nbcThere was a time when NBC was trying to get its affiliates to hitch their wagon to the Peacock. And why not? The network was soaring in the ratings and regarded as the apex of quality television.

They invited local stations to rechristen themselves as NBC 5, NBC 11, or in this market, NBC 13.

I sat in a lot of meetings where we talked about this and I’ve gotta admit, the idea sounded pretty good. NBC 13 would be bold and simple branding that tied the station with a successful and respected product. Plus NBC 13 had a nice ring to it and would have been made for a clean and elegant logo.

What could possibly go wrong?

A lot of stations went along with this plan, but here in Albany my boss applied the brakes. What if the time came when the NBC Peacock was no longer proud, but a symbol of failure and ineptitude?

Impossible —but he was smarter than us (and he signed the paychecks), so end of conversation. Today nobody would argue that he wasn’t right.

There’s no shortage of analysis of what happened at NBC —heck, even Maureen Dowd got in on the act— but this single paragraph from Tim Arango sums it up perfectly:

Today the network is in shambles, brought down not just by the challenges facing broadcast television — fragmenting audiences, an advertising downturn — but also by a series of executive missteps that have made its prime-time lineup a perennial loser.

No, not the sort of thing you want to be associated with.

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

You hear a lot of people talking about how they long for a simpler Christmas. A time when we were not so materialistic. A time when we understood the true meaning of the holiday. A time when you could hand out cigarettes as gifts.

I once watched my wife’s dad give his son-in-law (not me!) a carton of cigarettes on Christmas Day. I was astounded —but the truth is that everybody used to give cigarettes on Christmas. Just look at the magazine ads.

Cigarettes were the sort of useful gift that these days would be like giving a bottle of wine or a Starbucks card. And a carton of cigarettes would fit perfectly in a Christmas stocking.

Big tobacco used to embrace the season and deck the cartons in festive holiday graphics. Imagine what would happen if cigarette makers did that today?

In 1961, the year that Barack Obama and I were born, a gallon of gas was $.31, a loaf of bread went for $.21, and a carton of cigarettes was $2.50.

This year giving a carton of cigarettes would mark you as a big spender. Just remember that it might not go over so well with the non-smokers in the crowd on Christmas morning.

Big Box Store

In my house we cling to the quaint old habit of reading stories to each other from the newspaper.

“Hmmm…It says here that Wal-Mart’s now selling caskets.”

My wife Ann nearly did a Danny Thomas spit take. She knew what I was thinking.

“I swear to God if you buy me at coffin at WalMart I’m going to come back and haunt you.”

big box

We’ve had this conversation before. To me a box is a box and since I’d sort of prefer to be cremated putting me in an expensive piece of furniture seems like a terrible waste. I’d be OK with a cardboard container or a Hefty bag or something. It’s been made clear that is she goes before I do -which is statistically improbable- she expects the best of everything: beautiful coffin, well-appointed funeral home, harpist…

“You get mad at me because I won’t use coupons at Price Chopper. —and now you don’t want me to shop around for something expensive like a funeral?”

Cue the stare.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but just in case I’d better pay attention to her wishes. By the way —I wonder if you buy one of those coffins they can pack your other purchases inside? Shipping an empty box also seems wasteful.

Let’s Talk High School Football

There I was sitting is the car skimming through the radio dial when I landed on “Sound Off with Sinkoff” on WTMM. That’s when I heard the words that always make me change the station immediately: “Let’s talk high school football.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love high school football. I played high school football. I go to high school football games. But gabbing about it on local sports radio? Give me a break. And the funny thing is I was actually waiting to pick my kid up from football practice.

OK, maybe this is a little harsh. Surely there are a couple of dozen people in the Capital Region who would like to hear Brian Sinkoff interview the coach from Ballston Spa or Shaker or wherever.

Or not. Even after living here for twenty five years it’s still surprising to see high school football highlights on the local news. Where I grew up we were excited when the score got printed in Newsday.

Football teaches the value of teamwork in the face of adversity. It’s not elitist, like basketball. At most local schools everyone gets on the team and they all play a valuable role —even if it’s just during practice. And it’s a better team sport than baseball which tends to highlight individual achievement. Football teaches you about making a plan and executing. And sometimes it teaches you about failure.

But high school football makes lousy talk radio.

Now that playoff time is here we won’t be talking high school football much longer. We’ll be talking high school basketball.

Local Advertising 101

Imagine for a minute that you’re taking the car in for a brake job. Would you stand in the service bay and tell the mechanic how to do the work?  Alright, an electrician comes to the house. You go in the basement while he’s rewiring the circuit breakers and give him some pointers, right? Ok, how about this: you go out to dinner and join the chef in the kitchen and explain how to cook your meal.

