Sunday, May 10, 2009

In which we take Advantage of Technology

A. Keith was grousing. All the new eagerly-awaited control room stuff was sitting in unopened boxes. The installation was proceeding fitfully at best. The only thing that had been installed, which was really pretty useless for a television station, was a piece of audio equipment that allowed incoming telephone calls to be assigned straight to a sound console input.

Huh. So you could call in from any old outside line and it could be patched straight to audio?

Even more useless, Keith pointed out, was that it was an extension off the station's PBX, so you could call from the house phone in the studio if you wanted to. What was the point of that?

B. We were comparing who was taping the broadcasts. Turns out that our studio guys might not be well paid, might not have upgraded from college kid apartments, but mostly had VCRs (Dougie had a Betamax, nanny nanny boo boo) and were mostly all taping the shows, too. Also turns out that house policy was that every broadcast was taped and archived. 'Twas ever Thus; who knew what happened to the archive tapes? probably eventually stored in a warehouse somewhere, hopefully not too close to the Lost Ark or the eldritch radiations thereof might degrade the video quality over time (that or melt the tapes into unusuable melmac goo, one). But yeah, every show occupied its own cassette of crisp Ampex goodness, marked and tagged in the film room.

C. Barb and I were wearing down a little. The family was Not Happy that we were going to excuse ourselves from attending the Required Thanksgiving Dinner -- again -- and this year's excuse was that we had to stay in Lex to do MT. Tell us again why exactly that's more important than enjoying your sister's cooking? While we weren't prepared to debate the relative merits of my sister's cooking v. exchanging witty patter with Keith, the reality was that every other spare minute since mid-August had been dedicated to MT. And while we still didn't know whether the show was Successful (whatever that meant) (although the well-informed interest of WLEX suits from Larry on down plus the attempted coup by Production should have been a pretty good indicator), we did know that we had this other personal agenda of Getting Out of Dodge, which had not yet been attended to -- and apparently we were now doing a pretty good job of rooting ourselves in Dodge for the forseeable future.

So we did the math: A+B+C = Time for a break. We need to take time for ourselves now.

In the snippy patois of the local thee-atyre folks at the time, one of the bigger hurled insults was to accuse an actor of phoning his or her role in. There were one or two known miscreants who signed on to a show, did nothing during the rehearsal process beyond getting lines down (usually a week or two after everybody else), and pulled out some Actor Tricks on opening night that fooled their friends and amazed their enemies enough to get by. Said miscreants were casually despised by the True Artistes, but were brand-name actors and directors who were good for some pre-show publicity in the Herald-Leader; and while whether such publicity actually translated to extra cash at the box office was debatable, it was vitally important enough to be a stumbling block for many people who apparently had too much time on their Hands.

So it seemed to me that we had the opportunity for another Meta-Joke: we could phone Millie in one night. It seemed to all of us that each individual show started strong but ran out of gas between Mail and the Close: we hadn't yet figured out how to sustain a show all the way through, and in truth all of us started running out of personal gas during the live shows -- the start/stop was wearing. If we built a show around the strongest bits, it might give us a clue to how to fix that particular problem. Besides, the Meta-Joke shows were proving to be the strong shows, so any opportunity for a Meta-Joke show would be eagerly seized.

Keith pointed out another true fact that had been staring everybody in the phiz all along: given the high resolution of US broadcast standard, there was no obvious visual dfference between a show on tape and a live show. Other than our occasional statements that we were live, a viewer could never tell just by watching the broadcast. So there was no technical reason why we couldn't record a show in advance. A taped show might actually be more cost-effective, because it wouldn't require keeping a full studio crew on till 3:30 Sunday morning; and more to the point, said full studio crew had to come right back in at 9 Sunday morning to do the live Public Interest show broadcasts. Which were starting to drag a little, because everybody was whacked from the MT broadcast. (And some intrepid post-show partying on their part that we poophead marrieds were not privy to nor supposed to know about. As if.) Plus the forced one-week layoff had revealed that the guys missed their Saturday nights a little, and Thanksgiving's imminence was fueling unnecessary new Grumbling in the Ranks.

A phoned-in show also wouldn't require makeup. Nothing against Bob, enjoyed his company and his contribution, but all in all there were many compelling reasons for Doing Something Different. Besides, what Keith said about not being able to tell the difference between live and live-to-tape was causing me to think very hard that this might solve a lot of problems. If I could sell it to Bill. Who was apparently basking in the glow of our putative success, uninterested in fixing what appeared to be unbroken as far as he was concerned, and not inclined to be sympathetic to the needs and desires of the male members of the contingent. But was interested in the care and feeding of His Star.

