Quality Matters

Bill Green's Maine

Nothing screams disaster like coming back to work after a few days off and realizing your show may not make air. This week my other show, “Bill Green’s Maine,” came dangerously close to not airing.

“Bill Green’s Maine,” captures the essence of Maine, like a postcard. Each show is a snapshot of life in Maine. A typical show would have four segments. The first an action story like a Windjammers race (a special type of boat race), an interview segment with someone from Maine who has become big, like Patrick Dempsey. Then a retro, or archive, piece that Bill did long ago. The show then concludes with something of everyday life. A look into the history of Nubble Lighthouse, or a feature on The Shirners of Maine, stories like that.

The show needs to be completed by Thursday nights. It air’s Saturday at 7pm, but BGME is pre-produced. So it needs to be closed-captioned and made ready for the web. There are lots of little things that need happen in order to make the show ready for Saturday night.

We shoot the opens and closes to the show on Mondays or Tuesdays. We call them the wraps. They are the intro’s and closes to the stories. They “wrap” around the story. They should always be shot somewhere pretty. A lighthouse, rocky coast line, you name it. If it’s pretty, and looks like Maine, it will work.

Those wraps are crucial, without them, we don’t have a show. On Thursday, I started to edit the wraps. They didn’t sound right, and what the hell was Bill wearing? The day he shot them, he was wearing an orange shirt and short shorts. He looked like a pumpkin walking on the beach. He wasn’t happy with the outfit, but it was the only time he could shoot the wraps. I was more disturbed by the un-air-able audio. Bill’s voice was barely audible, it sounded like the microphone was being scraped up against the rocks.

We could have gone with what we had. We might have heard one or two bad comments, but it would have been OK. Re-shooting the wraps was going to be a real hassle. Bill’s show had once been known for it’s quality. It is the first show in Maine to have been shot entirely in HD. We have done it two other times since. Shooting the show in HD, all the time, would be very expensive for us.

My first day working at WCSH6, was spent on the rocks of Portland Headlight, shooting the opens and closes for Bill’s show. Back then we had a whole crew that would focus on making the show. We had a special “jib” for the camera (which is like a small crane), and a crew that would shoot the wraps. I would field produce and my boss would often be there too as executive producer.

Seven years later, cost cuts have hit the show. Now it’s just Bill, one photographer, no jib, and no crew. I rarely get to go out on the shoots anymore and have to focus my time elsewhere.

It was about 1pm when I asked Bill how hard it would be to get the wraps re-shot. The show needed to be done before I left for the day. Bill, unhappy with the choice of dress, was eager to re-shoot. Once I had him listen to the audio, he was even more convinced. About an hour later, he was back in the same location, with new clothes and a new mic.

The new opens and closes were back by 5pm. With assistance from my intern, we had the show ready by 6:45pm that night. Just enough time to go produce my live show at 7pm, ‘207.’

In the Internet age, when we are trained to accept lesser quality, we still need to do the best possible job. We can’t just phone it in. Management may not care, but as the producers of content, we can’t give up making good quality productions.


The Drama of It All

Many “Doctor Who” fans have embraced the title of “cult” TV show, but former “Doctor Who” executive producer Russell T. Davies says in his book, “The Writer’s Tale,” the show is more than just a science fiction show. I agree, and would argue that the newer series of “Doctor Who” should be considered a drama that’s based in sci-fi.

Strip away the outer sci-fi shell and here’s what you have: a very smart man, who travels around and helps people in need. He never carries a gun, but fights evil with his intelligence. From time to time he gets himself, and his friends, in tough situations, but they always seem to find a way out. He inspires the people around him to live better lives and appreciate life. At its core, that‘s “Doctor Who.”

The writers use the device of science fiction to weave their tales of drama. Add back in the sci-fi: The Doctor is from the planet Gallifrey, and he travels through time and space in a ship that’s bigger on the inside. The Doctor is the last of his kind. His home has been lost to a long and bitter war, what could be more real then that?

In an interview with the BBC’s radio 4 show “Front Row” former executive producer, Russell T. Davies, explained how they approach the series in modern times.

