free Market.

Free Market choice. That's something broadcast news organizations might want to keep in mind the next time they feel the urge to giggle at a major news event.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Is TV Newsworthy?

Here's a link to The Verge's interview with NBC's Chief Digital Officer Vivian Schiller that you might find interesting and thankfully low on industry buzzspeak. Schiller brings an impressive set of credentials to her position at the Peacock, so if you, like me, still tend to look at job titles like "Chief Digital Officer" with skepticism, she might change your mind about the level of validity this position holds.

For me, the key sentence that sums up the interview is:

Social media rewards live viewing as opposed to time-shifting. If you’re in the television business, that’s a really great thing.

That's true for the news division, as well as the entertainment side. Anyone who's realized you can't leave master control unmanned during prime time anymore, knows how the broadcast networks have revived live programming in the form of talent contests and Survival-like non-talent contests in order to create unpredictable and Tweetable drama. The only excuse I can find for watching even one installment of "Big Brother" is to Tweet or IM your friends "OMG! This is so lame. LMAO."

News is the ultimate reality show.

The interview touches on how the different platforms require different approaches, and scratches the surface on why you can't get the entire newscast streamed: basically, the best way to get Millineals and Late Boomers to click out is to keep those 2-minute pharmaceutical ads on the stream. It's still very hard to monetize the website, and I have no idea how anyone can show a profit margin from somebody sending Tweets. And if the author takes the easy way out and puts those default box ads on the site saying, "OHIO, mortgages are at an all-time low!" you ain't gonna make it with me anyhow.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Goodbye, Smurfette

A part of television history died last week. Lucille Bliss, the actress who is probably best known by folks near my age as the voice of Smurfette for nine seasons on "The Smurfs," died at the age of 96. Here's a link to Yowp's obit complete with a recent photo which I'll share here.

That's June Foray on the left, with Bliss seated on the right.

Here's another link, this one to the Cartoon Brew site with a more historic perspective.

In both cases, you'll find interesting video interviews, and the segment on how Bliss was almost the voice of Elroy Jetson reveals how the business of voice acting can be brutal at times.

In 1949, Bliss became the voice of the title character in "Crusader Rabbit," the first cartoon series produced expressly for television. (Despite what misters Hanna and Barbera may have wanted you to believe.) So, Lucille Bliss was not only the first female TV cartoon voice star, but the first TV cartoon voice star, period. OK, yeah, Crusader Rabbit is a male character, but in that era, female cartoon voices were rare, with the Warner Brothers and Disney stables being pretty much men's clubs. (Tweety is a boy, just to be clear on that.) Only Mae Questel as Olive Oyl was more ubiquitous until "The Flintstones."

After tracking the voice of the evil stepsister Anastasia in the Disney feature "Cinderella,"  Bliss moved to San Francisco and hosted "The Happy Birthday To You Show" on KRON through the 1950's, making Lucille Bliss a genuine children's television pioneer as well.

She would also perform in Disney's "Alice in Wonderland," and several theatrical short cartoons, including that annoying little Cockney mouse Tuffy in the Tom and Jerry outing "Robin Hoodwinked." ("And there's the bloomin' key!") She worked in Disney's "101 Dalmatians" (1961) and after that, things got a little lean, due in no small part to being suddenly replaced by Daws Butler as the voice of Elroy in "The Jetsons." (Daws was blameless for this incident, but uncomfortably caught in the middle) Hannah and Barbera made good... even if it did take a while. Eventually, Bliss was cast as the voice of Smurfette in 1980, and a legend was born. In more recent years, a new generation of viewers heard Bliss as the voice of Miss Bitters in Nickelodeon's "Invader Zim" series.

Lucille Bliss, a legendary voice actor, and television host. We'll miss you, Smurfette.

UPDATE: Check out this post by Mark Evanier for more insight on Lucille Bliss.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sporting News

I don't usually comment on sports because there are about a trillion other bloggers who can do it far better than me, but a number of issues have my brain wandering into the "what if?" territory.

Let's start with that debacle the NFL calls the Rams/49ers game. Mike Pereira has a good rundown on the Fox Sports site describing what led to the game ending in a 13-13 tie. OK, so the refs weren't paying attention to the game clock, and time bled while refs were moving footballs, checking with each other, and as usually basically just screwing off while a bunch of millionaires stand around not playing football. Now, I'm not one to start conspiracy theories, but here's a "what if?" question.

As the Rams/Niners game creeps through overtime, real clock time is nearing 8:20 Eastern Standard. According to the contract obligations between the NFL and NBC, no other NFL game is to be on the air at the kickoff and during the playing of the Sunday Night Football game. The official air time of "Sunday Night Football" on NBC is 8:20 EST. (With extended Veteran's Day pre-game anthem and saluting time, the actual kick-off was closer to 8:30.) WHAT IF the officials were more concerned with bringing this game in for a landing before the 8:20 EST cutoff? Think that's a wild conspiracy theory? Well, imagine the meltdown at the Fox network's switchboard, as well as here at a local Fox affiliate, had the network been forced to cut away during the last minutes of a 13-13 tie between the Rams and the 49ers. The last time that sort of thing happened was in 1968, and after the infamous "Heidi Game" there were some major changes in how long-running games are handled by the networks.

With more and more air time being whiled away while viewers wait for the officiating crew to get the down markers to achieve perfect feng shui, or whatever it is they're doing to drag things out, might we see some changes to broadcast contracts that reflect the new normal of games requiring a four-hour window? Of course, the better resolution would be to speed up the game and get refs out of the way, but if you own the stadium, and have a stake in the concessions, your ultimate goal may be the NFL game that takes all day. I, for one, wouldn't want to see that happen. Three hours of the Browns is about all anyone should be forced to endure.

You think I'm being overly sensitive to game delays? For exhibit A, I point to the the very beginning of this week's Giants/Bengals game. First possession, five plays, the Bengals score a touchdown... and that's exactly how far we got into the game before the refs had to slam on the brakes and review the play. You can pretty much assume each and every touchdown will be subject to a review, and while those reviews may take a minute or two of real time each, think about how much time that adds up to during the course of a game with four touchdowns per team. That's eight minutes MINIMUM to review each play - more likely 10 to 12 as slow as some of these reviews are. And add to that the stoppages to look at fumbles, close shave receptions, how many guys were on the field, and various other reasons somebody can find to do anything but play football, and you're looking at an estimated 20 MINUTES of down time while all the guys in the booth can do is tread water. Ugh! No wonder DVR usage is up. You can TiVo Tebow down to about 90 minutes of actual football play time if you're sharp with the remote.

