To: Lew Narren From: Larry Childs Subject: The set
Got your memo. Read your memo. (He thinks: How could I not get it? You delivered it by hand. Big shot walks three offices down and drops it on my desk with an arrogant flourish.) Okay. The set is lousy. Do we have the money to build a new set? Will corporate go for it? More to the point, will corporate understand what you want. I’m not sure a new set is necessary. I do care what our anchors, our hosts as we now call them in the morning, say. I care even if they say nothing, which is most of the time. Talk in the morning is background noise. It is nothing more than that, and often less. Their talk, their breathing, please, is space between commercials. Maybe we do have to change more than the set. Can we change writers so easily? They are union and the union is a pain in the ass. (I know, June, you do not like the language or phrasing, but indulge me, please.) It is impossible to fire anyone. It is impossible to change anyone’s assignment without making it a federal case. For argument sake if we succeed in changing the set, and the people in front of the show and a few behind the scenes, do we change producers and director? Do you want to produce the show? I don’t. More importantly, we must change the lousy coffee and the unimaginative pastries, Danish or otherwise, especially the crummy, jelly filled doughnuts coated with powdered sugar with their horrible aftertaste. Let’s talk.
Reviewing those memos gave Morris the perspective he needed as he reviewed the past. He made himself comfortable, and he started to relive his spoken notes from 1971, not theirs, but notes based on Child’s and Narren’s collective thinking. His hand seemed to fondle the small machine as it disappeared in the flesh of his large, thickly muscled palm. Morris listened to his voice, and like most people, he did not recognize it. Who is that, he wondered? Why, it’s I, he realized. “That is me,” he says half aloud. He knows it is his voice, but he thinks he sounds younger. Hell, he was younger. Well, we were all younger, once. And with that he smiled. His voice sounds astonishingly fresh and surprisingly youthful. Though he hates the sound of his voice, he listens intently.
“Our decision is there will be a changing of the guard. We must move the current anchor off the show. We must replace him with someone younger, someone more engaged and engaging, but bland rather than edgy. Someone who cares, or if he does not care, at least should give that impression. When the anchor departs, there will be a palace revolution of sorts. We will not have the beheading, though we should, and it could be severe for everyone. The guy, our anchor, is in the hot seat but he doesn’t know it. We do not think it will be easy to get rid of him. The problem is, we cannot find anything else for him to do on our air at the network. Our research is accurate. We know that he can’t hold an audience in prime time. That is not his place. Getting inside his head is impossible. He doesn’t allow anyone near his mind. Sometimes I think he has sawdust in there instead of a brain. Other times I think the sawdust mixes with water that seeps in through his umbrella like hair and becomes mud, of a sort. Gunk in his head. My thought is terrible, but true. Getting inside him is not a high priority, though not one I would recommend. Attempting that would mean we take his mind too seriously. We might die trying, and death is not worth the trouble. We hear rumors that he has been thinking of quitting. He has more than enough money. He prides himself on being a good person, but we know better. We do not believe he will walk off the set some sunny morning never to return. We did not want to fire him. That would have been too messy. We decided to give him a party in honor of his longevity and loyalty to the network. We did not need an excuse to have a party. It was a way to get the press into the studio, have some cake and wine, show the TV critics our set, and let them sit in the anchor’s chair. Everyone would look good. We knew the anchor would love us for treating him like a hero. All looked well. We knew that positive ink would flow. The wine and food were good. The anchor seemed in good spirits, but then he always did because that’s his one great strength. “When we came to work after the party at five the morning to get the show ready, our heads were still thick from too much booze. I growled at everyone who crossed my line of sight. No one was in a good mood. It was then we found the anchor’s notice on the back deck of the control room. The back deck is where we put the show together each morning. The anchor knew that is where we would find his notice. Despite the party and all the love, he fooled us to our core. The anchor, bless him, had made it official by telling us in writing he would leave in six months. He said eleven years was long enough in any job. He believed his stability — thoughtfully, not his intelligence, which had always been suspect — contributed greatly to the maturity of the program. That was it: maturity. The people in charge no longer cared about maturity, he said. They cared only about competition. “His leaving was the best thing that happened to us that day. We grinned at each other because we never thought his departure would be so easy. He had become an institution but we had to move him. We worried that it would be impossible. He solved the problem for us. In the last few years, he had become lazy. He did his work as if he were asleep, like much of his audience was at that time of day. A man, considered by many to be the world’s champion dilettante, would soon be out the door and on his way to his private retreat. It was time. We felt relieved. But we had no idea our troubles were about to begin.”
Robert Morris turned the machine off and took a sip of cold coffee. He made a face because of its bitterness, and then after a few minutes, enough to catch his breath, he sat back, his face in repose, and restarted his tape.
