Secrets of CNN Center From Its First Supervising Producer
Two Eds are better than one. Ed Turner and me at the Supervising Producer pod in CNN Center
The news broke this week that CNN Center in Atlanta will be closing by the end of the year. Here’s something few people know. I was the first supervising producer on duty when CNN Center opened in 1987.
I was working the 11pm-7am shift in preparation for the morning show called Daybreak at the time. Sounds like a shitty graveyard shift, but overnight in the States is prime time for overseas news. Can’t say “foreign” news because Ted Turner didn’t allow it. You had to say “international” or some other synonym for news not happening in the U.S. because, he correctly asserted, people in Bulgaria hearing news about their country wouldn’t consider that news foreign. Ted was a pretty brilliant guy.
We weren’t actually on the air yet from CNN Center. That would happen when Daybreak signed on at 6am. The last live newscast from CNN’s original location at 1050 Techwood Drive across from Georgia Tech University was Newsnight Update, which ended at 1:30 am.
With a TBS camera rolling for an upcoming documentary on the move at the appointed time I called over to Techwood to say something like, “operations are complete at Techwood. Time to move the mile or so down to CNN Center.” I’m sure it was better than that but sadly I never documented my remarks because I was sure they were unremarkable.
A little while later, Susan Rook, who had anchored that last live show from Techwood, arrived at CNN Center with a gift for me. She had removed one of the CNN logos on the anchor set and presented it to me. It’s on my office wall along with a photo from the 1989 CNN bureau chief’s meeting in Ted’s office and a poster signed by Ted wishing the Detroit Bureau luck when it opened in 1982.
I was the Detroit Bureau chief and correspondent from May, 1989 to January, 2001. When I was laid off in the great purge of ’01 I took the framed poster with me. The bureau was closed later that year.
Something else about CNN to which I will sheepishly admit. While the place was under construction I was appointed to a committee to help design the layout of the newsroom. For some reason I had the hairbrained idea it would be cool to emulate a print newsroom set up with circular team workstations with an editor in the middle—the slot..get it?
To my dismay the others loved it and that’s the way the “pods” were built. They were almost universally despised. Writers and producers around the rims were uncomfortable and the editors often complained of feeling like chestnuts roasting on ambient fires.
Once I caught wind of this dissatisfaction I never once, until this moment, mentioned that I was largely responsible for my colleagues’ misery. Apparently no one else remembered and the subject was never brought up. Why am I admitting this now? Because someone is likely to write another “history” of CNN and not get it exactly right. Call me.
For many years I had the blueprints for the newsroom design and I still might, but I can’t lay my fingers on them because there’s a good chance one of my family members used it to wrap Christmas presents and they’ve long ago been buried in a Michigan landfill. I have some boxes to exhume. Maybe they’re in there. But I won’t be looking today.
One of my strongest recollections from being the first supervising producer at CNN Center was learning the layout, especially the location of the washrooms. You see, working at CNN could be very stressful and when someone had the need there could be no delay.
It actually cracked me up as I sat in the elevated supervising producers pod, which was crescent shaped and not round, and crazed producers and writers who hadn’t taken advantage of the advance tours, screamed at me, “where the hell is the fuckin’ bathrooooooom!” If it was someone who had exhibited especially ass-holey behavior to me in the past, I’d kinda look up and ask, “what?” “Gotta go!!!!! Where!!!!!????” they’d holler while nature was hollering back at them. Then I’d point them in the right direction.
Often, when there were finished doing their business and returned to the newsroom they’d offer their appreciation for the information I shared with a familiar hand gesture, which I’m sure, in some culture, meant, “Next time I will pee on your shoes.”
Being the supervising producer meant largely, um, nothing. You didn’t actually produce. You mainly made sure the upcoming newscasts were leading with the best and latest stories, the producers knew of new material coming in on the satellites and if someone called in sick you had to find a replacement.
I loved that part. A producer would call in sick at, say, 1am and I’d ring up the designated replacement. Without fail I had rousted that person from their chaotic dreams and they’d bark at me, “do you know it’s the middle of the freakin’ night?” I’d calmly reply, “it’s the middle of my work day. Need you to come in tomorrow and produce the 2pm show.” Rough words were exchanged but the deed was done. I’d won again.