Now for radio, or satellite radio to be exact. This week's Bengals broadcast was positioned on a Sirius channel named "Stars Too." I was not familiar with "Stars Too" before Sunday, and I'm not sure why anyone engineering at Sirius thought putting an NFL game for general audiences on this channel was a good idea. I've just looked up the channel description on the Sirius website. "Talk for Guys..." it says. It should say "Talk for Guys Just Out of Basic or On Death Row." After the play-by-play ended, Sirius cut back to the regular programming on "Stars Too" most unceremoniously, and with no warning that regular programming on this channel would make Howard Stern say, "Guys, reel it in." We cut directly from Dave Lapham talking about... whatever... straight to something that makes an Eddie Murphy stand up routine sound like a prayer meeting. In the span of a minute I heard several (simile for bovine excrement) and (vulgarity for fornication) and a few (slang for fecal matter) tossed around like I had just dialed in an uncut version of "The Sopranos." Hey, Sirius! I'm not a prude, but I left the frat house years ago. You might want to review your channel placement policy.

On another sport, here's a "what if" you might not have thought of... What if the NHL falls in the woods, and there's nobody around to hear it? At last check, about half the hockey season is toast while owners and players continue their dispute. I don't know what this work action is all about, but personally I'd say it's about trying to fine new and creative ways to make sure nobody ever watches hockey. Here's a more pressing dilemma for broadcasters: if we're not making money on hockey now - and very few markets actually do - what if the strike is settled today and the NHL tries to make up for lost time? Are NBC affiliates going to get saddled with hockey games all over the weekly schedule? Will regular programming - an endangered species as it is - be disrupted while local stations try to explain to their clients why "Revolution" can't get on the air? And if there's a Stanley Cup series, do NBC affiliates really want their skeds shredded for a series based on less than half a season that nobody watched to begin with? We'd be better off scheduling "Heidi."

Friday, November 9, 2012

Post Election Stuff

As you might imagine, this was a busy week in the TV biz, although things cooled down quite a bit after the elections. It wasn't quite the long night I expected, after weeks of dire forecasts of deadlocked vote counts, late provisional ballots, and a battleground state full of undecided voters. We got the word that Obama was the winner during the 11 newscast, which provided the ultimate breaking news announcement during a newscast. But apparently, not as exciting as watching Karl Rove on Fox News go into labor and deliver a nest of monkeys when he heard the news.

Actually, I don't blame the guy. It was a bit surprising. Obama took Ohio? What are the other networks saying? Obama wins on all four majors? Aw man, and I just ordered extra large pizzas for the newsroom.

The networks kept things relatively low-tech Tuesday, relying on pretty much the same technology they use on a daily basis to get the job done. NBC went full-on theater tech with the transformation of Rockefeller Square into Democracy Square by painting a map of the US into the ice rink and overlaying either red or blue state cut-outs as the votes came in. I liked it, even if it was a little cutesy. Even so, there's bound to be at least one technological break-out during election coverage, and in this case it comes during a video clip of a WABC reporter on a live shot. Up until that day, mic flags were innocent little pieces of plastic with the station's "brand" appearing on all four sides. On election day, that changed with the introduction of the electronic mic flag. Affixed to the mic was something like a mobile phone screen, displaying an ever-changing, spinning, whirling, dancing series of WABC, Channel 7, ABC propaganda. Unfortunately, the gee-whiz factor of this device was blown away by the fact that the reason the rest of the country has been seeing this video clip is because the reporter made an embarrassing gaffe during a live shot. All this proves once again that all the technical smoke and mirrors on the microphone can't make up for an airhead reporter holding the microphone.

At our station, we also learned that election day, with 300 kabillion people on social media, is a bad time to use Skype for a live interview.

The big buzz from election night is the controversy over whether or not Diane Sawyer was drunk on the air. Personally, I could've used a whiskey sour myself at around 9:00, so I can understand the urge to lubricate the vocal chords with a little gasoline before going on the air. But rest assured, Diane was not blotto. The combination of lack of sleep, and having a thing in her ear called an Interrupted Feed Back (IFB) earpiece with the voice of the director telling her things like "We don't have the live shot, stay on camera three!" or "Our power is out! We gotta stay in studio. Diane, keep talking!" would make anybody seem disoriented. As for slurred speaking, if you've ever tried to tell someone something important over the phone while your 3-year-old is babbling something about something... Yeah, you know what I mean.

Now, we at the station face the daunting task of searching for dozens of now out-dated political ads and unceremoniously hitting the delete button on each one, thus forever flushing them out of existence. Hey, there's a positive side to election day after all.

Monday, November 5, 2012

So Long, Happy

Mike L. Fry died in an Indianapolis hospital Sunday at the age of 51. He was suffering from an autoimmune disease and awaiting a liver transplant. He ran his own fortune cookie business since 1988, Fancy Fortune Cookies. But most people in these parts know him best as Happy the Hobo, the host of "Happy's Place."

Starting in 1982, "Happy's Place" was already an anachronism in television: a local program with local talent produced in front of a live audience of children a la "Howdy Doody" and "Bozo" but with the ThunderCats. The show originated at Fort Wayne's WFFT then known as Super 55, as cable "super stations" were the current rage in those pre-Internet days. Chicago's WGN, the home of Bozo the Clown, had a strong presence in Northern Indiana, so Fry had to take a different approach to his character to avoid becoming a mere imitation. His hobo clown makeup revealed an inspiration owing more to Emmet Kelly, and his overall tact with the children was decidedly casual.

The show was a money maker, so when Fry retired from "Happy" in 1990 in order to pursue his fortune cookie business full-time, WFFT gamely kept the show running with a new actor playing Happy. It's not clear to me whether Fry or WFFT owned the intellectual property, but the fact that Happy appeared in Fancy Cookie Company's imaging suggests Fry owned the character. If that's the case, then the TV station had to pay Fry to use his likeness on the air. That seems only fair, but an unusual programming expense for a local station in a small market. And if my wife's opinion is any indication, the fans knew the original Happy was the best. The show soldiered on until 1997, by which time the pull of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network was too strong for "Happy's Place" to compete.

Today's children's programming is written by people with degrees in child psychology, supervised by consultants with PHD's in childhood development, and sanitized of any potentially harmful or insensitive content. Or, it's created by a toy company or comic book publisher in order to move merchandise. I think it's great how children can access quality content now through the various sources available anytime, anywhere. But I can't help but wonder if we're losing something wonderfully inappropriate and charmingly subversive without a local children's show and a Happy the Hobo.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Weekend Off!

I'm going to be a cold, dispassionate bastard this weekend. I'm going to watch DVD's of classic Bugs Bunny cartoons, Scooby Doo, "Space Ghost Coast to Coast," Abbot and Costello, the Marx Brothers, probably "Airplane," and the "Firefly" collection a friend lent me. Oh, and sports. Lots and lots of sports. Notre Dame will kick ass Saturday afternoon, but I'll watch any game I get in HD or grabs my attention on the satellite radio. College, pro, high school, hell I'll watch even watch bowling. Anything... except the news. No news. Nadda. No more hurricane coverage. The only Sandy I want to see this weekend is the squirrel in "SpongeBob."