So after conspiring with Barb, we both came down one Monday to chat with Bill. By this point, I had learned to keep my mouth shut, so Barb did the talking: she reminded him that the deal was that she would be free to pursue her other interests, we had delivered what appeared to be successful n profitable for WLEX, an R&R break would be a Good Thing to take a step back and figure out the Next Steps for everybody, by Bill's own admission the Thanksgiving weekend would likely be a blow-off weekend for viewer numbers anyway -- what if we tried a live-to-tape show built around a highlight reel? If the numbers were building, then viewers might not have seen some of the stuff anyway.

Surprisingly, Bill was not opposed, much. He was concerned about Barb -- was she OK? Did she need a break? Was one week enough (but he didn't want to go too deep into December, he wanted to keep momentum for the February ratings period). We didn't play the crew card too much, other than to ask how the public interest shows were holding up given the late nights -- and Bill made it clear that broadcast quality of the public interest shows was a non-issue, these shows were wholly content-driven through the quality of the interviewer (hmmm). He was skeptical about the long-term implications: "I suppose if this works, you'll want to do the whole show live-to-tape." Didn't expect him to tumble to that right away, so I figured since that shot was directed at me I might as well respond: "I'd rather have that conversation later. I can't say that it hasn't occured to me, and I can't deny that we might want to do it that way, but we'd only want to do it that way if we got a better show out of it. And a better show would be a more popular show, which is what you want and WLEX wants, right? But that's a different conversation. Right now we're talking about one show."

Barb turns on both the charm and the Millie voice: "Please, Billy-willy? Daaaaarling?" Not even Bill can keep a straight face at that one, and okays the show. For a one-time shot, no segment retakes -- "Not even if the scenery falls down. It has to be just like the live show." That's fine by us, and we agree to tape the show Sunday night. Bill's figuring that if we're burning out this will really toast us; guess we forgot to tell him that we were going to be taping a telephone for thirty minutes.

So Keith, Barb and I pull our lists together of our favorite bits: we're pretty much in sync, negotiate one or two, but this was really a five-minute exercise at best. The hook for the framing sequences is that Millie is calling in sick; so Barb comes up with a new Millie voice, pouty and whiny, which definitely has some future possibilities. We kick around whether we could do the sequences right after the regular broadcast -- survey sez that camera guys are fading fast, so let's come back and do it fresh. We come back in Sunday night; we have the studio from 7:30 PM, must be clear by 9 PM (okay, 9:15) to do the Headline News cut-in at 9:30 PM. Keith has set up a corner of the set, put the phone on the trunk, and wants to do the open as a slow zoom in; someone has to pick up the ringing phone, that would be me. Big Jeff has by now moved on to Bigger and Better Things that don't include the Dreaded A-Shift, so Dougie has moved over to audio: he's finding all manner of sound effects that he delights in inappropriately inserting into the broadcast, so he handles the phone rings. Barb is sitting in the Sacred News Set, which has a phone built into it; we figure that the prohibition is that we can't see the Sacred News Set, not use it. We note for the record that the chair for the female anchor is labeled Big Butt on its backrest, and contemplate whether this is a term of endearment by the Crew for the Talent, or by the Distinguished Male Anchor for his Apparently Less Distinguished Cohort.

Keith explains Da Rules: we won't see the actual sequences we're introducing, we'll just do our intros and bumps. We'll have to hold at the ends of each sequence, including the bumps, while he rolls some black screen leader in and out of each sequence -- so no movee no talkee until the floor manager calls clear. We're only using the one camera tonight. They've taken extra pains to light the phone with beauty lighting, because he's going to use this as an in-house demo to show that our crew can do commercial shoots too (hithertofore the sole province of the Dreaded A-Shift, because commercials are shot in the afternoons after the Noon News at Noon breaks), so we all need to not cast shadows on the phone.

The shoot goes pretty fast, and we're mostly done by 8:30; we're sitting around for a few minutes after concluding that this went pretty well and would probably work for the regular show when Mike the Weekend News Guy comes in. He'd heard that we were doing the show now instead of Saturday night (apparently they were watching the in-house feed down in the news bullpen), and wanted to say hi. He thought it was pretty clever, and wanted to know where Barb was sitting when she used the phone. Barb doesn't want to admit that we had Trespassed onto the Sacred News Set, but Doug has no shame: "She's auditioning. She's the new Big Butt." Mike keeps it rolling, tells us he'll be sure to let Mindy know and that we can expect a call from her by the time we get home. Then he asks if we're planning to do all of the shows like this. I allow as to how we're thinking about it, it depends how this one comes off, we do have some internal obstacles to overcome ...