Working in the middle of the night I often had conversations with correspondents stationed overseas. Sometimes it was to approve a script, but at least one based in Japan just wanted to talk because he was lonely.
During many of the hours when I had literally nothing to do, I’d decide to prowl the oddball nooks and crannies of CNN Center. From the top floor of the CNN space you could look out at the atrium and see all sorts of things. Sometimes I’d see couples emerging from the movie theater or Omni Hotel or offices that were coupled with other people in real life. Omerta!
I remember the very last time I was in CNN Center. I had come down from Detroit in late 2000 to meet with the bosses. It was a one-day quickie. Unremarkable, but somehow I knew my time at the network would end soon. I kinda turned around and took what I just felt was my last look at the place and cracked up to myself thinking, “those poor slobs are still sweating in my pods.”
Requiem for a hilarious genius
There aren’t many scenarios where one would not only enjoy working the graveyard shift but actually look forward to dragging in their sleep-deprived butts at an hour when most people are tucking their sleepy selves into bed for some proper slumber.
But for two, brief, fleeting, wonderful years, I was blessed with this paradox. The only reason it was so, was because of a hilarious genius named Peter Vesey.
At the time I was co-producing CNN’s morning show called “Daybreak.” The newcast aired from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. which meant we reported to work at the cruel hour of 1 a.m. to prepare it. When our executive producer moved on, Peter replaced her. His reputation as a brilliant broadcast journalist preceded his arrival and the team was excited for the chance to work with Peter and learn from him. We never anticipated he would also make working while others were sleeping so much fun.
Our pre-show meetings instantly transformed from robotically listing available stories, reporter packages and expected satellite feeds to uproarious discussions filled with Peter’s humor, logic and spot-on guidance while he constantly challenged us to try new production methods, accelerating the show’s pace, sharpening our writing and above all, creating a newscast that engaged and informed our viewers that hooked them to the screen.
We had fun critiquing the material, to the extent of Peter’s ability to create verbal caricatures of several correspondents. One, in particular, made every piece sound like an industrial film, intoning like a mechanical voice. We were sometimes a little cruel in our critiques but all in good fun while honestly assessing their strength and worthiness to make air.
In the control room, he ruled calmly and decisively while tossing in crackling bon mots to keep the crew loose and engaged.
Peter took a personal interest in all of us, always inquiring about our lives, families, health and career goals. He also didn’t take any shit. Anchors with an attitude were quickly shut down. Officiousness was dealt with an immediate smackdown. My favorite example:
The supervising producer sat across from Peter. There was perhaps one-foot between them. This was the 80’s so there was an attractive Trimline wall phone at each work station. One-inch separated Peter and the supervisor’s wall phone. Peter’s phone rang and when he picked it up, the voice on the other end of the line was the supervisor… only inches away. Instead of saying “hello,” Peter reached over to the supervisor’s phone, yanked it off the wall and tossed in in the trash and said, “what was it you wanted?” I’ve never stopped laughing about this in 30 years.
There weren’t many food options in the middle of the night and I’m a crappy eater anyway, so I gravitated towards the emaciated Polish sausages available at the small cafeteria located in the odd atrium that separated CNN from CNN Headline News. Of course, Peter silently took note of my foolish food choice and parked it away for future use. That came to pass when I moved on from Daybreak to a reporting position. Near the end of our shift Peter announced the team had a little going away gift for me. He brought out a rectangular cake pan covered in foil. Oh…a going away cake..how cool. Oh sure, there was a nice cake with vanilla frosting…and a big, fat raw Polish sausage sticking out of the middle. It brought tears to my eyes.
But now my eyes are tear filled again and my heart broken with the news Peter passed away after a short illness.
I hadn’t spoken to Peter in many, many years and a couple of months ago the director on our show passed along his number to me and said Peter would welcome a call. I didn’t make it. Believe it or not, I simply felt shy about it. Peter would have set me straight…and asked if I was still eating those stupid sausages. I would have welcomed that.
