MORE THAN 'LIGHTS AND WIRES IN A BOX'
I’LL NEVER FORGET a conversation I had with a TV executive back in the early 90s when I was approached to produce what ultimately became my film called The Promised Land.
A TV anchorman had recommended my work to this broadcast company after emceeing a fundraising luncheon for the Cleveland Foodbank. There, he saw my short film Praying for Food and became introduced to my work for the very first time. This mini-documentary was designed to help raise the Foodbank’s visibility after dismal decreases in food and financial donations during the early years of the first Bush presidency. The anchorman told execs that he believed that I might be able to help the network with their own Holiday campaign — which had also performed poorly in the previous three years — by producing a documentary about the homeless.
Eventually I was sitting in the office of this powerful TV executive, listening as he cautiously extolled the virtues of my work. It was 1990; I had one small son and was soon to have another on the way. I had just begun my documentary work a few years prior after a brief stint in the music business and many years of studying journalism.
During this unusual 20 minute conversation, the man’s eyes rarely met mine. After listening diligently, I finally asked, “How much are you offering?”
“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 I’m sorry to say that this is all we have.”
“This is not what the wife is going to want to hear,” I thought to myself. I wondered how, just-how in the WORLD I could accept this job. Since my then-wife was at home caring for our first-born — and I had just struck out on my own after years working for an old high school buddy — I was definitely hurting financially. With a newborn to boot... well, let’s just say that I was less than thrilled. He had me hook, line, and sinker on the subject of producing a film about the homeless. But $900? Not only could I not afford to produce this film, but I feared that my wife would kill me if I came home with this 'offer' after months of lying far-too-low to the earth.
The exec saw that I was wavering. “If things go well,” he promised, “I will guarantee that you will be named the Producer of our next big documentary. You have my word on it,” he said. As his eyes finally locked in on mine, he added, “We really need to turn this charity around, and we think you are the man to do it.”
Still conflicted, I stared at one of the studio monitors in his office for a few moments.“I’ll do it on one other condition,” I said while locking on his eyes. “And 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.”
The next day he phoned me to explain the economics of prime time TV — and how much money they would lose if they programmed my documentary at 9 or 9:30 on a weeknight. “Well, 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 program like this in prime time,” said the executive.
“Nonsense,” I countered. “Just watch. Anyway, those are my terms. Take it or leave it.”
Seemingly begrudgingly, he accepted, and I immediately began five weeks worth of non-stop madness — for $900. Well, not actually $900…because I paid my friend Henry $250 to shoot a few hours of additional footage — and paid a local composer a grand total of $500 for an outstanding 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.
That incident started a running battle with commercial television that is still ongoing. The Promised Land won a slew of regional Emmy’s, was nominated for a national Emmy award, and captured an International Film & TV award in the category of International TV Programming from the N/Y. International Film & Televisional Festival. More importantly, it 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 directly to 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 money 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.
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 the network decided to air the program in 20+ other cities.
SO, ONCE IN A BLUE MOON, when I turn on the television and actually find something worth watching, I recall those early days when I believed in the craft so much that I staked my family’s welfare on my God-given abilities to produce documentaries.
Twenty years later, I realize the sacrifices I made for the good of "the all" — and I am still sacrificing. Twenty years later, I am still trying to live a principled life.
Too much of what we see — too much of what we support — pales in the light of the brilliant observation Edward R. Murrow made about television a half century ago. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, and yes, it can even inspire,” he said. “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."
Whether or not I continue to produce films, I will never forget his words — nor the time I created an International award winning documentary for 900 bucks.
Because twenty years later, despite the fact that the TV exec broke his vow to me, I realize that I was the person who profited most. For, when given the chance, I helped raise $1 million for the homeless — in just one city. And that's just where the blessings started.
In view of today’s sophomoric and sleazy prime-time lineups, full of their reality TV and mindless nonsense, I have done my best to teach, illuminate, and yes, even inspire. I have put those “lights and wires in a box” to good use.
Perhaps Murrow would be proud.