And if you think I'm being an insensitive sonafabitch, what I'm doing is nothing compared to what media types are doing - if they can - this weekend in the greater New York Tri-State region, where after a 20-hour day of shooting burned out houses, flooded streets, and a devastated Jersey Shore, a videographer just climbed seven flights of stairs to his apartment, poured Makers Mark over his Captain Crunch, and fell asleep in front of "My Little Pony." Let him sleep. He'll have to spend the rest of the weekend on the phone trying to get an insurance adjuster to show up at his mother's house in Rockaway some time before the next arrival of Halley's comet.

You... you with your remote and your Netfilx and your DVR... YOU can turn it off. The moment the burnout, or news fatigue, Jersey Shore Overload, or whatever you want to call it starts to kick in, YOU can push a button, walk away, and "fergetaboudit." Me? I just put in a relatively normal 40 hour week and I feel like I've been living inside an episode of "Revolution." (Running that show in master control does not help.) I've been through tornadoes, blizzards, and whatever that thing was that blew 90mph winds all over the Midwest last June and killed our power for several days, and just staying on the air when something like that happens can be exhausting. And then there's 9-11. After being on the job for 16 hours, my wife and I put in a DVD of Scooby Doo and vegetated into a restless slumber until the alarm went off at 4am and we did it again. Even if it's only for five minutes, if you get a chance to turn it off, you turn it off. It helps to keep you from punching walls.

The people working in the media in New York must be worn to a frazzle. Sure, Brian Williams comes off cool and debonair on the air, but meet him in the men's room between shows and say "How's it going?" and he'll probably come back with something like, "Why don't you jump up[REMOVED BY BLOG ADMINISTRATOR]"

I just read where it took David Letterman an hour and a half by car to journey the 7 miles from the Ed Sullivan Theater in Midtown, to the taping of "Jimmy Kimmel Live" in Brooklyn. And I go [primate feces] if there's a line at the drive-thru window at Burger King. What am I getting excited about? Compared to Letterman, I got nothing.

So this weekend, if you are so inclined do to such a thing, take a moment to think about the working media in Greater New York and other areas devastated by extreme acts of nature. Pause to think about the guy lugging a 40 pound camera with enough battery packs to start a bus through flood water. Think about the reporter who hasn't seen her kids in two days because it takes hours just to get out to Breezy Point. And then there's all the people holed up in the station or network compiling, editing, directing, writing, and basically having to be exposed to hour after hour of Sandy coverage and somehow getting through it without losing it and shoving a flash drive up the news director's left nostril. To these fine people, a toast. I raise my bowl of Captain Crunch to them as I download "SuperFriends" on YouTube.

Hang tough.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Memo to all Master Control Staff,

From: Supreme Commander and Dark Lord of the Sith, General Station Manager Darth Profit,

RE: Sports Overruns

As you are aware, the issue of overlong sports programming is taking a toll on our operational procedures. Since the early days of television, there have always been scheduling overrun conflicts with live sports events. It's the nature of the business. But recently, sports overruns seem to be taking over our programming schedule to the point of disruption. The problem has grown to the point that, for the first time ever, CBS has officially shifted the start time of "60 Minutes" from 7pm to 7:30. And we still end up having to to slide it.

Some may blame this on replacement referees in the NFL, and indeed, the average pro football game clocks in at about 3 hours. But the NFL is far from being the only offender. Last Saturday's Notre Dame game ran just over 3-and-half hours, and there are no replacement refs to blame for that. And at a recent Florida State Patsy Bowl in which the Seminoles had Savannah State down by a score of 55-0, and after two lightning delays had Savannah's shorts pulled up over their heads, gave each player a swirly, and took their lunch money, both coaches and the officials agreed to just call it an official game and let everybody head for Ruby Tuesday's. You can't blame referees for that.

Nor is football the only sport causing the problem. The US Open Tennis Tournament can't seem to figure out that if you schedule an event in greater New York in early September, it's going to rain. Every time. Once again, the tournament was delayed a full day. CBS lost an entire Monday afternoon of programming, and trashed prime time as well, leaving over 200 affiliates saying, "We're sliding prime time? Really? Can't we just run some old Popeye cartoons to fill to the news?" And a recent NASCAR race ran so deep into the overnight hours that we (this is true) pre-recorded the newscast and ran it on tape so we could let the news and production crew go home to their families. It's as if the people responsible for sporting events truly believe the world stops for them, and the networks and local broadcasters are only pawns in a chess game where the rook just threw a flag and now we have to wait for the review.

However, station management has no reason to believe that sports event coordinators, network brass, and especially The Mouse (aka Disney) who love nothing more than a 5-hour marathon game on their ESPN networks - where the only victim of an overrun schedule is a bunch of guys playing poker - will take any action to alleviate this problem. As a result, we will be adjusting our master control and scheduling policies to reflect the New Normal in television broadcasting - that Normal being there is no such thing as "regularly scheduled programming."


A Porto-Kamode has been placed by the master control room door. If we run out of toilet paper, feel free to use pages of the program log we're having to preempt due to a four-hour college football game.

Potty breaks are restricted to the first quarter of football, baseball rain delay filler programming, and the national anthem.

In a related note, some of you guys have been recycling pop bottles in master control during NASCAR races. Therefore, anyone picking up what they believe to be a bottle of Mountain Dew does so at their own risk.

The reading of books in master control is now permitted and encouraged in order to maintain consciousness during NFL games. A library has been installed to aid in this endeavor. Recommended titles during NFL games include: "War and Peace," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Great Expectations" the entire Harry Potter collection, the Boston telephone directory, and Elizabeth Taylor's wedding vows.

Instead of waiting for a game to end in order to get our local news on the air, we will now be inserting local news stories while the referees review a play. We predict this will double our story count.

During severe weather situations, operators will key in the weather info crawl OVER the score of the game in progress... due to the weather conditions changing more often than the score.


The 2-minute warning means you have only 30 minutes to get back from the designated smoking area to master control. Plan accordingly.

No matter who is in the lead, the network will not break away from golf coverage until after TIGER sinks his putt on the 18th.

During baseball games, don't rely on pitching changes to get you through an emergency potty break until at least the fourth inning.

The use of "5-Hour Energy" is not recommended while on duty during a NASCAR event; you'll crash more often than the drivers.

If you are running a hockey game, NONE of these rules apply, due to the fact that the NHL just plays the game. Ha! And they wonder why nobody in America watches hockey.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Going Rogue

I usually don't get into politics in this blog, but I have to say I am glad the Republican convention is over. It's not because of any disagreement over political philosophy that I'm glad it's over; rather, as a master control operator of the major broadcast networks, I'm just happy to have the Gong Show off my air.