“It’s treated as real, every time you come to a great big science fiction moment you say what would you really be feeling, what really happens.”

Russell’s past TV credits have only been drama. “Doctor Who” was his first science fiction type show, but in his book “The Writers Tale,” he says he sees “Doctor Who” as drama that uses the setting of science fiction. Which he approached as a drama, not a sci-fi show, his other most notable TV credits include, “Queer as Folk” and “Bob and Rose.” Both focus on the lives of gay men living in England. It was his life long love of “Doctor Who” that helped bring the show back from the dead in 2005.

“Doctor Who” first aired in England on November 22, 1963. Due to the assassination of President Kennedy, the show flew under the radar. The BBC tried it again a week later. It was presented as a “tea time” children’s show, “but not being produced by the children’s department, which caused a certain amount of aggravation within the BBC.” Verity Lambert, the show’s very first producer, talked about how the show came to be in the documentary “Doctor Who at The BBC.” Verity goes on to say the BBC wanted the show to have an element of education. When the characters would travel back in time, there was a little history lesson buried in the background of the plot.

The show lasted 26 seasons and was cancelled in 1989. BBC One, the BBC’s drama department, brought the show back in 2005. Under new direction and a polished “feature film” look. Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner served as executive producers and show runners.

Some would argue the special effects in the show would detract from my reasoning. Neil Harris of “Doctor Who Magazine” recently wrote an article called “Special? Effective?”

He asks the question “are special effects such a crucial part of Doctor Who?” Neil cites a recent poll the magazine did where the top favorites were episodes featuring little to no special effects. The highest ranked story was called “Blink.” The plot involves stone angles called “The Weeping Angels,” they are motionless stone when you are looking at them, but if you turn away, or even blink, they attack. They are gentle killers, in the blink of an eye, you are randomly sent back in time where you live out your days. Only one special effect was used in the entire episode. Neil goes on to cite many of “Doctor Who’s” emotional scenes, or dramatic moments, built around the tension of the plot. Will our hero die? Will his friends survive the situation they have gotten into?

It’s that tension that keeps us coming back for more. It’s the drama of having to say goodbye to the woman The Doctor loves. She lived through their latest adventure, but became trapped in a parallel world. Unable to get to her, The Doctor does find a way to communicate with her one last time. As Rose stands on a beach, crying out her love for him, he can’t even bring himself to tell Rose how much he loves her.

The Writer's Tale by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook

In “The Writer’s Tale,” Russell said of that scene: “(if your emotional) if you’re, empathizing, you’re feeling it, there’s an echo of every loss you’ve ever had in that. If it’s successful then it’s saying something about you, about the world.”

Yes, we can scoff at things like “parallel worlds” or “Weeping Angels,” but it’s great fun and even better dramatic television. As head writer, we would see The Doctor through Russell’s eyes. That often meant loads of fun, but also the effect of one man’s actions. Running from his past, never standing still long enough to reflect. Davies wrote The Doctor as a lonely man, who had no place to call home. He would have friend’s come and go, but in the end he was alone.

The character has an ability to regenerate when he is near death. Even within that, Russell’s writing shows us just how devastating this ability can be. In the episode “The End of Time: Part 1” The Doctor knows he is to regenerate soon and says: “it feels like dying. Everything I am, dies. Some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead.” Sure enough the time came and the regeneration occurred. As the tenth incarnation of “The Doctor” turned into the 11th, his final words were “I don’t want to go.” It was a very emotional scene, a death scene. For fans of the show, it really was like a close friend had died.

When a TV show can make you feel that much emotion, how can it just be classified as science fiction? As William Zinsser points out in “On Writing Well,” some of the best writing is found in science. Then it can be argued that some of the best drama is found in science fiction. “Doctor Who” is simply the best there is. When you strip away all the science, its just good drama.


