Tuesday, March 11

Sky-High Hype

Look what I found on eBay! I haven’t seen one of these in years! Of course I bought it. Paid $16.99 plus tax & shipping. Don’t tell anyone, but I’d have paid more. There aren’t many out there in 2008, and I’m not proud.

Wait a minute. Come to think of it—I am proud of this. It’s shameless hype at its best (worst?), but it’s my hype, thank you very much!

This is a “Monogram” kit circa 1985, still in its original cellophane shrink-wrap. Build your own “Skycam,” your own model of WNEP-TV’s news helicopter. “All Parts Snap Together.” “No Gluing Necessary” (in case you’re worried about Little Timmy sniffing his hobby kits).

This is “Skycam II,” if you please, because it replaced an older and smaller Hughes helicopter. This was the real deal: A Bell “Jet Ranger.” And that’s pilot Jack Ruland at the controls. I should know, I took this picture. When we took delivery of the ship in August of '84 we rented a “chase chopper” for a couple of hours of promotional shooting, video and stills, over the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania. I took the stills.

One of the things GM Elden Hale preached is that we were not to identify ourselves with either Scranton or Wilkes-Barre, the two major cities in the market. So what’s that landscape behind the Skycam? Why, that’s your town, isn’t it? Of course it is.

I think I’ve said here before that I’ve had maybe two or three great ideas in my life. Everything else was adapted (a kinder, gentler way of saying “stolen”) from the work of others. I don’t know who first had the idea of selling models of a TV chopper, but I saw one—and contacted the “Monogram” people outside Chicago.

Here’s the deal: they already had molds for a Jet Ranger. They stamped them out of white plastic to make model police helicopters. They could mold almost any solid color (like black) and add in the necessary decals all for $1.82 apiece. I remember that figure, but I honestly don’t remember how many models we ordered: I’m going to guess 10,000, but it could have been fewer, or as many as 20,000. Of course, WNEP was still in its growing years and didn’t have $36,000 to ante up for hunks of plastic. Here’s where I got creative.

In those days WNEP was doing the “Children’s Miracle Network Telethon” for the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville. We asked them to put up the money, with the promise that we’d charge $2.50 for each model, all profits going to the hospital. Hey, a 37% return on investment isn’t that bad, right? The only problem is that I wasn’t sure how long it would take to sell out the run. What if it took three or four years?

It didn’t. The whole lot was gone in a year-and-a-half. We peddled them in supermarkets, by mail, and sold them at the yearly air show at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. That was a goldmine for us. Mom and Dad and the kids out looking at aircraft. “Hey, it’s only two-fifty and all proceeds go to charity!” There was a time when it seemed every 12-year-old in 20 counties had a “Skycam” model.

My only mistake was the “Skycam II” business. When it came to naming the new ship I said it was important to prove that we’d been in the chopper business forever. I said the “II” designation showed longevity and continuity. I was right--and I was wrong. Truth is, “Skycam 16” is better branding. The "II" was clutter, and it was removed some years later. The ship is now "Skycam 16" again.

I will take some credit for making sure the helicopter was treated like a station personality. I made sure it was in the new opens: “Newswatch 16 with Nolan Johannes, Karen Harch, Chief Meteorologist Tom Clark, Joe Zone on sports, and Pilot Jack Ruland in Skycam 16.”

I wasn’t alone. Sheryl Bourisk was/is a genius. Last I heard she was in Boston; but at 'NEP in those days her title was marketing director, or some such. She came up with this little gem:

These are “Skycam” pilot’s wings. Anyone here old enough to remember Eastern Airlines? If you are—if you do—then you’ll remember that in the days before hijackings and terrorists and locked cockpits, Eastern Airlines stewardesses (they weren’t "flight attendants" yet) would escort youngsters up front to talk to the pilots and get their own pilot’s wings—plastic versions of the gold wings the pilots actually wore. Hey, Mom and Dad, look!

Ours weren’t that fancy—but at something like 2 cents apiece they were terrific promotional giveaways. Whenever the Newswatch 16 folks made personal appearances, we handed them out. And we were always making personal appearances. We were always riding in parades.