Wednesday night, Condoleezza Rice's prompter crashed, causing her to fly by the seat of her pants. Now here's a little inside info: at events such as this, the prompter system shows up on a monitor in front of the director back in the truck, allowing the director and producer to see where the speaker is in their speech, thus permitting them to prep and cue the anchor talent and work out timings for the broadcast overall. No prompter scrolling on a screen left the Big 3 networks wandering around on the air like a carload of tourists on a holiday weekend. Which is why, depending on which station you were watching, you saw parts of Condi's speech interrupted by blather, most of it joined in progress, or very little if any. Apparently, nobody working behind the scenes at the remote broadcasts of the RNC recognized the former Secretary of State or the fact that anything she had to say might be important. (Fairness disclosure: I just had to look up the spelling of her name.)

And then there was Clint Eastwood. I knew going in Thursday night's RNC coverage would run long, but nobody expected Eastwood to go completely off the reservation. Once again, the prompter feed was useless, and 3 network directors were left to throwing up their hands at the monitors. When the newsroom asked me if I had an out time, I said, "No idea. Dirty Harry has gone rouge." As it happened, we ended up with a 25-minute slide in late night programming. Thanks, Clint.

Next, we have the Democrat Convention to look forward to. Will Bubba show up flanked with bimbos on each arm a la George Burns circa 1990? (Rumor has it Clinton is keeping a low profile in order to keep the spotlight on Obama.) Will Alan Alda hijack the show with a monologue similar to his one-man-show "M*A*S*H" episode? Or will Babs crash the party and sing an extended version of "People?" Anything is possible. Conventions are more scripted and choreographed these days? Really? I know at least one TV station manager that wishes they were.

Monday, August 6, 2012

It's Not Fair

Lima, Ohio held their annual Square Fair this past weekend, an event sponsored by local downtown businesses and put together by volunteers who grew tired of watching tumbleweeds roll by while everybody kept running to the WalMarts, which somehow always locate themselves on the outskirts of a town, usually on the other side of the interstate. Square Fair is a daring enterprise in that while it attracts people to downtown it also blocks off a sizable portion of downtown parking, thus making a bad situation worse, but not that bad. After two months of no rain and Allen County being declared to be in state of severe drought, it was only natural that a monsoon just had to strike Saturday evening with a neighboring county engaged in the obligatory every time thunder rolls tornado warning. The headline concert had to be cancelled, and the vendors had to pack up and run like a refugee camp. At least now the tumbleweeds have been replaced with pieces of roofing material and the trash left behind when a dozen or more trash cans are blown several blocks down the street.

These are tough times for local outdoor events. It's a horrendous gamble to put together a county fair, founder's day, or any kind of event to bring people into town, when it's common knowledge the kids would be far more entertained by their iPhones or Smart Pads or whatever. In the area where I grew up, it's particularly hard. Why would a kid get excited about a Ferris wheel or a Tilt-a-Whirl when most of them have a season pass to King's Island and ride The Beast at least once a week? And even when they're riding it, they probably don't stop texting. Given all the high-tech choices people have for entertainment these days, the modest community event is on the endangered list.

Local events are a lot of work. Months of planning go into these things. Logistics have to be worked out. Where will people park? How will we reroute traffic. That's a big one. In Delphos, Ohio each year they hold Canal Days, during which time Main Street is blocked off for what amounts to a weekend carnival. The largest industry in town is a grain processing depot, which means the majority of traffic through this small town is comprised of fully-loaded semi tractor-trailers, each about the size of a small European nation, trundling through back streets, barely missing parked cars, yanking overhead cable TV wires and thus de-Time Warnering entire blocks of homes with a single pass, and navigating tight corners never intended for such vehicles thereby causing the back wheels of the trailers to, in the poetic language of one citizen, "jump more curbs than a twenty-dollar whore." One street sign directing traffic onto state route 190 kept getting clobbered by wide-turning trucks so many times, the city finally put the sign 15 feet up a pole... where most out of towners don't see it, miss their turn, and end up pulling into the A&W Root Beer stand to ask directions. So at least one local business is seeing an up side.

You have to book talent, who may or may not show up. Not only did Lima's Square Fair lose their headliner Brownsville Station due to nobody's fault but the weather, but Friday night's act, local American Idol contestant Crystal Bowersox, almost bowed out a few days before the show. Seems she and/or her band was concerned about the safety of the stage. This is understandable given the incident at last year's Indiana State Fair when a gust of wind during a storm blew the stage construct down onto the performers and the front rows of the audience, something else to worry attendees and raise the event's liability insurance. Nerves were already a little on edge, as a serious accident was still fresh in the minds of local residents. During one of ArtSpace Lima's Rally in the Square events earlier this year, a car lurched from a parking space and slammed into the crowd, seriously injuring several people. The cause of the accident has not been officially determined, and I will not add to speculation at this point. It has been determined that alcohol was not a factor. Needless to say, extra precautions were well in place for Square Fair, a much larger event where motor vehicles are kept well clear of the people - except for the event staff golf carts.

So, there's talent to be booked, insurance to buy, traffic to be coordinated, law enforcement and security issues to be addressed, and this is all before anybody decides which direction in which to take the event. Maybe last year attendance was down. Was it the band? Was it a lack of publicity? Or was it because of scheduling the event the same Saturday as the Ohio State/Michigan game? (Yep. That'll do it.) Maybe last year's event was too artsy-fartsy, attracting an affluent and well-behaved crowd, but not enough of them as the eggheads stayed away in droves. Maybe that was because the year before that the event was pretty much MTV Spring Break in Your Backyard, which was well attended by nobody of legal drinking age, resulting in multiple arrests for public intoxication, indecent exposure, vandalism, urinating in the fountain, and performing unspeakable acts of debauchery to LambChop the city mascot. The only reason the event keeps coming back year after year is because there's always a fresh crop of volunteers ready to replace the entire heard of last year's volunteers who will never go anywhere near this thing ever again. Especially the guy in the LambChop suit.

And no matter how well the event turns out, there will always be somebody complaining. There's the aforementioned parking issue, which has no easy cure and never will. Some businesses don't like the streets being closed - in some cases because their aged 70+ clientele has used the same parking place since Nixon was nominated... for vice president. And then there's the beer. Now I understand how you might feel about this: why do we have to have beer at everything? You don't want people getting loud and stupid and obnoxious at a community event; you get enough of that at work. But Friend, I'm hear to tell you booze has been an integral part of society for thousands of years. It's the nature of mankind. A beer tent at a local carnival will not bring about the downfall of civilization. However, the lack of beer at an event may bring about the demise of that event. Beer draws a crowd. People want their brew. The cheaper and more watery, the better. Without beer, you risk attracting only teetotallers and goody-two-shoes with fish on their trunk lids, and that could lead to a Creed concert breaking out, and we can't let that happen.