No. Not unless you want him to spit in it while you’re not looking.

You would never do any of those things —so why is it that clients have no problem telling experienced producers and writers how to create advertising?

Most local TV spots are bad because the customers think they know more than the professionals who are there to help them. Then, once the Larry Tate Effect kicks in, what you get is some very bad advertising.

You know the spots. There are big sweeping pans of the store/restaurant/office, shots showing the front of the building or the sign, and people shaking hands (car dealers, insurance, real estate). Worst of all they are cluttered with too many ideas.

Don’t blame the people at the TV stations. All they usually get for being honest with a client is yelled at by some account executive or manager. They don’t make enough money to put up with that.

So here’s some advertising advice: if you hire someone to make a commercial, explain to them what makes your business special, accept that the spot should only be about one thing, and get out of the way.

I promise that you’ll get something more effective.

I Mock Your Tiny Doppler

OK, so it’s not cool to make fun of the size of somebody’s Doppler. I did this spot back in 2000 when WRGB erected their own Doppler radar outside their studio in Niskayuna. They went on the air claiming Doppler superiority —and we wanted to let folks know that their radar was more like a toy than a mighty tool for deeply probing the weather.

WRGB had just started airing a spot with meteorologist Steve LaPointe actually scaling the steel tower and then rappelling down. It was a meaningless but memorable stunt that demanded a firm response. Here it is:


It never aired. Management was leery of pointing and laughing at WRGB’s little radar —and since the consultants in Iowa agreed it was killed. That’s probably best. I don’t think anyone wanted to hear Channel 6 explaining that it’s not the size of your Doppler that matters, but how you use it. Even the weather war has rules of engagement.

Child Stars

You learn quickly in local TV that casting your family and friends in spots is a great way to get things done cheaply. Over the years my boys appeared in many news promos, mostly for lurid (and sometimes stupid) sweeps stories.

Alex and Zack have been stalked by predators, hit by cars, addicted to violent video games, abused prescription drugs, improperly buckled into car seats, and lured into online trouble. They’ve played pyromaniacs, abused children, and teenage alcoholics. Based on their body of work, that they’ve survived until 21 and 14 respectively is a miracle.

In this spot Alex is the unsuspecting child playing innocently in a park. That’s me as the mysterious lurking man:


Hahaha. “Watch it with your kids. You can’t afford to miss it.”

And here we have little Zack getting into the household chemicals. I remember feeling a little funny directing him: “OK… now point it at your face…”


Many of these stories blow minor problems out of proportion —things that rational people really shouldn’t spend much time worrying about. TV news directors love that stuff and I gleefully went along for the ride.

Weather In the Raw

Former local anchorman Ed Dague once decried my work as “dreck.”  Truth be told I felt the same way about his stuff but I understand where he was coming from.

TV news promotion is not the highest form of art in the ad world.  Mostly it’s bombastic, cliché-ridden, and overwrought —as if you can annoy people into watching your show. Thanks to the consultants who dictate the look and feel of local TV news in America it’s the same in every market.

And woe to the producer who breaks the mold.

Back in July I did some weather ads that spoofed the tried and true genre of man on the street spots. The premise: who needs an accurate forecast more than nudists? I cast a bunch of local actors to play members of the fictional “Henry Hudson Nudist Camp” and here’s what we came up with:

Henry Hudson Weather from Rob M on Vimeo.

This spot and two others aired for about twelve hours before they were yanked off the air.

The way it was explained to me was that “80% of our audience will get the joke and the other 20% will be offended.” In other words, 20% of the people out there are not smart enough to understand what they’re watching.

I always tried to do my job as if 100% of the viewers were smart. My bad.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe

Some people claim that DVD players in cars have hindered communication between parents and their children on family trips.

To that I say, “Thank God.”

In my experience young back seat passengers have never added anything to travel except annoyances, particularly if there are more than one of them. DVD players and headphone changed this forever. Now if there’s a complaint about the length of the trip, I say, “Oh…well maybe you’d like to come up here and drive and I’ll sit in the back and watch movies.”

The DVD player is not without pitfalls. After repeated viewings of Jaws on the way to vacation my 13 year-old son Zack got the idea that there must be sharks in Lake Ontario. Even after I explained that there were no Great Lakes sharks he countered that they could swim up the St. Lawrence River looking for human prey.  “They could,” I said. “But they don’t.”

The topic came up again as we swam at a secluded beach. The water was crystal clear and there was a sandy bottom —perfect conditions to see the three foot fish that slowly cruised past us. Before I could say, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat’, he was out of the water and standing on the shore.

I don’t blame him. It’s startling to see such a large fish swim past —I just hope he doesn’t see this story before our vacation next week on Long Island. Or this one.