Since taking on a part-time position as a video reporter at Automotive News I’ve found myself filling in every few weeks for the regular anchor of our daily afternoon newscast, AutoNews Now. I hadn’t anchored any sort of newscast since 1988 when I anchored Newsnight Update for awhile on CNN. If you’re not familiar with that show, that’s because it aired 1:30 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Eastern time and was aimed at west coast viewers and those in other time zones working off a hard night of drinking bad muscatel.
The absence of 29 years from the anchor desk was quite an awakening, especially when it comes to that thing called a teleprompter. Oh, I guess technically I’m supposed to spell it TelePrompTer since it’s a brand name that’s become generic like Kleenex for tissues.
My first anchor experience was in the late 1970’s at KGUN-TV in Tucson, Arizona where I’d occasionally handle “Good Morning Tucson,” the local cut-ins during “Good Morning America.” Back then the prompter was simply a little conveyer belt onto which the operator loaded the script pages end to end. The operator would then use a little thumbwheel to get the conveyer belt moving, passing each page under a small camera, which sent the image of the script to a monitor placed under the anchor’s camera lens, reflecting it onto a two-way mirror over the lens so the anchor could look directly into it and make people believe they either memorized the whole thing or made it up on the spot.
This simple technology worked for a long time, but had it’s limitations. At KGUN the prompter was located next to a door that led from the studio to the parking lot. Every time someone went in or out during a newscast, all the script pages would go flying off the belt and the poor operator was stuck trying to gather them up and place them back on the belt in the correct order. This almost never was successful causing the anchor to deliver such non sequiturs as “A plane crash near Phoenix today resulted in lower than expected attendance at the 4H Club’s bake sale. The city council voted unanimously to plead guilty to sexual harassment charges.”
By the time I anchored at CNN the technology had actually not changed one bit. The difference at CNN is, due to the nature of its 24-hour broadcast schedule, scripts were constantly being written and delivered to the prompter and the rest of the crew just moments before they were to be read.
One night the scripts were running particularly late and the production assistant charged with delivering the scripts was running like crazy and became completely unhinged. In her rush she simply tossed the pile of scripts to the prompter operator and, as you might expect, they immediately were shuffled out of order. All I could see from the anchor desk was a young person behind the prompter mouthing, “oh crap oh crap oh crap!” while the fallen pages remained on the ground.
I should interject at this point, anchors are also provided hard copies of scripts just in case there should be an unfortunate prompter problem. The trick is, turning the pages of your hard copy in sync with the prompter so, if needed, you can dive down to the hard copy and continue reading. It’s tougher than it looks and many anchors simply use their hard copies as placemats for the coffee and danish they bring on the set, just out of view.
Now fast forward to 2012. By then I was head of digital communications at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. A good part of my duties involved setting up a video operation at the automaker and that included having a small studio built for recording and transmitting executive interviews. The long time gap since my last studio experience became quickly apparent when the prompter was installed. I looked high and low but couldn’t find the conveyer belt/camera apparatus. When I asked someone about it, the much-younger person laughed at me as she said, “are you, like 100?” before explaining prompters had long before moved to the digital age where all you had to do was load a Word file of the script into a laptop that’s connected to the monitor/two-way mirror set up on the camera.
This worked very well except for when, in the spirit of teamwork, I ran the prompter for one of our Italian executives who needed to record a message totally in Spanish. Not being able to understand a word of the script I just kept moving the lines up at the executive’s pace. He finally stopped in frustration and said to me, in perfect English, “you suck!” Ah, the joys of multi-linguilism.
I retired from FCA at the end of July, 2016, but was offered the part-time job I have now at Automotive News, which I enjoy very much. Every so often, as I mentioned at the start, I fill in for our regular anchor. The first time he showed me the studio the issue of the prompter came up. He smiled as he handed me the thumb-operated controller and informed me there weren’t enough people on the team to have a prompter operator so anchors were on their own.
If you watch any of our newscasts, you’ll notice we keep one hand, the hand operating the prompter, out of view. I’ve gotten the hang of it pretty well. It just takes a little practice. It seems to be a problem for some of our viewers however, since they have no idea what’s going on under the table and it’s prompted a few to ask some inappropriate questions. Let’s just say my thumb’s pretty busy.
