LIGHTS AND WIRES IN A BOX
I’LL NEVER FORGET a conversation I had with a Scripps Howard TV executive back in the early 90s when I was approached to produce what ultimately became THE PROMISED LAND.
A TV anchorman had recommended my work to Scripps after emceeing a Cleveland Foodbank luncheon and seeing my mini-documentary “Praying for Food” for the very first time. He thought I might be able to help their Holiday campaign, which had failed to raise any substantial money for charities in the previous three years.
So there I was, sitting in the office of this powerful man who cautiously extolled the virtues of my work. I had one small son and was soon to have another on the way.
“How much are you offering?” I asked innocently enough, knowing that my lovely soon-to-be-ex-wife would be grilling me about the financial details as soon as the meeting ended.
“Well, we have $900 in this budget,” he said while pointing to a popular morning TV program on his programming sheet. “It’s the end of the year and that’s all we have.”
“This is NOT what the wife is going to want to hear,” I thought to myself, while wondering how, just-how in the WORLD I could accept this job. Since my wife was at home caring for our first-born — and I had just struck out on my own after years laboring as an employee of an old high school buddy — I was pulling in less that $2,000 a month. And you know you’re hurting when $2,000 a month actually sounds GOOD.
The Scripps TV man saw that I was wavering. Yes, he had me hook, line, and sinker on the subject of producing a film about the homeless. But $900? Good God, Miss Agnes. My wife would KILL me if I came home with this 'offer' after months of lying way-too-low to the earth.
Then the executive sweetened the deal. He promised that if things went well. . .I would be guaranteed as the Producer of the next big documentary project for the TV station. “You have my word on it,” he said. “We really need to turn this charity around.”
“I’ll do it on one other condition,” I said while locking on his eyes. “This is non-negotiable. I want this to air in prime time.”
“Oooh. . .umm. . .that will be difficult,” he stammered. “Hmmm. Let me see what I can do.” After a few days he phoned me to explain the economics of prime time TV — and how much money they would lose if they put my documentary at 9 or 9:30 on a weeknight. “You’re saving a helluva lot of money on me,” I told him.
“True, but no one watches things like this in prime time. There is no way that we can get viewers to watch a socially-relevant program in prime time,” said the now-departed executive.
“Oh yes you can,” I countered. “Just watch. Anyway, those are my terms. Take it or leave it.”
He accepted, and I began five weeks worth of non-stop work for $900. Well, not actually $900…because I paid my friend Henry $250 to shoot a few hours of additional footage — and paid the immensely talented composer Richard C. Aylsworth a grand total of $500 for his outstanding Emmy-nominated musical score. Each of them only agreed because they knew that I was only making $150 for five weeks of work — and they felt sorry for me. They just KNEW I was catching Hell at home. And they were right.
Anyway, that incident started a running battle with commercial television that is still ongoing. THE PROMISED LAND won four regional Emmy’s, an International Film & TV award in the category of International TV Programming, and more importantly, proved my assertion that important programming about vital issues could not only attract and hold viewers — but could motivate them to action as well.
THE PROMISED LAND was the highest-ranking TV program in its’ time slot and raised nearly $500,000 in its’ first showing alone — and $1,000,000 total. As a bonus, I was able to read the thoughts of real viewers who scribbled notes on hotel memo pads and notebook paper and sent them in with their donations, which went to provide transitional housing and job training for the homeless.
When I read the notes, which came in by the hundreds, I cried like a baby. It taught me to believe in my instincts — and to believe in the humanity of humanity. There was a businessman from Chicago writing from the Holiday Inn downtown, an elderly woman on a fixed income who sent a tattered $5 bill with the note “I wish I could do more,” and six poor families from the East side of Cleveland who pooled their monies and contributed $100 for their brothers and sisters because “there but for the Grace of God go I.”
I STILL get chills when I think of that one.
Importantly, it proved — once and for all — that the TV execs were wrong — DEAD wrong — when they said that no one would watch, and that certainly no one would donate, except for the few bleeding hearts. People bombarded the phone lines with a fury never seen before — so much so that Scripps decided to air the program in 20+ other cities.
Years later, in the era of war and record profits for the wealthiest, television has fallen even further from reality — at the same time that they promote "reality TV."
SO ONCE IN A BLUE MOON, when I turn on the television and actually find something illuminating to watch, I recall those early days when I loved the craft so much that I would stake my family’s welfare on my God-given abilities to produce documentaries. And then, I am reminded of the brilliant observation made by American journalist Edward R. Murrow over 45 years ago about the medium of television. He said, "this instrument can teach, it can illuminate, and yes, it can even inspire. But it can only do so to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely lights and wires in a box."
Too much of what we see — too much of what we support — pales in the light of Murrow’s wisdom. As I seek the dollars necessary to produce two more films and a weekly TV news show, however, I will never forget his words — or the time I created an International award winning documentary for 900 bucks.
Oh yeah, and JUST FOR THE RECORD, I was never hired to produce the documentary I was promised by the former Scripps executive. It would have entailed traveling to the rainforests of South America to film, and creating a documentary about the environment. The exec — who was married —gave the job to a woman who was reportedly his lover of many years.
While Scripps REALLY got their money’s worth out of me, I am the person who profited most — especially in view of today’s sophomoric and sleazy prime-time lineups. When given the chance, I was blessed to help raise $1 million for the homeless — in just one city.
Now that, Murrow might say, was putting those lights and wires in a box to a worthwhile use.