I'd hate to see small community events die off. They may not be perfect, but we don't want to lose those moments when you're drinking a lemon shakeup, and the bees the size of F-15's haven't found you yet, and you smell the carnival food, and hear the area concert band playing a Sousa march punctuated by the clink of a plastic hoop dancing off of a Coke bottle as somebody tries to win a stuffed bear, or the pop as a dart hits a balloon. It's the people who decide what kind of event your community has, or if it has any at all, so attend your hometown events. Or, if you can, volunteer to work on one. You'll have a say in how the event is run, take pride in making something good happen in your community, and get to ride around the place in a golf cart. Now there's something no iPhone app can do.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Too Darn Hot

On June 29 Americans living in the eastern half of the country learned a new word: Derecho. A fast-moving storm knocked out electrical power to millions, pretty much screwed up 4th of July plans for a lot of folks, and made sure I'll be picking up twigs and limbs from my yard for the rest of the summer - I'm sure as hell not mowing it. Anyway, that kind of storm system is apparently called a Derecho. Uh huh. Sure it is. I'm 49 and I've never heard the word "Derecho" before. I'm told it's Spanish for "straight ahead," or "direct," from the Latin phrase "der it iz" which, basically translated means "you're screwed." Anyway, that's what I'm told, but I don't believe it. I think The National Weather Service just made it up. "Oh, that? Uh, yeah... That's called a..." (looks around for a clue and sees a bag of Doritos) "Der-REE-show. Yeah, that's it. Very rare. Oh yeah, you have to be like an expert severe weather specialist or something to know anything about those. So, don't try to sue us or anything, OK?"

Meanwhile, a little girl with a picnic basket just stepped out of the house that dropped on my backyard and said, "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."

This gave us the perfect excuse to clean out the refrigerator. After three days without power, a thing that reminded me of the creature Jabba the Hut keeps in his basement growled at me when I opened the door. The Whirlpool was due for a good clean out anyway. I don't want to say it had been a while, but among the items we threw out was a can of New Coke.

When the power is out all night, there's not much to do. Well... you and the wife could participate in a little horizontal mambo. But when it's 97 at 8 o'clock, and there's only cold water in the shower, and you already feel like a used mop, recreational activities of that nature are not something you really want to engage in at the present time. Besides, the windows are open. And so are everybody else's. You ladies know what I'm talking about.

Power restoration has been slow and inconsistent, and people got a little agitated about it. We got our power back Sunday night, but neighbors down the street weren't back on line until Monday, and some friends of ours in the same subdivision were out until Tuesday. Naturally, this is all the fault of Obama and his Socialist agenda with roving death squads deciding who gets electricity first. Hey, you can't fool me; I'm a politically aware person. I know The Truth. I'd march on Washington right now, but it's 104 out there. I'll tell Congressman Whashisname how I feel just as soon as I Google what district I'm in.

The TV station was on generator all weekend, and during that time we made a remarkable and slightly disturbing discovery: the studio air conditioning system is not on a generator-backed circuit. The Sales office, which was empty all weekend, had air... but the studio, with the lights and the cameras and the people in suits and ties because we have this silly company policy about not doing the news while wearing a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt, was like a sauna. Nice.

As things slowly returned to not-normal-but-typical-given-the-circumstances, we reached the Fourth of July and celebrated in the time-honored tradition of laughing at the raw video supplied by the fireworks safety gurus. Every year, they send TV stations across the country video of mannequins getting blown up by fireworks so that local newscasters can put it on the air and say, "Look at this mannequin getting blown up by fireworks. Cool, huh? Let's see that again in slow motion." I remember what an impression these videos had on me as a child. I'd jump up from the TV, go find my friends, and put firecrackers in mailboxes. Hey, don't say kids can't learn anything from television.

Fireworks is one of those things that are sensational in real life, but not really all that thrilling on television. In fact, I hate fireworks shows on TV. For the camera operators, it's like trying to shoot fireflies wearing a blindfold. You have to pull back wide, set focus on infinity, open up the lens, and aim in the general direction of the fireworks. The result is lots of static shots of a skyline with mostly black on the screen. I start yawning just thinking about it.

In master control, all you're interested in is making sure the feed is good before the show, and hitting the commercial breaks. If there are no commercial breaks and you know when the show starts and exactly when it will end, you set automation to go in and out, so that during the half-hour of black screen and occasional flashes and pops you can go to the break room, drop a deuce, and maybe spend a little time chatting up that cute intern in the newsroom. That's probably the explanation for Portland's KGW going a full half-hour on a fireworks live remote with no audio. Just a guess, mind you, but I think somebody's holiday bonus just turned into a pink slip.

At least they didn't have to pad their live coverage for an eternity like they did in San Diego. A computer malfunction sent an entire fireworks display into the air at pretty much the same time. After a huge build up and the promise of something even bigger and better than before, what was expected to be a 15 minute spectacular blew up in about 30 seconds.

You ladies know what I'm talking about.


After 14 months on the job, Rick Dees got the boot from Hot 92.3 in Los Angeles. Once the golden boy of LA now dethroned by Ryan Seacrest - OK, remember "Disco Duck?" Yeah, that guy - Dees may have to start doing Right Wing rants on AM if he wants to stay in radio. The days of entertainers doing comedy and... well, entertainment on the radio are in the past. Then again, in this age of internet ubiquity, perhaps Dees' habit of pilfering material from unsuspecting smaller markets finally caught up with him. In any case, it's a sign of how the once mighty have fallen in radio.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Some Thoughts

It's a busy time for me these days with the national deadline for new Emergency Alert System compliance arriving on June 30. It's remarkable how many broadcasters waited until, oh, May or so to even order their equipment, which is now on back order or sitting on a loading dock somewhere while the deadline looms. As the regional chairman for the EAS in this part of Ohio, I get the panic calls when station engineers can't get these things to work.

The real culprit in the panic is the equipment manufactures who decided to take the first generation of EAS encoders and decoders which were practically plug-n-play devices, and turn the second generation into a maddeningly complex tar baby requiring data entry and IT networking skills that only a hard core Linux junkie who buys a notebook with Windows and installs Ubuntu in a dual-boot configuration from a bootable CD-ROM could appreciate. (Yeah, I've done that. And sometime I'll have to tell you about my Lost Weekend free-basing Red Hat on an over-clocked Pentium III.) It also doesn't help that just about any device you order from a broadcast equipment vendor these days arrives at the station with defective parts, buggy software, and a power supply intended for use only in the former Soviet Bloc nations. Our EAS units had to be sent back to the manufacturer TWICE to correct issues that never should've made it out the door, and I've had to download and install multiple software upgrades to keep the things from developing personality disorders and joining the Sith dominated Galactic Empire. We're running software version 4.1, and the unit isn't a year old yet. I tried to print out a log of recent EAS activity and all I got was a page saying, "Must... destroy... all... humans... Kill... kill... kill..."

Anyway, it's a busy summertime in TV World, so let me just share with you a few tidbits:

Check out Mayerson on Animation and scroll down for a piece on a farewell to film. The movie you see in your local theater is most likely now actually a video projection... a digital medium that looks like film... although based on a recent trip to see "Dark Shadows" I'd say the trailers are still on film... bad splices and smudgy images aplenty. Maybe it was digital and somebody plugged in some Virtual Grindhouse post production just for fun.

