Friday, April 13
R. Lee Giles was the long-time news director for WISH-TV in Indianapolis (emphasis on looooonnnggg). If you’ve heard the name it’s probably in connection with Jane Pauley. Lee “discovered” her, mentored her and promoted her. Her career—which took her to TV news stardom and made her one of the earliest and most respected women in network news—began at WISH, and she has always been generous in her praise of Lee Giles.
Lee hired me as his Executive Producer in 1976. I was coming straight from my WSPD-TV debacle in Toledo: fired, canned, sacked, cashiered, sent packing—embarrassed, humiliated, discouraged, but (if you know me) nowhere near humbled. After all, I had already been the producer of America’s highest-rated newscasts (in Grand Rapids) and head producer for a station in Detroit. It wasn’t a question of getting back on the horse that threw me—it was more get back into the prize ring at the rodeo by riding the fiercest bucking bronc out there until the horse gave up and admitted defeat..
The only problem (my ego told me) was that I was better than Indianapolis. I didn’t need them, they needed me (I humbly thought). Remember, Toledo taught me humiliation, but it didn’t teach me humility!
Remember, too, the mid-seventies were still the days before cable—before CNN and MSNBC and Fox News—before the wide use of satellites. News? In each market you had your choice of three local stations and their three network newscasts, and that was that. Indianapolis, stuck in the middle of the state, was—to my mind—“The Market That Time Forgot.” They couldn’t even see Chicago. What were they going to watch to get an idea how it was done in the big-time? Terre Haute? Fort Wayne? Me--I not only knew big-time, I was the very definition of big-time (and no ego, either!!!!).
As EP I was also hands-on producer of the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. newscasts (another sign, to my way of thinking, that Indy was “small-time”).
I spent a couple of months meeting the people and figuring out the systems—biding my time. Soon, I figured, I’m going to show these yokels a thing or two. I’m going to take WISH-TV out of the sixties and into the seventies. Hell, I might not stop there: I might invent the newscast of the year 2000! Take that, Hoosier hicks!
Finally I picked a Friday night as the night I would break the mold—stretch the envelope—reinvent the wheel. I produced a lineup that required three ¾” tape rolls—three 2” machines—two film chains—multiple graphics—fancy camera angles.
It blew up on the air. No survivors. No prisoners. Blood on the walls.
At 11:30, while the smoke was still in the air, I limped out of the control room and back to my typewriter and wrote a note to Lee Giles. I listed the equipment that needed to be acquired and the people that needed to be fired. And I ended with what I thought was the coup de grace: “I guess under the circumstances I can’t do my best work.”
I put my missive in an envelope and—after thinking it over for about three-tenths of a second (patience, after all, is a virtue)—shoved it under Lee’s office door. “That’ll show him,” I thought.
When I came to work Monday I stopped first at my mailbox. There was a note from Lee. I read it—marched to his office—and said, “Thank you for not firing me. You’re absolutely right. I’m absolutely wrong. It will never happen again. You’ve taught me a valuable lesson.”
What had Lee written? Words to this effect: “You’re going to need to get more realistic expectations. If you want to produce a Detroit newscast with Detroit equipment and Detroit personnel, there’s a place you can do it—and you know where it is. I suggest you use Indianapolis people and Indianapolis equipment to produce the best newscasts you can that appeal to an Indianapolis audience.
“You wrote, ‘I guess under the circumstances I can’t do my best work.’ Please understand that the circumstances count. Your best work is the best work you can do UNDER…THE…CIRCUMSTANCES. Master them. Do what you can do—and don’t worry about what you can’t do. Don't live by the limitations, overcome them.”
My ego being what it is I forget that lesson from time to time. Lee’s ego being what it is (nonexistent) he was WISH-TV News Director for more than 35 successful years until his retirement. He was one of the best bosses I ever had; a gentleman and a gentle man. I’ve thanked him before for not firing me. This is my chance to do it publicly.
This is the filthiest thing anyone ever said to me about television news.