Mike snorts. "Bill?" Well, that tells us how the chickens are aligned in the barnyard this week. I never could take the hint and finish my thought, which is that we were trying to tie our argument to a falloff in production quality for the public interest shows; seems to us that these would be the shows that management would want to take care of, but the counterargument is that the shows stand on the quality of the interviewer. Which by a remarkable coincidence happens to be Mike. Who assures us that if we need him to make the case that a fresh wakeful crew is far far better than a half-asleep crew, we just need to say the word. I assure him that we'll take him up on that, we want to see how the next couple of weeks go, and that we might need his help around mid-December and he assures me any time, just catch him on the way off the set. And with that, the Phone-In Show is officially wrapped for the night.

We all set our VCRs as usual, and watch our tapes. Keith's right: I can't tell the difference between the taped show and the live shows.


  1. To be honest, I never believed, until That One Phone Call, that it was live to begin with. And in fact, I promptly forgot realizing that and went back to assuming you guys filmed it during downtime from the News or something.

    I just couldn't wrap my head around putting on a full-blown show that late at night (even given the limitations of the no-budget and all). Of course, given the chance, I'd do it, but I doubt I'd be as fun to watch. I'm not camera friendly.

  2. Bill's idea, I think, was that the live-ness of the show would be performance enhancing: if you know you only have that One On-Air Shot, you will focus your concentration wonderfully like Dr. Johnson's hypothetical man about to be hanged. We thought that notion was ... uninformed. It may indeed be true for a live audience in the studio. But for the viewing audience at home, I don't think so. I've always thought that Marshall McLuhan had the right idea, if not the right syntax: we learn a way of processing our inputs that's unique for each delivery system. Watching a teevee show is only a shared experience to the extent that other people watch that show. Otherwise, the experience is only shared with the folks in the room, and the remembered experience is the experience of watching more than the experience of the show.

    After 20-odd years, I have finally learned (professionally) that you really don't sell a new idea so much as you keep presenting it over and over, and eventually the person being pitched comes to accept the idea as his or her own. Of course, that often means that in that person's mind He/She Thought of It First.

    So IMO the significance of the Phone-In Show was that it was outside validation (through viewer response, payroll and engineering data) that for MT "live" was a style choice, not a critical factor for success. And once it was validated as a style choice, then you could make the "business" case for making a "more cost-effective" style choice. "Live" and Barbara were Bill's ownership stakes in the show, and up to this point that's what counted in WLEX's Corridors O Power. IMO, he held on to live broadcast until he had a somewhat graceful way to let go of live broadcast. This way, it didn't seem like he was caving to the Artistes.

    Or, as the Head Rat of Ruckus Arenus taught us in Negotiating 101: Give 'em a way out. Cornered animals bite.

  3. Well, it's still a thing to wrap my head around that you were doing those early shows live. BUT I gotta say, you quickly found a way to hook the audience, and I do remember, for some reason, that after this episode things got better for the show. From a production standpoint at least, I mean, although at the time I didn't realize that's what I was analyzing.

    Oh, and another thought on memories, although I have no idea if you had any input in it: the showing of *Godzilla: 1985* at the Kentucky Theatre. I saw the newsclipping about that and was so disheartened at the time, because there was no way I could attend it, even with my half-brother living down on Nicholasville Road. (there's reasons)

  4. OH! For people reading, my inquiry about that isn't because of MT... it's because of Godzilla. You guys DON'T even want to know how much Godzilla crap I have... or how much I know about the kaiju parade.

    But I remember, back then, knowing I couldn't attend it, being depressed not because I couldn't attend a Millie live event. It was because I didn't believe I'd ever see a Godzilla movie in a theatre. And wow, it turned out that woulda been a good movie to watch, huh?

    It turned out that I did see a Godzilla movie in the theatre: Godzilla Millenium... or whatever they called it, the one with the flying rock. I saw it in Dallas, one of my best memories from there.

  5. The Godzilla show is a-comin'. It would be considered "non-canonical", I spose ... it was a radio station promotion and they handled the whole package; no LBG, no backsassing the projectionist, no funny walkons, just Barb in garb. I had an idea to do it like a Jerry Lewis Vegas act, and the radio station guys said "Oh. We have something else in mind."