I don't want to make anybody mad, but I came away from the Nik Wallenda tightrope walk over Niagara Falls feeling just a little bit like I was taken for a ride. By the time Wallenda was on the wire, it was quite clear the event was ploy to evangelize the Christian faith. Now, let me say I don't think there's anything wrong with that in and of itself. Nearly everybody gets on television with something to sell, and at least he wasn't plugging a casino or a "male enhancement" pharmaceutical product. The problem was a matter of disclosure before the event. Maybe I wasn't paying attention during all the promotional hoopla, but I wasn't expecting a Christian come-on, and that made me feel somewhat deceived and patronized, to be blunt about it.

I'll say one thing for Tim Tebow, you know who he is and what he stands for up front. He puts it out there from the word go. It might seem a bit over the top at times, but there's no deception, no punches pulled. And I can respect that. If you want to spread The Message, respect your audience enough to say from the start, "This is what I'm about." Then again, if I were on a tightrope above Niagara Falls, I would probably be praising God, too. I would also give thanks to the engineers and support crew who made sure the tightrope was keeping me up, but that's just me.

Finally, I think it's high time we formed a congressional task force to look into the dubious practice of the NBA selling the singing of the National Anthem to the highest bidder. Once upon a time, major sports franchises held auditions and awarded the singers with front row or luxury seats. Then the record companies stepped in. But now, why pay Anita Baker real money to forget the lyrics, when you can TAKE money from some stage parent who swears they've spawned the next Whitney? That would explain the onslaught of juvenile warblers we've had to endure at this year's NBA championship. Seriously. I'd rather hear an EAS test.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Simpons By The Numbers

There's been a good deal written on the web about the longevity and nearly universal consession of the creative decline of "The Simpsons." A quick search would unveil much more than I can say here, other than Thad's review of John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Unauthorized, Uncensored History sums it all up in the best way I've read so far. I have nothing more to add to the discussion of the creative issues befalling "The Simpsons" other than these two points:

All major creative properties of appreciable quality suffer zeniths and nadirs in both production and pop culture status. Any fan of Batman, Sherlock Holmes, or Doctor Who already knows this.

Perhaps the rarest of all occurrences in television is the weekly comedy that actually improves with each season.  ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Red Green Show," "The Big Bang Theory")

The problem here is that we are trying to find a solution to a problem that isn't considered a problem by the network or producers. Sure, we know the show has slipped over the years, but the ratings are still good. In fact, "The Simpsons" is undeniably a cash cow: a program that is so entrenched in our pop culture that it has become a ritual for the viewers regardless of quality, therefore a source of revenue that simply works. Hey Fox, how did "Terra Nova" do last season? Nevermind. We've got "The Simpsons" to make up for it. So how does anyone provide solid evidence that something is amiss?

I would like to offer an alternative approach. We need to find a way of quantifying the problem with "The Simpsons," a more scientific approach, if you will, taken from the point of view of a master control operator at a local Fox affiliate, where it is possible to maintain full legal operational status of the station during the half-hour "The Simpson's" is scheduled and never actually see a single frame of the show. For your consideration, I submit...

Simpsons By The Numbers: the Master Control accounting of every second during an episode of the Sunday Night Cash Cow.

(The following data is based on an actual Fox timing sheet emailed to operators at affiliates. Legally, I can't reproduce the actual sheet, as this is considered confidential corporate communication, but I can paraphrase and interpret it. And anyone at home with an "atomic" clock and a pad and paper can log all this as it occurs anyway. In other words, the confidential nature of the memo is negated when the network broadcasts its contents over hundreds of TV stations nationwide.)

Our accounting begins at 7:00:00PM EDT on Sunday May 20, 2012 when Fox begins Sunday Prime Time programming and a rerun episode of "The Simpsons" episode number SI2307HL At Long Last Leave takes to the air in High Definition letterbox format. Only... it doesn't. The first item on the Fox timing sheet is:

7:00:00P - :15 - Net Bumper - Sun Night Open

The first 15 seconds of prime time is taken by a bumper promo that tells us this is Sunday Night and we're watching Fox. And now, on with the show!

Simpsons Segment 1 - 5:54 

At 7:06:09 Real Time we cut to a network commercial break. There is 1:30 of commercials followed by one full minute of network promos for "Glee" and "House" for a total pod of 2:30.

Bullshit - 2:30

Back to the show.

Simpsons Segment 2 - 4:47

At 7:13:27RT we hit another network break. After 1:15 of spots, we get a :06 bumper that leads into a local break. Now your local affiliate is running 1:30 of local commercials, many of whom have paid a premium rate to be scheduled here. After the local spots, we return to the network for something that runs :15 called "Take Me Out." Don't know what that is, but it adds another 15 seconds before we return to the show.

Network Bullshit - 1:15 + :06
Local Bullshit - 1:30
More Net Bullshit - :15
Total Bullshit - 3:06

Segment 3 of the show is a whopping 5:55. Whoa, look out! What are we, PBS?

Simpsons Segment 3 - 5:55

At 7:22:29RT a 2 minute network break, followed by a 10 second promo, followed by a 10 second local station identification insert (legal ID) followed by 20 seconds of promo for "The Choice" and a 10 second promo telling us "The Cleveland Show" is next.

Net Bullshit - 1:30
Local ID - :10 (unnecessary considering we insert a graphic ID at the top of each show.)
Additional Network Promotional Bullshit - :30
Total Bullshit -2:20

The final segment of "The Simpsons" clocks in at a running time of 4:29.

I'll do the math:

Grand total of "Simpsons" content - 21:05
Grand total of Bullshit - 8:11
Grand Total of "The Simpsons" episode program pod - 29:16

You'll notice the math doesn't come out right. First, "The Cleveland Show" was scheduled to start at 7:29:20PM EDT. That's right; "The Simpsons" was cheated 40 seconds. Most likely there was 40 seconds of this rerun left unsold, but I don't know for certain why this ran short. Second, there are moments of black between the various elements that last a fraction of a second, but over the course of an entire show add up to several seconds... in this case 4 seconds. That's within tolerance. In other words, by the time all this stuff airs in Real Time it's 7:29:20.

But here is the number you should pay attention to: Grand Total of "Simpsons" content = 21:05.
The classic duration time for a half-hour program used to be 22:30. Hmmmm.

The new "Simpsons" at 8:00:00 - actual start time 7:59:11 - episode number SI2314HL Lisa Goes Gaga clocked in with

Segment 1 - 7:39
Segment 2 - 6:52
Segment 3 - 2:46 (!)
Segment 4 - 4:36

That's a grand total of 21:53 of content. That's a bit better and nearer to the classic standard, but check out segment 3... two minutes and forty-six seconds of "Simpsons" between commercials. The spot pod just before it was 2:05 of network spots followed by a 1:50 local break, for a total commercial break duration of 3:55. That's right, segment 3 of "The Simpsons" was shorter than the commercial break preceding it. And I'm overlooking the fact that the entire episode was a product placement for a record company.

