Thursday, October 2, 2008

"Eleven O'clock Meeting"

Ten or so years ago, while consulting on the Al Franken/ John Markus show, Lateline – a half hour comedy version of ABC’s Nightline – I had the opportunity to visit the Nightline production offices in Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital – I get excited about these things – and, along with Al and John, I got to sit in on the “Eleven O’clock Meeting”, a daily routine, during which the show’s production staff gathers around a table to decide which topic Nightline will focus on that night.

(During this trip, we also got to go to the White House and meet with Al Gore (to pitch him an idea for an episode of Lateline). At the time, Gore was Vice President. Duh. What else? He was renting an office in there? Anyway, our visit took place at the height of the Lewinski crisis, and Gore seemed at loose ends, eyeing the door, as if expecting someone to show up and say, ‘Clinton quit. You’re president now.’ It didn’t happen.)

Something was happening in Kosovo. The word was, they were about to discover some mass grave over there. A mass grave is obviously a big story. If the mass grave was discovered, that would be the Nightline story for that night.

In case, however, the mass grave was not discovered, or not discovered in time for that night’s telecast, Nightline would require a back-up idea. We’re sitting there, learning important lessons about the show. Mass graves are not discovered at Nightline’s convenience. The show needed protection. Otherwise, it’s…

“Good evening. This is Ted Koppel for Nightline. Tonight, our coverage was supposed to take us to a mass grave site in Kosovo, but they didn’t find it, so, goodnight.” You can’t do that. That’s a fifteen second show.

The producers threw around a bunch of ideas for the “back-up.” One of them was a story about Canada, concerning, I believe, a logging dispute. I hear “Canada” and my ears immediately perk up. Imagine. A story about my country of origin on Nightline. Not bad, eh?

At that point, the Executive Producer, Tom somebody, reminds his underlings that whenever they do a story about Canada, Nightline’s ratings are disastrously low. My heart hits the floor. It’s humiliating hearing that stories about your home and native land are guaranteed losers. I was immediately concerned. Can a country be cancelled because of low ratings?

I knew a great story Nightline could do about Canada. But I was a guest in the room, and was required to remain silent. Often since that meeting, I have fantasized myself jumping into action at that point. It’s just the way I am. In life, I do very little. But I can fantasize with the best of them.

“May I have ten seconds?” I fantasize myself saying.

My interruption is not enthusiastically received. There are room-wide grumblings. “Who is this guy?” Al’s rolling his eyes. John’s embarrassed for having recommended me to Al.

I hold my ground. If you can’t stand firm in your own fantasies, what’s the point?

“Ten seconds,” replies the Executive Producer.

“Thank you,” I say. And I tell the room my story.

“I once read an op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times entitled, ‘Why Canadians hate Americans.’ The column was datelined Ottawa. And they spelled Ottawa wrong.”

The Nightline staffers aren’t stupid. They get the point of my story. Misspelling their nation’s capital’s name in a major American newspaper before you even start the article is precisely why Canadians hate Americans.

“It’s still about Canada,” drones the Executive Producer.

“May I have ten more seconds?”

Fantasy or no, I’ve earned another ten seconds. The Executive Producer nods okay. At this point, I go “all prescient”, anticipating the attack on the World Trade Center and the poisonous hatred of this country by its enemies.

“Canada’s feelings towards the United States are the most benign version of the way a lot of countries feel about the United States. You ignore those feelings at your peril.”

Man, was I persuasive. Responding to my argument, the Executive Producer orders “The World, And Why They Hate Us” for Nightline that night, and invites me on as a guest, where I will offer “the Canadian perspective” with my “Ottawa” story. My fantasy. I put myself on the air.

The telecast has international reverberations. The ratings are through the roof.

What actually happened at that meeting?


Nightline’s Executive Producer vetoes the Canadian logging story, and, the “mass grave in Kosovo” story having “missed deadline”, goes with “The Wall Street Rollercoaster”, chronicling the up’s and down’s of the American stock market, a story they could have done any night during the past ten years, and for as long as Nightline remains on the air in the future.

When it’s over – we had returned at eleven thirty to watch the live production – I hear a Nightline producer compliment the producer directly responsible for the “rollercoaster” program, calling the telecast, “a well executed cliché.”

I have no idea what Nightline’s ratings were that night. In my fantasy, they weren’t that great.


Diane Kristine said...

Years ago I was an editor for an English newspaper in Mexico City and even though there was a disproportionately high percentage of Canadians on staff, the number of Canadian stories was disproportionately low because the consensus was no one cared – the Canadian news was just too boring. One of the only times we put a Canadian article in while I was there, it was a short bit about the upcoming national election … with a longer "sidebar" about Rick Mercer starting the petition to have Stockwell Day change his name to Doris. The lesson we learned: our home and native land is only interesting when it's comic relief.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I loved nightline, especially the lter episodes, when the relationship between the female reporter and the editor began to click.

Meg said...

Perhaps it's time to suggest your ideal line up, I'd love to hear you order the world's priorities. If not, maybe Uncle Grumpy is up for the task.

rms said...

"Can a country be cancelled because of low ratings?"

What a fantastic line! And after the leaders debate last night, it is even more appropriate! (Just FYI we're having an election up here in Canada. It's only taking a month, not 4 years.)