The first political convention I can remember watching was the 1964 Republican at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. As a 12-year old my first thought was, “are you kidding me? They’re gonna nominate a candidate for President in a place called the Cow Palace?” It seemed more appropriate as a venue for judging heifers and goats at a state fair. After two days of viewing on our 19-inch black and white Zenith TV, it became apparent it was exactly the right place since the delegates were packed together as tightly as canned hams and the nominee, Barry Goldwater, was throwing out conservative red meat to the crowd poised to gobble up every morsel of anti-Communist paranoia. Sidenote: many years later when I was a weatherman at KGUN, Tucson, Arizona, Goldwater came walking thr0ugh the studio as I was preparing my map. He stopped and joked, “you’re not gonna make it rain this weekend, are you?” “Oh no, Senator. This is Arizona. We don’t do rain,” was my lame reply. He kept walking.
I don’t remember much about the Democratic convention that year. It was held in Atlantic City where we vacationed each spring break with another family long before the casino/parasites sucked the once quaint beach resort dry. LBJ was the Dem’s nominee having benefitted from taking office after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I do, vaguely remember Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s running mate, being pushed to the sidelines and made to appear as the strong-willed Johnson’s man servant.
1968 didn’t happen for me. Of all years. I was 16 and working for a camp that took disadvantaged inner city kids from New York City, camping and canoeing and hiking in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. White Mountains of New Hampshire and Baxter State Park in Maine. While the upheaval and violence was going on at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, I was fending off a 10-year thug at a campsite in New Hampshire who pulled my own jackknife on me. He wasn’t hard to disarm but I had to escort him on a Trailways bus back to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan and deposit him with his parents who just couldn’t believe their darling Julio could do such a thing.
The closest I ever got to actually covering a convention was in 1988 when I worked for CNN. The Democrats did their thing at the old Omni Arena in Atlanta, which was about 10 steps from CNN Center. That made things very convenient. I was assigned to work, most of the week, in one of our trailers below a viaduct between the Omni and CNN Center. I honestly don’t remember exactly what I did but I do remember two things: Al Franken walking glumly through the trailer after being fired when his “humorous” commentaries fell flat, and the unbelievable large quantity of pigeon droppings that adorned our little metal workplace. When I wasn’t working in the trailer I was the Supervising Producer in the actual newsroom in CNN Center. It was a cool time. All sorts of celebrities toured our complex. The one I remember clearly was CNN’s own Larry King. I’d never seen him in person before but if “The Walking Dead” had been a thing in ’88, he’d have been either the star, or the inspiration for the series.
Over time, of course, the long death march primary system has replaced the conventions as the method whereby candidates actually win the nomination, but I still enjoy watching them. For one, I get the greatest amount of joy seeing some low-level official attempting to capture the delegates’ attention while giving a speech at 4 p.m. I confess, desperation has its allure, when it’s not mine.
So I look forward to the unusual arrangement of both conventions running back-to-back this time around. Someone is bound to do something foolish or personally destructive, but on the other hand a new political star may be born. Just ask Hillary Clinton about one such star who wowed the crowd at the 2004 convention in Boston, then outshined her own candidacy in 2008 and is completing his second term. Is it her turn, finally? Will Donald Trump rock Cleveland…or turn it into a casino/condo development? Don’t know but I have a better TV now and I can’t wait to watch…in color.
Retro Binging Brings Character Clarity
How you doin’? Thanks to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, et. al, it’s easy to sit for most of one’s natural life and binge on a favorite or fashionable program. Seems like most viewers indulge themselves on current or recently departed series but since last summer we’ve been binging long-gone series: “Friends” and “Frasier”. The result is a retrospective recasting of my feelings about certain actors and characters.