“On Writing Well”

"On Writing Well" by William Zinsser

My mind just couldn’t hone in on something to write about. I sat down to read William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.” I usually love reading Zinsser, but my eyes were feeling heavy. Just before I put the book down, I read his words “Get their voice and their taste in your ear.” He was referring to finding your voice. It made me think about the writers I love. Garrison Keillor is probably my favorite author, but his work is fiction. Does that count? Then I thought about author Eric Poole. His first book is called “Where’s my wand?” It’s about growing up believing the show “Bewitched” was real, that might do. Something was missing though, and my body was getting weaker. So I let the nap take over and I drifted away.

Outside I heard tires grab at the loose gravel in the unpaved driveway. The neighbor’s dog started shouting out the window at whoever was here.  I was awake. I have been out for two hours. I sat up from the couch and took stock of the living room, I saw Zinssers book still sitting on my coffee table. I grabbed it and dove in where I left off.

My mind was blank, when these words were processed:

“This was a generation reared on television, where the picture is valued more than the words, in fact, is devalued, used as mere chatter and often misused and mispronounced. It was also a generation reared on music-songs and rhythms meant primarily to be heard and felt. With so much noise in the air, was any American child being trained to listen? Was anyone calling attention to the majesty of a well-constructed sentence?”

A feeling of guilt washed over me as I realized just how right he was. I grew up in the world Zinsser describes. Pictures always meant more than words. At college I developed as a news photographer, I focused on how to frame a picture. I worked hard to perfect the “natural sound piece.” A story told through the lens of the camera without the voice of a reporter. One of the tricks to good reporting was writing to the picture. In TV news you can’t write to something you can’t show.

Then I thought about my distain for Lady Gaga. I don’t think she has any talent. She may have a nice voice, and I admit a great flair for showmanship, but she can’t write. Her lyrics are so heavily dampened by modern music no one hears the words. A few weeks ago I couldn’t avoid her. My favorite new show “Glee” was having a special Lady Gaga episode. While the performer herself was not featured, her music was. The show cemented my feelings. I saw a mother and daughter sing “Poker Face” as a duet. The song grew further lost on me. While I admit liking the songs more as performed by stronger singers, the words made less sense hearing them more clearly without the noise.  Here is a sample from the song “Poker Face”

I won’t tell you that I love you.

Kiss or hug you.

Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin.

I’m not lying I’m just stunnin’ with my love-glue-gunning.

Just like a chick in the casino.

Take your bank before I pay you out.

I promise this, promise this.

Check this hand cause I’m marvelous.”

I can’t see what inspired the makers of  “Glee” to use this as a mother-daughter duet. Hearing it sung with just a piano, and no other musical accompaniment, I found it to be funny. Something I would hear on “Saturday Night Live.”

You can’t blame Lady Gaga though. She was raised on the same pop culture I was. She was smart enough to understand it. We’re both guilty of the same thing though, not writing well. I can’t vouch for her, but William Zinsser is helping me.

I have been told for years that, writing for TV is very different then writing for other mediums. I don’t think so anymore. When I tried to write my very first news story a few months ago, I was terrified. One boss taught me to write in the folksy, breezy style, Zinsser warns against. Another boss just showed me how to strip it all away and keep it simple. I walked away thinking my script was too simple. I have been so intimidated by writing for news; I have avoided it for so long. I’m still apprehensive, but the picture is getting clearer. I still have clutter, but not as much as before. I can recognize where certain words aren’t needed. I am not where I need to be, but I’m more tuned in than I was.

Last weekend, my stepbrother got married. The bride’s aunt wanted to stand up and say a few words. She pulled out a speech she had crafted. Once she started to read, I thought; this must be the first time she is reading this out loud. It did not flow and there was too much clutter. It may have sounded loving in her mind, but it was coming through as insulting and rude. She read it in a sweet voice, but clearly this was the first time out loud. The wrong words left me distracted from the message she intended.

My writing isn’t where it should be yet, but Mr. Zinsser, I am listening. Tuned in to what I was missing before.


An Old Family Friend

It’s not everyday an eight year old gets to see his grandmother with his hero. Back in 1988, Superman came to town. While on his trip to Ithaca, New York, he stopped by my grandmothers candy shop. He even brought along Wonder Woman to have a little time out.

My grandmother, Ruby Andrews, was an iconic part of downtown Ithaca. She ran a candy shop called “Andrews Confectionary.” Growing up, I was actually a kid in a candy shop. If this didn’t make my grandmother perfect enough in my mind, she even got to meet my hero.

