Friday, November 18, 2011

"It Must Be Important; It's On Television"

10As a result of working on a satirical sitcom called Lateline, I was afforded the opportunity – along with Lateline’s co-creators John Markus and (now Senator) Al Franken – to attend Nightline’s, “Eleven O’clock Meeting”, when Ted Kopell was still at the helm. This daily morning ritual is the time when the decision is made about which show Nightline will go with that night.

(We later returned at eleven-thirty P.M. to watch them broadcast the show live, my clearest memory being sitting in the “Green Room”, watching Kopell casually wolfing down a bag of potato chips just before going on.

I was exhilarated. It was like witnessing Abraham Lincoln eating a sandwich before delivering the Gettysburg Address. Okay, not that big, but it was significant. Okay, significant for me.)

On the day of our visit – this was in the late 1990’s – the Nightline staff was awaiting an imminent overseas report concerning the uncovering of a mass grave in Bosnia. If they uncovered the grave in time, that would be that night’s show.

The problem was, “What if they didn’t uncover the mass grave in Bosnia on time?” To be safe, Nightline needed a contingency “Plan B.” This replacement show was unlikely to be as compelling – you don’t uncover a Bosnian mass grave every day – but, regardless, they needed to have something ready in case the mass grave story didn’t happen, either because they uncovered it too late, or because the story itself unexpectedly fell through.

“It turns out it was just a rumor about a mass grave. Do you want to do a Nightline about rumors?”

“No, thanks.”

As the staff spitballed back-up ideas, John Markus, (now Senator) Al Franken and I sat in the corner of a conference room, carefully observing the process (and imagining how we could make it funny for our show.) Nightline’s Executive Producer sat at the head of a long table, with segment producers, journalists and researchers filling the seats on both sides, reminiscent of my Grandmother’s seder, but with less Pomerantzes and more people I didn’t know.

There were also a couple of speakerphones on the table, where disembodied correspondents chimed in from abroad, and, as I recall, Ted Koppel called in at one point, for a “heads up” on what they were planning to do.

The first suggestion concerned a serious logging dispute between some Northwestern states and Canada. The Executive Producer quickly shot the proposal down, citing that whenever they do a show about Canada, they consistently receive their lowest ratings of the year. His observation elicited an energetic confirming chuckle from the staff. John and (now Senator) Al, I believe, laughed too.

Inwardly, I fumed at the derisive dismissal of my home and native land. I wanted to speak up and say, “You should do a show about why Canada hates America, using this meeting as Exhibit A.” It occurred to me that Canada’s feelings for the United States is the most benign version of a more virulent antipathy worldwide, and that someday, that antipathy would be played out with disastrous consequences.

That’s right. I predicted the attacks on September 11th. That morning. In my head.

It was finally decided to go with a show on “The Rollercoastering Stock Market”, spotlighting the market’s recent precipitous up’s and down’s. Later that night, when the broadcast ended, a Nightline producer congratulated the producer who’d been in charge of the “stock market” broadcast, calling it “a well-executed cliche.”

Since then, the stock market has “rollercoastered” on an almost daily basis, and considerably more precipitously than the “rollercoastering” chronicled on that Nightline episode in 1998. As it turned out, the “rollercoaster” show could have been aired any time during the last thirteen years, retitled, “Business As Usual; Pass the Tums.

Why was “The Rollercoastering Stock Market” broadcast that night? Because the uncovering of the Bosnian mass grave was unavailable, and Nightline despises Canada. That’s not true. They probably have no feelings about about Canada at all. What they despise is low ratings, which, in their context, is synonymous with Canada.

The “Rollercoastering Stock Market” was broadcast that night because on that day, the people working on Nightline could not come up with anything better. Which leads to the bigger, albeit rhetorical, question:

“Why did they have to come up with anything?”

To which the answer, of course, is

(DELIVERED, AS TO A TWO YEAR-OLD) “Because we do a show called Nightline five nights a week. And every night, we have to put something on it.”

And there you have it. If you have a show, you have to put something on it.

Whether you have something worth putting on it or not.

In “regular world” logic, there is no reason to do a show when you have nothing to put on it. You don’t call someone on the phone when you have nothing to tell them. You don’t dress up when you have nowhere to go. You don’t board a plane and fly somewhere when you have no reason to be there. But with shows, it’s different.

The show requires you to have a show.

This is not a serious concern in entertainment broadcasting. It’s just “We did a bad show; we’ll do a better one next time.” The problem is, when the audience sees a story on a news show, there is a strong likelihood they will perceive it as important. Why?

“It must be important; it’s on television.”

As I believe I have demonstrated,

Not necessarily.

The story may be on television because it’s the best idea they could come up with that day.

Which, truth be told, is the same thing you could say about this blog post.

If I didn’t have loftier standards.


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; is there truly a disconnect between the audience and the show such that the audience doesn't know a show has stiffed them with the best thing the show could think up that day?

What am I thinking, they put on reality shows now.


Frank said...

I sure hope that logging dispute was settled eh.