“Because a search is not necessary, we name Gil Brandon the new anchor. Gil, who often subbed for the anchor, famous reporter that he is seems more than willing to assume the role of host. The big contract had to help with his decision. His move to morning host makes the transition easier for the new generation that we will wean and raise on the set in front of the camera. To the press we defined Brandon as having a powerful drive to succeed, but without saying it publicly, his other purpose, we felt, was needy and difficult to define. None of us knew what we meant by that, but it sounded good when we discussed him in private meetings. Did we mean he would be pliable and that we could make him in our image? Years before, another correspondent held the job and failed. Now we are going to try again. Maybe this time we will be lucky. We said this guy is a winner. Great voice. Good looks. He is very attractive to women. He will own the air in the morning for ten hours a week. We felt certain that Gil would give new meaning to the cliché, money machine. We wonder if he is selling his soul, but we quickly dismiss that thought. That is his business. He is an adult. His only baggage is that he is a womanizer of major proportions, but we can’t find any other secrets. We hope our vetting has been thorough. We have to make certain his lengthy string of affairs does not get into the tabloids. For a guy with so much hard news experience, he has very thin skin when it comes to his family. Gil wants the world to think he is religious, honest, and home every night for dinner. Can he maintain that fiction, especially with all the rock stars, female cooks, authors, movie stars and sweet, ambitious production assistants who are everywhere in the studio? He makes a room feel like fireworks at midnight. More to the point, his presence reminds us of noon on Sunday in Indiana. He is picnics along the river, high school basketball games, polluted skies, and feint echoes of the Klan on starless nights. We shall see what the audience thinks.”
Morris knows Brandon’s early life was a series of fits and starts defined by never living long enough in the same place to make many friends. Born on an air force base in New Jersey, his father a sergeant and chief mechanic who kept jets in the air, growing to manhood was lonely, but enlightening. After moving around much of his young life, Gil Brandon decided to become a reporter and see the entire world, not the isolated corners the military had exposed him to. Instead of staying in one place and settling down, as his father expected, Brandon moved to make world his home. He did it better and had more success than most. Early in his career, he did not think he would go very far. After all, he never went to college, so his education came from reading AP and UPI reports, magazines and as many newspapers. Gil Brandon’s name held its own surprises. Christened Gilbert J.P. Brandon, the J.P. for Jean Paul was in honor of Jean Paul Sartre. His mother, a great reader, and something of a social rebel, had been immersing herself in some of Sartre’s essays in French at the time of his conception. Though, as he got older and read Sartre himself, Gil realized the ignorance of his audience and decided never to use his middle name. But he did use various derivations when he worked local radio in the Pacific Northwest. First, he was Paul Brandon. Then, Gilbert Paul. Once he worked two jobs in two towns twenty miles apart. On one station during early morning drive, he called himself Paul Jeanette. On the other station, when he broadcast a sports show for two hours, he called himself Jean Gilbert. No one knew the difference. The mountains intruded on each station’s signal, so his listeners in each location heard only the show in their own area. When he started reporting on local television he simplified his name to Gil Brandon and that is how it stuck for more than thirty years. Robert Morris thought back to those days when everything seemed bright, when the world of morning television had hope. It was a time when news ruled, though morning TV had its share of chimps wearing diapers, cute weather girls, many soft features and still low budgets. And Gil needed to find his way.
“Gil Brandon, as the network’s new host had much to overcome, and much to learn. He has difficult paths to negotiate before he will become successful. He has had to adjust to the freakish morning hours and learn how to sleep on his feet with his eyes open. And he’s had to overcome the woman, Sally James, who thinks she should be sitting in his chair. Sally James! Well, that was not her real name. Names are sometimes odd in TV news, as odd as they are in Hollywood.”
Sally James assumed the name when she started in the business. Her real name is Sondra Witzkoff. She took Sally from Sally Rand, the fan dancer and stripper, an early advocate of women’s rights who believed, because of her beauty and body, that she could do anything and get away with it. James she borrowed from her roommate, because it had the correct old English sound. Her parents were Polish Jews, shopkeepers who fled Warsaw in the early 1930s, thus missing the horror of the Warsaw ghetto. They owned a tailor shop and dry-cleaning store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side dominated then by small groceries, candy stores and a saloon on every corner. To compensate for their poor English, they made their daughter read everything aloud, including the labels on food containers. Sally’s voice hardened into bell-like clarity as a teenager, and it helped her decide to become a broadcaster, despite a minor lisp, something that never bothered her. After graduating from City College in New York, Sally became a reporter for a small newspaper in the Midwest, and then she moved on to TV in Chicago. Dubbed a rising star, she soon went to New York and into morning television. She was tough, self-reliant, a poor writer and everyone realized she was not a very good broadcaster. She thought otherwise. But she had that indefinable something else. She had a knack of coming up with good stories. Reporting was one of her best skills. Her voice was passable, but her cadence, the rhythm she used in speaking was strange, perhaps a result of hearing only Polish, and northern Polish, at that, at home. She adored men, but those in positions of power annoyed her, at times bringing her to the edge of despair. Simply put, they were in her way. There was no room for any of them in her life. Perhaps that is why she had difficulty sustaining relationships. Sally sat next to one of these men for five years every morning. Suddenly, and without what she considered sufficient warning, there was a new clod of a man in her path. Sally took some credit for getting management to think of replacing the other guy, the breathy dilettante who had almost no clue about the real world. That never happened because he left on his own before the producers could remove him. She liked to think she was more like a witch than a sweet angel some thought she had no extraordinary powers in her repertoire. Learning she had to break in the new man did not make her happy. She told her fresh-mouthed, fawning assistant, “it’s going to be like the start of an engagement, but there will be no ring, and no wedding plans. Robert Morris continued listening to the tape.