In those days it wasn’t just three or four WNEP staffers riding in a convertible: 10 or 15 or 20 people would show up, and that meant a float. Sheryl and her loyal band of station volunteers and interns spent hours decorating floats until she came up with a brainstorm for the best float ever!

She rented a flatbed truck and Jack landed the helicopter on it. Tie it down, put up a few railings, decorate the railings with $15 worth of crepe paper, and you've got an instant float with an instantly identifiable symbol of WNEP. And along the parade route, the goal was to make sure every kid who hadn't yet hit puberty got a pair of wings.

The idea behind so much of what we did back then was to get kids to watch our newscasts. My thought was, If I can get you to watch when you’re 9, and 13, and 16, I’ve got a pretty good idea who you’re going to turn to and trust for news when you’re 30. Seems to be working still.

My old WABC boss Cliff Abromats now runs his own news consultancy, specializing in research and marketing. He’ll tell you that the key is to have the viewer make an emotional commitment to your station, to your “brand.” He doesn’t go around saying “ABC” (A—Always! B—Be! C—Closing!) but he wants his clients to be relentless about being—who they are.

I wish I could show you my pictures of the”Skycam” float, but I lost them all in Hurricane Andrew in 1992. I used to have a case of “Skycam” models; but the ones I didn’t give away I lost to Andrew as well. Too bad.

But I salvaged a plastic bag of wings from a desk drawer, and now I have a "Skycam" model kit—and I have my memories of back when news was fun and we were a scrappy band of kids doing our best every day and connecting with our viewers in ways that don’t seem possible today. We were part of people’s lives, and the helicopter was our most visible symbol.

Oh, a P.S.

Bet you didn’t know that when WNEP took delivery of the Jet Ranger in August, 1984, it was a used ship! It had been owned and flown by WMAQ in Chicago and was fully outfitted (microwave, radios, etc.) for TV coverage. So today's “Skycam” is probably 27 or 28 years old. Not to worry. Helicopters are like old wooden yachts: keep overhauling them and they’ll last forever. I wonder if there’s a single original part on the ship now. I take it the station is continuing on in the Jack Ruland tradition of following the maintenance guidelines to the letter and having the work performed by the very best.

I said I lost a lot of "Skycam" memorabilia and pictures in the hurricane. This picture is from later. This is the "Skycam" and the WNEP satellite truck (in the background) drawing a crowd at the last local air show in August of '97.

Anyway: the models are a thing of the past. So are the wings. And the local air show. But we're still having fun, aren't we? Aren't we?


Richard said...

You're too modest, so I'll add this:

Shortly after you added an omni directional antenna to Skycam's ENG capabilities, a mental patient named Kenneth Lunan was being treated at the former Scranton State General Hospital. He bolted and ran across Mulberry Street to Agelica Linen Supply and stole a 3/4 ton truck and drove away.

You sent Skycam into the air with reporter Bob Reynolds doing play-by-play and viedographer Tom Hovey, shooting pictures. With the new Antenna you could take the picture live, and you did.

The upshot was a 45 minute chase with cops shooting at the tires and Lunan finallly stranding the truck in a corn field off Snake Road in Ransom Township. Every television was tuned to this first-ever, live-as-it-happened police chase of a wanted man.

This showed the power of the news helicopter and Skycam cemented its reputation.

You get full credit for this. I just hope I remembered the story properly

Tying My Shoes... said...

"richard," You've got me racking my brain trying to figure out who you are. You nailed your description perfectly. The only correction I'd make: I'm not sure it was THE FIRST live televised police chase. Let's say "one of."

The only additions: pilot Jack Ruland and anchor Frank Andrews deserve special mention. Jack? What can you say. Perfection.

And Frank added matchless color commentary ("That's the Price Chopper/Fays complex on the corner.")

You can keep your "white Bronco." Been there, done that.

Anonymous said...

"I have my memories of back when news was fun and we were... connecting with our viewers in ways that don’t seem possible today."

Why isn't news fun today and why aren't stations making those same connections with viewers?