WARNING! THIS POST CONTAINS LANGUAGE (AND MENTAL IMAGES) THAT MIGHT MAKE YOU GAG. COME TO THINK OF IT, IF YOU’RE NORMAL THEY SHOULD MAKE YOU GAG. BEFORE READING ON PLEASE CONSULT YOUR FAMILY PHYSICIAN AND/OR A MEMBER OF CLERGY. THEN SIGN THREE COPIES OF A"HOLD HARMLESS" WAIVER INDEMNIFYING ME AGAINST ANY POSSIBLE LEGAL ACTION, HAVE IT NOTARIZED, AND POST IT HERE IN THE "COMMENTS" SECTION IN .PDF FORMAT. YOU MIGHT ALSO WANT TO HAVE MEDICAL PERSONNEL (AND MAYBE A HAZMAT TEAM) ON
THANKS FOR YOUR COOPERATION.
You still here? OK, you asked for it.
There was a time in the early 90s when I worked for WCIX-TV (since rechristened WFOR-TV), the CBS O-and-O in Miami. For you uninitiated, “O-and-O” means “Owned and Operated.” The rules have been relaxed over the years, but there was a time when large corporations like CBS could actually own only a small handful of TV stations. Believe it or not, that’s where the money is in broadcasting. Operating a network is a costly business, and even in boom times profits are tough to come by. Owning a station is a different matter: owning a local TV station has always been (even in these changing economic times) a license to print money. So the “Big Three,” ABC, NBC, CBS (now the big four, with Fox a player), have always had dozens of affiliates each, but only a handful of “O-and-O” stations. The trick, of course, is to maximize your profits by owning stations in the biggest markets and doing your best to make them wildly popular. News is where that battle has traditionally been waged. The CBS O-and-Os have included stations that have, at one time or another, dominated their markets: WCBS in New York, KCBS in Los Angeles, WBBM in Chicago.
And for better or worse the CBS O-and-Os have a long (if not necessarily proud) history of treating news anchors like gods and catering to their every whim. Ah, the stories I’ve heard. Some I can’t repeat: there’s one CBS station—if all the talk is to be believed—that for years employed an anchor on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. Instead of getting him help, managers propped him up every day and sent him out to the anchor desk, hoping no one would notice that without a script in front of him he was a babbling, raving maniac! But that was the CBS tradition, if not a formal policy: treat anchors like addled children and spoil them rotten. Male and female, young and old, if you were a CBS O-and-O anchor there was a 90% chance you were a diva.
Actually, I started at WCIX as newsroom second-in-command: Executive Producer. That’s when I first met Eric Ober, whose title was (if I remember) Vice President/CBS Owned Stations Division. The O-and-O GMs reported to him. I liked him instantly: a wildly smart, wickedly funny, self-effacing guy, he was a pleasure to be around. He had started as a producer for the CBS station in Philadelphia and worked at a variety of jobs in the CBS O-and-O chain and at CBS News. At one time he was the news executive in charge of "60 Minutes."
A great, entertaining, perceptive guy. From my position a bit down the food chain he looked like a wonderful boss. Unfortunately, as #2 in the newsroom, I was not in the “Let’s go to lunch with Eric” bunch. Our dealings were strictly business. But in March of 1990, I was appointed News Director and that changed.
The day of Eric’s next visit to Miami I went to the General Manager’s office for a meeting with Eric and the other department heads. Eric, seeing me, jumped up from the conference table, rushed around, grabbed me in a big bear hug (quite a sight, I imagine: I’m at least six inches taller and 80 pounds heavier!) and said, “Ah…you’re a CBS news director at last! You know what that means, don’t you?”
“Uh, no, Eric…I honestly don’t.”
“Every day: DRINK A GALLON OF ANCHOR CUM!”
If I remember correctly I laughed until the snot ran out my nose!
Not too much later Eric Ober became President of CBS News. Dan Rather’s boss. And although I saw him several times in the years ahead, I successfully resisted any questions or comments about Rather’s bodily fluids.
Sorry if you’ve been offended. It remains, though, the funniest, filthiest thing anyone has ever said to me.
By the way, I can’t end this story without a word about John Roberts, or “J.D.” as he was known in his WCIX anchor days. He later moved to the network, was CBS White House Correspondent, and was even mentioned as Dan Rather’s possible successor until Katie Couric was hired. Now he’s with CNN. John Roberts was not a diva when we worked together in Miami. Truth is, he is perhaps the most multi-talented broadcast journalist I’ve ever worked with: brilliant, hard-working, perceptive and (an oddity for CBS) sane! Any ego I ever saw in John Roberts was understandable: he was always the smartest person in any room. I don’t want to leave the impression that every single anchor I worked with in Miami was a basket case.
Just most of them.