Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"The Tail Wagging The Dog"

Concerning the political arena – which I barely write about anymore because I am too upset about it and I have no ability to change anything – I have written that the enterprise of Public Relations or whatever it’s more accurately labeled on their passports – “Professional Manipulator of Facts and Symbols” perhaps – has become more important than the actual candidates who, should they lose, melt back into the tapestry of humanity while the P.R. folks simply move on to distort the personas of somebody else.  (Was there enough venom in that sentence for you?  If you face swells up, I would head straight to the Emergency Room for an antidote.)

In contrast to politics, show business doesn’t matter.  Unless you want to send your child to a good college or need a roof over your house.  (Not an exaggeration.  When Best of the West got picked up, we were able to afford a roof for the old house we were remodeling.  If it had been cancelled, our living room furniture would be seriously waterlogged.)

But show business too has its Public Relations practitioners.  And as Ken Levine wrote recently in his indispensible blog bykenlevine.com, there is an inevitable adversarialism between those assigned to promoting the shows and the creators of the shows themselves, each side believing their contribution to be more essential to the show’s ultimate success than the other’s. 

The show’s creators harbor the belief that P.R. people disparage their efforts because they are secretly writers who are too fearful to make the actual leap.  The P.R. participants seem to believe that “product” (which is what they call content) is simply a “marketable commodity”, its success determined most significantly by the way that “product” is commercially packaged and sold.  Can you see why those people would not like each other?

A retrieved story from the “Earl Pomerantz Vindictiveness File”:

When Major Dad began airing on CBS it was doing okay but not great in the ratings and a call was set up between me and a studio P.R. representative to discuss strategies for getting the show some attention. 

I no longer recall much about the call – because it occurred twenty-five years ago, and because it was amnesiatically traumatizing.  I still, however, vividly remember one line. 

The P.R. representative sounded unmistakably annoyed by my having interrupted her day, staunchly defending the – to me entirely inadequate – efforts the studio had made on Major Dad’s behalf, and finally reminding me that – and here’s that reverberating line  – that Major Dad is “not exactly a hit show.”

I did not need reminding that Major Dad was “not exactly a hit show.”  That was the reason we were talking.  Major Dad needed help.    

Hit shows do not need help.  But, as with the super-wealthy who receive myriad forms of tax-avoiding assistance from the tax code while the financially struggling do not, hit shows are the only shows that get help.

Despite minimal P.R. assistance, Major Dad eventually caught on and went on to a healthy four-season run.  Perhaps they jumped seriously on board later.  When the series, now a hit, did not need help anymore. 

To me, you throw the lifebuoy when the person’s sputtering precariously in the water, not when they are comfortably back on the ship.  But perhaps I just don’t understand how it works.

You can detect the early seeds of encroachment of P.R. from the following anecdote, also from twenty-five years ago. 

It’s Friday night, and we are about to film an episode of Major Dad in front of a live studio audience.  Before the filming, Universal’s “President of Television” (Universal producing Major Dad) sidles up to me, looking distinctly uncomfortable.  He is an emissary, he explains, passing along a request made by the P.R. department of CBS, the network airing the show.

The network’s P.R. department was wondering if it was okay with me if, at some point during the broadcast, the “Energizer Bunny” beating a drum could traverse the screen, promoting the animated bunny’s company’s batteries.  (This process is now normal.  As are “balloon blurbs” promoting other shows while the current show is running.)

In response to Universal’s “President of Television’s” query, I pointed to Major’s Dad star, Gerald McRaney, an actor who took his job (and arguably himself) intensely seriously, and I said,

“Ask that guy if it’s okay to have the “Energizer Bunny” zipping across the screen while he’s acting, and if it’s okay with him, it is okay with me.”

He never asked, and it never happened.  But as we have come to see – and it has been accepted by the audience though considerably less so by the participants pouring their hearts and souls into the show – it was only a matter of time. 

Wind-up to today’s post:

Curious, I once back in day asked the studio’s head of Public Relations exactly his job was like.  The following were his precise words.  I ask forgiveness for the language.

“Earl,” he explained, “a good day for me is when nobody tells me to go fuck myself.”

He was a sweet man.  He did not deserve to be spoken to that way. 

But I can very easily understand why he was.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

This is why book authors like big advances: if the publisher is paying a lot for the book *they* need it to succeed, not just you.

PS Earl, could you delete my email address from public display on yesterday's comment? My phone was being unhelpful...

Canda said...

Don't get too successful, because then the President will start holding news conferences in your time slot, to maximize his ratings.

Or the network will put you up against other hit shows, ultimately hurting your run. Or repeat it, with one of your originals, as a sandwich for another show they're launching.

Or just repeat it some other night, when they cancel a show in that time slot. By the time syndication happens, people have seen every episode 4 times.