Life Without TV

colorbarsIt was back in late 2001 and I was chatting with a couple at a party. They were smirking at me because I said worked in TV. He and his wife were architects or rocket scientists or something. “Oh, we don’t watch TV.”

I’ve heard this before. People who don’t watch TV love to tell you about it —in fact, they’ll find a way to work it into the first five minutes of any conversation. It’s like the intellectual red badge of courage.

The topic turned to 9/11. The smart couple complained about TV news showing the towers collapsing again and again and again. I was curious. “I thought you don’t watch TV? How did you happen to see that over and over again?”

“Well, we keep a TV in the spare room. We only wheel it out if there’s something really big happening. Like on 9/11.”

But you don’t watch anything else? “Well, you know we’ll watch the Super Bowl. And sometimes we’ll rent movies. We don’t want our kid glued in front of it.”

Oh really? Time to throw out some bait. “You know, some TV is actually good for kids. Not all of it certainly, but some of it.”

The wife chimed in. “Oh, yes! Mostly it’s trash. That’s why we only let our daughter watch educational videos.”

For people who don’t watch TV it sounded like they watched a lot of TV.

In our house we decided a long time ago that there would only be one TV. This helps us keep tabs on what’s on and forces us all into one room. It’s not so easy now that you can watch stuff on your computer, the phone, the iPod.

As you can imagine there’s always a lot of negotiation. But now that football’s almost over you guys can watch whatever you like.


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.

Eastern Standard Football Time

If you’re an early riser it’s not easy staying up to watch football games on Sunday and Monday night. It seems there’s an obvious solution: move to the West Coast.

Out there a Sunday night game that kicks off at 8:20pm starts at 5:20 so you can see the whole thing without ending up a zombie on Monday morning.

That’s not all. In the Pacific time zone you don’t have to sit around all morning waiting for football to start because the first game is on at at 10am. 10am! Imagine that. And this doesn’t mean making any sacrifices in your spiritual life. You could still go to nine o’clock mass and get home in time for for football —especially if you leave right after communion.

I mentioned this to my friend, Tom, and he said, “That’s nothing! I know a guy who lives in Hawaii; NFL games there start at 8am!”

Hmmm…8am? If my math is right (and it frequently isn’t) a game that ends here at 11:30pm would be over there at 6:30. That would actually leave you a few extra hours to do something else —or spend time with your family. Maui here I come.

Man of a Certain Age

We were sitting at Regal Colonie Center waiting for Zombieland to begin. That’s when they showed an extended preview of the new Ray Romano show on TNT, Men of a Certain Age.

“I don’t really get what that show is supposed to be about,” my 14-year-old son said.

I consider it one of my most important jobs as a father to explain things and offer some context.

“Well, when guys get to be my age they start to worry about things. Their job. Their health. You know. Getting old. It’s basically guys being worried about getting old.”

He was listening.

“Your body changes, people pass away, there are disappointments. Disillusion. And sometimes you might you start thinking that your best days are behind you. You know, you can’t do all the stuff you used to do.”

There was exactly one perfectly timed beat before he responded.

“You don’t need to watch TV to see that, do you?”

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.

How Did I Get Here, Anyway?

When I was in fourth grade they took us on a field trip to New York where we toured NBC at Rockefeller Center.

It was awesome. We peered into the news studio, created frying bacon sound effects by crinkling cellophane, and saw where Johnny Carson presided over the  Tonight Show. We also got to watch DJ Big Wilson doing his shift on WNBC-AM. That did it. From that day forward I wanted to work in radio or TV.

The rest of fourth grade was all about broadcasting. I made several shoebox dioramas showing TV studios with cables of string and clay figures standing behind cameras. My teacher, Mrs. Rice, did not approve . Years later I got to read her notes about me and it turns out she made a big point of the time wasted on these projects. What could be worse than a fourth grader wasting time?

At home I would huddle in my room spinning records and recording myself playing DJ on a reel-to-reel recorder. I’d read stories from the paper in a serious tone like the newscasters on the radio. Little did I know that they swiped many of their stories from the same place.

It was inevitable, really: a straight shot that landed me at the radio station and TV studios of SUNY Plattsburgh. The internship, the job, the second job and 24 years doing what I wanted since I was eight-years-old.

But sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we’d visited a doctor’s office or law practice instead of NBC.

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.