Last week, while watching - trying to watch at home, I went to the bathroom and completely missed segment 3 of that week's episode.

Wanna know what's wrong with "The Simpsons?" One word... MOO. MOOOO.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Helpful Hints for Romney

Today's guest blogger is J.S. Faulconner II. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the host.

Poor Mitt Romney. In running against Obama, the guy faces a challenge even tougher than the expert slope at Telluride. How does one present an image of being concerned for the common voter when one was born with the proverbial silver spoon - although these days everyone is switching to carbon fiber for their better balance and choice of prep school colors.

You see, Romney is a scion. That should be obvious just from his first name: Mitt. That's a name a father gives his scion. It tells the world, "I can give my son any first name I want because it's the LAST NAME that will open doors." But the problem here is that Mitt has decided to run for president, and for some reason it's a common misconception that we shouldn't have a rich person for president.

Oh really? Name one economically challenged president? You can't because they were all wealthy. FDR, the president of the people, was one of the wealthiest presidents we've ever had. And don't get me started on Kennedy. How can the party that gave us Camelot claim to be the party for the working man? I rest my case. It's business that gets things done. Money. That's how you get to be president, my boy! Political campaigns don't run on flower power. You need big money just to run for a local office, and the ability to raise even bigger money from people who have even bigger money if you want to go to Washington. Your ability to handle large sums is a right of passage into the executive branch. If you want to be president, you best be able to understand economics and be comfortable with handling transactions with lots of zeros. This is no place for someone who clips coupons or has to wait until payday to make the car payment. If writing the check for the down on a house makes you throw up your Tuna Helper, may I suggest an occupation where you'll be handing over far smaller amounts of money... a Cash 4 Gold store perhaps.

In other words, you don't want a poor person in the White House. The reason poor people are poor is because they can't handle money. You want someone in the Oval Office who won't blink at a trillion dollar deficit. Heavens, my wife puts that much on her Tiffany card.

"Ah, but what about Dubya?" you ask. He was a scion. Fair question. Let's just say that while it may be true that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, it can roll downhill. HA! Goodness, that was witty wasn't it? Somebody put that in The New Yorker. I'm a regular James Thurber.

Returning to Mitt, he does face an image problem: the misconception that the rich don't care about the working class. Nothing could be further from the truth. The working class is the backbone of this great nation, providing the oil that lubricates our economy. Of course, to extend the metaphor, we've had to go "off shore" to obtain some of that oil, but let's not haggle over details. The middle class provides the customer base for our next electronic thingamagig that will become obsolete a week after it hits the market. Our consumer economy is based on selling cell phones to each other, and only way we can make it possible for the next generation of Americans to buy the newest i-Something is to keep taxes from going up... especially mine. Now, how do we help Mitt?

I believe it's a matter of communication. The middle class often misunderstands what we are saying because they don't live in our world. For example, Mitt's oft criticised statement that "corporations are people, too." Legally speaking, they are. In the eyes of the law and the IRS a corporation is an artificial person. Look it up. Businesspeople know that and understand. And the quote about his wife driving a couple of Cadillacs... child's play, my boy. Relative to the scale of luxury car pricing, Cadillac is way down at the bottom - a very reasonable and judicious purchase. Now if you want to get serious, let's go shopping for a Mercedes S-Class, a BMW 7 series, anything Jaguar, and you don't want to know what it costs to keep a Lincoln Town Car Limo with a driver and wet bar in New York City. If only you were a "one-percenter" you could understand our pain.

Here are some helpful suggestions I would give Mr. Romney to bridge the gap between the classes. Little things that will show that no matter where we stand on the social-economic ladder, deep down inside we're all the same. Well, not really, but at least they'll feel better when they hit the safety net.

* When you make a whistle stop at a small municipal airport in Amarillo, or Joplin, or some Midwest swing state, don't use the Gulfstream V. Fly the Lear, or better yet, find a vintage twin-prop Beechcraft V-Tail. Show the media you're a regular Joe by making them think you flew it yourself by wearing a Breitling Navitimer.

* A campaign speech at a state college is probably not the best place to let it slip that Daddy wrote checks for your tuition. 

* Don't wear Tommy Hilfiger to the soup kitchen.

* During the campaign Rolex is out. Stick to bargain brands like Movado or Baume and Mercier.

* During a news conference at a homeless shelter, switch off the text alert option from your broker for when your mutual funds go soft.

* Only domestic beer at public events.

* Always wear socks with your Sperry Topsiders. Seriously, I don't get why that's such a big deal.

* For god's sake avoid the following photo ops:
wearing a helmet, any helmet
farm machinery
appearances on SNL, Colbert, The Daily Show. These are COMEDY shows, dumbass.
trying to cook something

* Look the reporter in the eye during an interview. I know this is difficult because you were raised to avoid eye contact with the staff.

* Don't overcompensate with your choice of running mate. Just remember the Palin fiasco. That's right. Chose an unknown harmless white guy and move on.

* During your victory party, serve Dom Perignon chilled to 44.5 degrees F in fluted stemware. Hey, nobody said we had to go native here.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Farewell, Dick Clark

I'm too young to really remember "Bandstand." I recall a teenybopper aunt watching it religiously, and that's probably where I received my first exposure to British Invasion era pop culture, but beyond a murky vision of flip hairdos in black and white I don't have any specific memories. Dick Clark spoke to other generations, the ones just before me who swooned over Elvis, shrieked for the Beatles, and grooved to the music in dances with definable characteristics that earned them names like The Twist, The Mashed Potato, The Hully Gully, and The Wahtusi. As I recall, my aunt tried to teach me some of those dances, but at three years old my choreographic skills weren't quite advanced enough to keep up.

By the time I was a teen, "American Bandstand" seemed like a relic to me. The show experienced something of a revival during the disco years when kids, after a decade of mellowing out or protesting, actually started dancing again, but with far less abandon and joy. In the sixties, kids showed up at the Philadelphia studio wearing the latest but reasonably accessible trends. Disco demanded that you wear the latest designer labels as well as study the moves of Travolta with dedicated precision in order to please the LA studio audience wrangler. To make matters worse, by this time Dick Clark was saddled with the image of being wholesome and safe. No dirty hippies on "Bandstand," to be sure, and nothing on display you wouldn't want your mother to catch you seeing. No drugs, no radical politics, and no sexual deviation. Thus, we have have this marvelously ironic video clip of Dick Clark introducing The Village People. 