Let’s start with “Friends.” We were not regular viewers when the series aired in the 90’s and early 2000’s. In fact, I had never seen an entire episode before my wife and I decided to kill some brain cells by watching the whole 10 year run over the course of a few months last summer and fall. Going into this all I had to go on was my years ago crush on Courtney Cox from her days as Alex Keaton’s girlfriend on “Family Ties,” glimpses of Jennifer Aniston as the hot babe on the magazine covers, Lisa Kudrow as the goofy sister of a character who looked like her on “Mad About You,” and then the guys to whom I paid no attention..especially David Schwimmer who just seemed, from the promos, like a whiny guy who needed an ass loosening. After more than 200 episodes and living through the interminable Ross and Rachel drama, Joey’s up and down and down and down and up acting career, Monica’s OCD, Chandler’s SO NOT HAPPY schtick and all the rest, I decided the following: My crush on Courtney Cox was crushed by her character’s OCD, Jennifer Aniston is a gifted comedienne but should never wear bangs, Lisa Kudrow was the best actress and her character the most fun to watch, to act that dumb but engaging, Matt LeBlanc had some mean acting chops, Matthew Perry WAS SO NOT GONNA HAVE ANOTHER SUCCESSFUL SERIES, and David Schwimmer would be whiny forever. Honestly, Rachel should have kept going to Paris and found a hot guy in black turtleneck loaded with gift cards from a trendy cafe’.
In the case of “Frasier,” the analysis is much more concise. On “Cheers” Frasier was merely a pompous loser. On that character’s spinoff, Frasier evolved into a pompous loser with an awesome apartment in Seattle. Indeed, his brother Niles and father, Martin were much more fun to watch but the female characters, Daphne, played by Jane Leeves, and Peri Gilpin’s Roz were the secret sauce that gave the series its bite. Indeed, while psychiatrist “Frasier” may have been the titular character, in retrospect he’s the one who needed his head examined and his shrink-rapt brother, a blow-up doll.
Morley and the Sacred Marriage
Last Sunday my eyes teared up as I watch the retrospective of Morley Safer’s career on “60 Minutes” on the occasion of his retirement. Who knew he would pass from the scene only a few days later. Oh, my verklempt moment had nothing to do with him packing it in after a million years on the air. It had more to do with the perfection of his writing. Marrying his avuncular narration with video, writing short sentences, masterfully using the medium to tell a compelling and memorable story. For any of us who write for television, Safer was one of a very few to whom we could only hope to emulate, and never quite get there.
My tears were also drawn by the realization the art of television writing is becoming a lost one, as stations and networks rely on extemporaneous live reports that escape thoughtful writing and critical editing. Expediency and penny-pinching come with a high cost. Skilled television reporters and writers are being forced onto the street and replaced with so-called “citizen journalists,” bloggers and social media gadflys who may not have had the experience or training, learning the vows of the holy matrimony between words and video, economy of narration, video storytelling. Much too often I see scripts from wannabees and hacks who bang out words having never looked at a frame of video figuring the editor “will find something to cover that line with.”
I learned the hard way. I started my broadcasting career on the radio and eventually migrated to TV. The first time I handed a poorly written script to an editor who saw no relationship between the available video and my words he spat to me, “you realize, asshole, I don’t have one shot that matches what you wrote! Look at the damn video!” Those words have stayed with me to this day and I’ve passed them along to subsequent offenders.
I was blessed during my 20 CNN years to work mainly with one shooter to the point where we knew each other so we would each come up with lines and shots that matched perfectly, always avoiding the dreaded generic “wallpaper” shots that offer no value to the story.
In my capacity as Head of Digital Communications at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, I’m a constant drumbeat to our video producers to write tight, look at the damn video before writing and make certain pictures and words are in complete lockstep. It’s a continuing battle but one that is in hand.
Which brings me back to the genius of Morley Safer, for whom this marriage was sacred…and one on which he never cheated. The same could be said of the late, wonderful Bruce Morton, whose verbal dexterity was a key driver of my decision to enter broadcast journalism.
Sadly, as the Safers and Mortons pass from the scene, the beautiful art of television journalism is fading from the scene as well…and that brings tears to my eyes.
My Personal Comic Con: Dr. Smith and me
Lucky kids! There was no such thing as Comic Con when I was growing up. The closest thing was when the clown from the local kid’s show sat at a table in a department store and gamely signed 8×10 glossies of himself and let parents take pictures of him with their little darlings who usually marked the moment by deciding the clown’s lap was a good place to dispose of their lunches.