Superman, issue number 700, was released today. It got me thinking about my life long history with The Man of Steel. I don’t remember exactly when I first was introduced to Superman, but I know he was always apart of my life.

I was born in 1980, and my earliest thoughts seem to revolve around Superman. I had Superman pajamas with a Velcro cape, action figures, watched his cartoons, and even had an overplayed Superman record. The record told the story of how Superman came to be on earth. It was accompanied by a picture book, my first Superman comic. Superman was there when I learned how to read. The Superman comics opened up a whole new world.

It was great to be a Superman fan in the 1980’s; Superman saw resurgence in popularity brought on by the Christopher Reeves movies. Then the old George Reeves Superman TV show was re-run all the time.

While I still have a classic poster of Superman hanging in my room from when I was five, in the last few years I have drifted away from Superman. From time to time, I will thumb through all the comics I saved when I was younger.

I re-discovered the image of my grandmother and Superman when the movie Superman Returns came out. I decided to go through all my Superman memorabilia. The version I have is from the publication in 1988. Someone in my family has the original. It hung in my grandmother’s home for years until she died. I tried tracking it down through the publisher, but with no luck.

1988 marked the 50th anniversary of Superman. John Byrne had taken over in 1986 and re-vamped it. He took on many Superman projects, including a cover for Time Magazine. He was visiting Ithaca for a comic book convention with a few other very noteworthy names in the comic book world, like Roger Stern who would eventually be the one to get Clark Kent and Lois Lane married. I don’t know what Byrnes connection to Ithaca was. This was the second cover he did for the “Art and Leisure” section for the Ithaca Journal. Other than my grandmother being a bit of an icon in the area, I am not sure how the drawing came to be?

For Byrnes, it may have just been another drawing, but for me it was a legendary moment. He not only brought my worlds together, he made everyone in the world see just how special my grandmother was.


The Pipe Dream


My holiest of shows is “Doctor Who” and not far behind, its spin off “Torchwood.” My dream job is to work on “Doctor Who” and live in England. Last year, I gave it a shot.

“Doctor Who” is produced by BBC Wales. They make the show in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. In 2008, the Mrs. and I took our first big vacation there. We spent two weeks in England, but only three days in Cardiff. The city is a secret gem. The Brits often make fun of it for various reasons, but we fell in love with the place. We knew we needed to spend more time there.

When we returned from our big UK adventure, I signed up for the BBC employment emails. I started getting a lot of job listings for both “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood.” Most of the postings I was not qualified for. Then in late November of 2008, “the holy grail” of jobs was announced, producer for “Doctor Who.”

Christmas came early. I was running around the house screaming and jumping for joy. All I could see was a life in Cardiff making the show of my dreams.

Once I calmed down, I needed a plan. Specifically, I needed to get going on the application. I thought long and hard about everything I had done in TV up to this point. I then considered that “Doctor Who” is the BBC’s most valuable show; naturally I was a perfect fit. It wasn’t an act of ego that convinced me to apply; it was my love of the show and the BBC. The “Doctor Who” is flawless; I just wanted to hitch my wagon to it.

The rejection letter came about two weeks after the position closed for inquires. I knew I would be turned down, so I didn’t tell a lot of people I was applying. Most of the people I told were very supportive. One friend thought it was a dumb idea to even try.

I don’t regret taking the chance, if you can call it that. Having investigated it further, the BBC (and England) are very strict about only hiring UK citizens. Unless I have a sponsor, family ties, or have been working towards getting my citizenship, they will not even consider me because I am an American.

I still get the BBC Wales job openings in my email. Many more have come through that I am qualified for. They have a show just like mine called “The One Show.” The shows hosts have just left for better jobs on a competing network. So here is the BBC’s chance to mix things up. Give the show over to an American who sees England with a fresh perspective.

I’ve been back to Cardiff since the rejection letter. We even snuck on the BBC campus to have lunch one day. I will continue to submit my resume. I like to think that someone in human resources is getting familiar with my name.