“Sally and the new man would have a lot of “feeling out” to do before they could set the date to consummate their on-air relationship. Watching them reminds me of two heavyweights in a boxing ring. They move slowly and lumber clumsily through their roles. They throw some jabs, miss with a few left hooks, dodge a right cross or two but they never connect, physically or intellectually. Being as one spiritually never entered either person’s mind. I thought it would be impossible for either to score a knockout. Though scoring a knockout must have been the fondest wish of each. We know that if the two stars do not hit it off, the show, and the network revenues, will be in serious trouble. Morning television helps pay for the weaker parts of the broadcast day. Brandon, the new anchor, made a big mistake the other day when he answered a nagging reporter’s questions about whether he would sabotage his new partner. A dumb question at best, and one he never should have answered. He did anyway, and at least for him he was somewhat circumspect, when he said, “She’s my partner only in her mind. She has far to go before she earns the right to call herself my partner. Give it time. I like her and respect her.” He could have said more, but fortunately, he did not. He’d never worked that closely with a woman before, but then who had? There are no women sitting in any important chair on any show these days. Anchors were men. Only men. Plain and simple. It did not take long for the nasty, petty bickering on the set between the anchor and everyone else to become obvious to the viewers. In the control room, we saw it happening, but we were powerless to stop it. Power was never our strength when it came to people. As producers, we prefer to manipulate people, rather than steamroll them into submission. Our method is to cajole, rather than beat anyone with a club. We thought the star’s psyches were too fragile for us to intercede. We believed they would eventually sort out any problems by themselves without help from us. We were wrong. Technicians on the floor of the studio saw a little of everything, and often too much of what the audience never saw. They were closest to the action and they loved to gossip because their own lives were so mundane. Running a camera all morning or setting lights all morning or plastering makeup on someone’s skin all morning made these technicians tired of everything fast. They thought themselves jaundiced and were proud of it. They stayed fresh by living off the people they served. Nerves are beginning to fray on the set, mainly when the commercials were running, when, for two or three minutes before the show starts up again, people could relax. Sometimes when the news or weather fills the air, tempers come close to exploding. People have started talking openly about the problem. What they have to say is ugly. The press knows of trouble on our supposedly sane show. Word is the family is starting to disintegrate. Someone from our TV family is talking to the few TV beat reporters. Thankfully, because of a notoriously weak entertainment press there are only few reporters with the nerve to ask the right questions. Most do not know the everyday soap opera hidden from the public. The usually unflappable executive producer is finding it harder to cope with the edgy situation. Some days he spends more time on personality problems then he does on show content. Something of a perfectionist, he detests wasting time on what he calls childish needs. But he does it anyway and he tells anyone who listen, I am only human. Then he would closes his office door, takes another hit on a joint, soothes himself into brief emotional harmony, and gets ready to confront a new crisis. We told him to leave it in the underground parking garage in any empty space. I added that he should, “leave it where no one could see it or find it.” He did not seem to understand a word of what I said. He stared at me and refused to listen.
“Impossible,” he said.
“Impossible,” he fretted.
“Impossible,” he sighed.
Morris recalls that those who ran the show solved nothing. They were not inept. Rather, they had no idea what to do, typical of executives in TV news. But they had ideas about what kind of shows they wanted to see on the air.
“Our inability to engage with the people in front of the camera has weakened who we are behind the camera. Nothing we do, including our inactivity, works to break the cycle of combat between Gil and Sally. Yet, we are witnessing something of a freak of television. The more Gil Brandon appears on the air, the larger is his audience. He is starting to believe he is king of the airwaves, self anointed, self appointed, Gil Brandon puts Elvis to shame with his aggrandizement. I look at the other producers, and especially the executive producer for any semblance of sanity. I see little in any of them that gives me confidence. We are living in an era of open drugs, and if you are lucky, free love. Light another cigarette. Have another belt of the booze, suck deeply on high grade Mary Jane, retreat into oblivion, and be done with worrying about who has more lines for what story, who turns to the camera first, who leads the show. Lately it seems these anchors, or hosts, or self-anointed stars, or whatever they are, spend their time counting their minutes on the set like professional basketball players do when they count their minutes on the court. Who turns to which camera, which anchor reads which story interests them more than the value of what they are saying. I know the times are changing, but I also know they are not for the better. We no longer have news people. We now have performers. Performers make money. News stars do not. It is that simple. Money means more than accuracy or credibility. I could fight it in my mind, I think, but I would never fight it too hard in the boardroom. I had mouths to feed. I had alimony to pay.
Robert Morris thinks back and acknowledges he enjoyed the money and benefits, executive privilege he called it, that went with producing news shows for a network. He thought about the monster news management had created when it ceded power to the anchor. The anchor brought in commercials. Money ruled. Management caved. After all these years he knows, too, how complicit he had been in clearing the way for some anchors to grab power they had no idea how to handle.