But many years later I scored a meet-up with a true TV sci-fi bad guy and, to say the least, it wasn’t what I expected.
As a kid I was a regular viewer of “Lost in Space.” The stories and effects were cool for that era, but what really kept horny pre-teens like me engaged were the form-fitting outfits worn by the female cast members–especially Angela Cartwright, who had grown up quite nicely since her days as the precocious daughter on “Make Room for Daddy.” Oh, mama!
So while I was on an assignment with CNN in Atlanta and received a call from the national assignment desk that the Showbiz Tonight program needed me to pick up an interview with a “Lost in Space” cast member who was in town, I had thoughts of quality, fantasy time with Ms. Cartwright, or maybe Marta Kristen, the luscious blonde who played Dr. Judy Robinson. No such luck. I was told I was to report to the Marriott Hotel in Gwinnett County, in suburban Atlanta where none other than Jonathan Harris, who played the icky Dr. Zachary Smith would be waiting for me. Just c’mon up to his room.
My crew and I knocked on his door and rather than being greeted by a villainous vulture known for his devious deeds, the man leading us into his suite gave us hugs, big, BIG hellos and appeared less a bad guy than some incarnation of Angela Lansbury.
Dressed in a grey sport coat, silk shirt and ascot, thespian Harris shooed us into the suite with sweeping waves of his elastic arms, wide eyes, arching brows and a mellifluous order to “sit! sit! eat something!” as he pointed to a table full of 15 kinds of danish, bagels, butter, jams and jellies.
We made small talk as the crew set up, but there was no discussion of plot lines or cast trivia. The warm and tender host only wanted to hear of my family and love life and career aspirations. “Oh, silly boy!,” he laughed. “Once that camera rolls you can ask me that nonsense about the show and I promise you I will make up some simply wonderful answers that will make you a hero at the station!”
That’s exactly what happened. I really only had a few questions supplied to me by the Showbiz Tonight people, targeted at whatever angle they had in mind. The interview lasted but a few minutes, but all this time I can’t get over being in a hotel room with the dastardly Dr. Zachary Smith, who turned out to be a pussycat in every sense of the word.
Sadly, there are no photos. Selfies didn’t exist yet since early cell phones were the size of Rhode Island and barely made calls, let along take photos. That’s fine. I will always have that image in my mind’s eye of being lost in amazement at being in a hotel room with the ebullient nice guy who played the bad guy, who was Lost in Space.
Binging on The Bings…and Their Friends
My wife and I just lived 10 years in 3 months. That’s because we plowed through all 235 episodes of “Friends.” We boycotted the show during its run because we were loyal to “Seinfeld” and thought “Friends” was a sanitized, read that, “less New Yorky/Jewish” version even though it was set in New York and the siblings Ross and Monica Geller were Jewish. We were also loyal to Seinfeld because he dated a friend of mine for several years and attended my under grad college, SUNY Oswego, for a short time. To be sure, we never uttered a word to each other.
Oh yeah, we heard about the Ross and Rachel angst that lasted the entire run of the show and I think I saw somewhere, probably TV Guide, that Chandler and Monica got married, but that was it.
Here are my conclusions about what likely happened to the six characters after the finale:
1-The marriage between wisecracking Chandler and uptight control freak Monica would end when he replaces their twin babies’ diapers with fart cushions.
2-Dimwit actor-Lothario Joey is killed when he suffocates attempting to have sex with a box of styrofoam.
3-Free-spirit masseuse Phoebe goes on to a career massaging Bernie Sanders’s poll numbers
4-The beautiful fashion plate Rachel realizes wimpy, whiny Ross is not only a horrible, annoying mate, but his greasy, wet hair is actually a growing medium for morel mushrooms. She leaves him for a handsome mannequin she saw in the window of Saks. Ross says, “Oh darned!”
I’ll likely miss work for a few days while I use a mental enema to flush hearing peppy theme song, “I’ll Be There for You” 235 times. As Chandler might say, “could that song BE any more cloying!”
I kinda preferred Phoebe’s “Smelly Cat.” After all, as the lyric goes, “it’s not your fault.”