Growing up in the Cincinnati area, I had local DJ's to point the musical way. Some of them I've had the honor of working with: Jim Scott, Dave Reinhardt, Dusty Rhodes to name a few legends. Geoff Nimmo taught me that Rock and Jazz were never really bitter enemies, but step-children in a slightly dysfunctional musical family. His father Bill taught me that old school is the best school. Jazz cat Ray Scott tried to teach me how to be a class act. And Gary Burbank taught me that writing is a discipline, and that one should not assume all Blues and Country music is inferior. 

So, what did Dick Clark teach me? I never met him. I didn't watch him work all that often. I like bloopers when they are real, and some of the practical jokes were pretty funny, but I wasn't a big fan of the show. There are too many award shows on TV. And on New Years Eve I was either emceeing a local event or watching it. You might think Dick Clark never touched my life. And yet, somebody had to have told me in some way that there's more to this business than just being a host. Somebody somewhere told me that working behind the scenes was not shameful. We're in show business, and longevity often means being smart with the money.

As for on-air performance, whenever I interviewed or introduced a rock and roll legend like Peter Noone, Frankie Vallie, Peggy March, or Spencer Davis, there was this voice in the back of my mind telling me that the person I'm with has met Dick Clark. This person has seen a true professional in action. I can only try to reach for that high standard. Sometimes, I wonder if when Frankie Vallie and his crew where particularly appreciative of my efforts if they were thinking, "Cool. This guy has watched Dick Clark. He gets it. It's not about him."

You see, whether he was hosting "Bandstand" or "$20,000 Pyramid" or a "New Years Rockin' Eve" Dick Clark must've believed he wasn't the real reason people tuned in. He was the host, but not the star. People tuned in to see the musicians, the music, a ball drop at Times Square, or somebody win a lot of money. He was the glue that held it all together, an important job to be sure, but ultimately just the host. You say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done, and then get out of the way. He surely knew that appearing on those New Years Eve shows after his stroke was putting him in the spotlight, but maybe he felt like he would be slacking off if he didn't put in his fair share of the work. Whatever the case, especially when you consider his renown for being smooth and unflappable, those appearances after the stroke took courage.

And so I think right about now Dick Clark would be rather uncomfortable with all this star attraction attention. It's OK, sir; you've earned it. Rest well. 

We now return to the bloopers and practical jokes that is daily life.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Take This Job... Please!

There's a new career ranking survey out, and it's got some folks in the TV biz hopping mad. According to CareerCast's annual list of best and worst jobs "broadcaster" ranks as the #10 worst. They site such things as the lack of job security, lack of growth, stress, and lousy pay as conditions for their ranking. Well, yeah, those things are true, but still... number 10? That puts working in a television station somewhere down around walking a theme park in a cartoon character suit or cleaning out portable toilets. Then again, editing a politician's news conference into something comprehensible can feel a lot like cleaning out a toilet.

I don't know anything about CareerCast, and I can't seem to find out any more than they put out these surveys once a year. They do explain their methodology here. Still, I can't help but think they may have jiggered the numbers or played with semantics to get a headline grabbing result, especially when you consider you would never hear about CareerCast without "broadcasters" to tell you. Furthermore, I'm always a bit suspicious of websites who purport to know all about our industry, and then prove the depth of that knowledge by including a photo of a "broadcaster" talking into the top end of a side-address condenser microphone.

Actual photo from CareerCast page.
"Hi. I'm a model. I just do this part-time for Clear Channel."

Anyway, the definition of "broadcaster" is somewhat elastic in this survey. By CareerCast's definition, it appears "broadcaster" means the person you see on the air reporting the news. In the business of broadcasting, we refer to these people as "talent." I'll let the reader insert his or her own punchline at this point. In our facility, we divide our operation into four distinct departments, of which Talent is only one branch grossly outnumbered by all the others. For example, we have the business department which handles the sexy stuff like accounting/book keeping, accounts receivable, health insurance, and locking up the hole punch after hours lest some co-anchor makes Swiss cheese out of the other anchor's script just before air time. These are skills transferable to many other industries, except for the hole punch part. Photocopiers are usually the most abused devices in offices, used to preserve one's posterior for the ages. We are above that sort of thing in television; we have $50,000 high definition cameras for that.

The sales department has the glamorous job of going out to local business people and convincing them that somebody is still watching "The Office." Sales brings in the dollars that make it possible for the rest of us to get paid. Marketing skills can be transferred to any number of industries... politics, for example. If you can convince a client that you're actually interested in his two-hour monologue on how the Buckeyes got railroaded and Tressel was just a whipping boy for the NCAA and how the SEC is run by the mob thus Kentucky is the champion and the BCS is a bunch of commies... man, you got the stuff to be a congressman.

The production department has admittedly had it tough in recent years. Time was when we had people on each camera, switcher, graphics, and keeping time. Thanks to robotic cameras and automation software, those positions have been consolidated. The director has become a Doctor Octopus multitasking genius who really only needs the intercom to talk to the floor director... and we're working on replacing floor directors with holograms just as soon as we can get them to stop saying, "Help me, Obi Wan. You're my only hope."

The engineering department possess skills unique to broadcasting, such as knowing the exact combination of swear words to get a video server back on the air. And engineers are the people within the station most likely to keep a can of WD-40 in their desks, just in case. The engineer who is on-call during the weekend has the worst job: transmitters only crap out at 2:00 on Christmas morning. But most of these guys could take a Microsoft course and land on their feet if the worst happens.

That leaves us with the news department, and that's where we find the lens meat... er, I mean Talent. This is where we run into the issues that cause CareerCast's metrics to go off the scale. See, the problem here is that in this department we've entered a branch of Show Business. I know some journalists may bristle at that comment, but let's face it, you wouldn't want Ferris Bueller's teacher anchoring the six. News presentation requires the same abilities of good acting: addressing the audience, voice control, hair and makeup. But, it also requires going after a story, making public officials squirm, in other words developing a thick skin and staying on topic while ignoring the distractions of the mud being flung back at you. You must be the voice of reason when everybody else is going off the rails. And that's not always fun. It's a special kind of work that requires a special kind of person.

Ranking a "broadcaster" with software developers and corporate lawyers is bit like including stand up comic or movie stunt person in the survey... and I think CareerCast does. It's comparing apples to plutonium. Certain uniquely talented people aspire to certain unique occupations regardless of the hazards, pitfalls, and less-than-stellar pay. They just love what they do.

On the other hand, the falling image of the television reporter should be cause for concern within our industry. It's more than the lack of credibility; at stake is our ability to attract promising new employees to all aspects of the television business. When a young person sees "Today" bring on Sarah Palin, that sends a message that knowledge of journalism and a certain level of... let's call it decorum... is not desired in our industry. When a First Daughter delivers soft soap on a prime time news program (one that's changed time slots more than a revival of "Knight Rider") it signals to everyone that television news has the believability of Shaquille O'Neil writing a children's book. It tells people we don't take it seriously, so why should you?

And if your bosses don't take what you do seriously, then you might be better off cleaning toilets for a living.