Wednesday, December 31

The Day We Bombed in Times Square

Harry Smith was subbing for Katie Couric last week the night after the damn broke! I mean the night after that retaining wall gave way near that Tennessee power plant sending a wall of fly ash sludgemillions of cubic yards of goocascading into a neighborhood. Smith said it could be ... it might be ... it had the chance to be ... in all probability it would wind up being ...


And I grinned and thought, "Just send the royalty check straight to me."

Because "Toxic Time Bomb" is my title. Was my title. Always will be my title. I just never got around to applying for the copyright or the trademark or the whatever-it-is that would have made it mine in pe
rpetuity and generated royalties that would have put the kids I never had through Ivy League colleges. No slogans on t-shirtsno revenue stream. It all happened 25+ years ago at WABC.

These days, I'm afraid, news managers and the marketing types have it
to my way of thinkingbackwards. They come up with great titles, then see if they can find a story to match. And God forbid you do multi-parters and actually ask your viewers to make a multi-night commitment to watching your news! Heaven forbid!

Back in those days we still did itagain, to my way of thinking"frontwards:" if we had a great idea for a special report we gave it as much time over as many nights as it would take to tell it effectively. And it was up to the promotion people to grab and audience and make them want to stick around to see it.

Don't get me wrong. We believed in promotion. Believed in it? Hell, we were the east coast distributors for promotion! WABC has always had big-time, cutting edge promotion: even back then it meant ad agencies shooting spots on 35mm film, full-page newspaper ads, radio spotsTHE WORKS!

Anyway, we might have been among the first in the countrybefore anyone had ever heard the words "Superfund Site"while the "Love Canal" disaster was still in the headlinesto take an in-depth look at the toxic chemicals buried around New York City. I sat in on the promotion meeting, the "brainstorming session" (they don't still use that term, do they?). I was the one who came up with the title "Toxic Time Bombs."

Thank you. Thank you very much. I'll be here all week. Don't forget to tip your waitress.

The ad agency took the title and the concept and ran with it. The most memorable part of the campaign was a full-page newspaper ad, shot in the heart of Times Square. Front-and-center in the picture was a black 55-gallon drum with noxious-looking smoke drifting out the top. It had a skull and bones on it (you know the "poison" symbol?) and the word "TOXIC" stenciled on the side. It looked something like this (forgive my crude rendering) ...

Scary stuff.

How scary? Not long after the series ran (to great acclaim, as I remember), the city's Haz-Mat team was called to a report of a dangerous chemical leak in Times Square. We immediately dispatched a crew. When they got there, they started shooting video of guys in the hooded suits and gloves gingerly looking over a barrel in an alley just off Times Square.The crew noticed that something about the barrel looked ... a little funny ... a little off ... a little ... wait a minute, ISN'T THAT???

And of course it was. Our barrel. Or rather our ad agency's barrel, left behind in an alley after the photo shoot. And we had to call officials and call off the red alert. Talk about embarassing!

My old WABC colleague Lew Pinsker remembers it a bit differently. He insists that we first leaned of the fuss was when WCBS did a story on the panic created when the drum was found. He remembers that the drum wasn't really abandoned: it was just left out with the trash by the ad agency. Nothing wrong with that: it had never had anything in it but water and dry ice. The agency people probably should have painted over the markings before dumping it, but there was never any real hazard.

Either of us could be right. And either way: WABC had a lot of 'splainin' to do!

Anyway, it was my title. If you're not impressed, it's because you've heard it dozens of times since. It has become trite. The title "Toxic Time Bombs" has been used in just about every marketoften more than once. And I can claim the credit.

Or is that blame?

A final thought. HAPPY NEW YEAR! We survived another one, didn't we
although it seemed touch-and-go there for awhile. I don't know what the future holds. But then none of us ever got a warranty card on our lives, did we? So live yours well, and in peace.