Friday, August 24, 2007

Lord of the Soaring Orb

God of Disc GolfBack in the early 90’s, when not studying at The Roy Park School of Broadcasting, I played a lot of disc golf. A Lot. Most days I’d be outf the studio door before the noon newscast's closing theme ended, eager to fill my ratty Toyota with a few fellow derelicts and spend the afternoon hurling pockmarked discs at chain-link mirages. They were the last days of an extended boyhood and I and my pals made the most of them - even if we did look like roadies on the lam from Pearl Jam. I was never all that good, mind you, but the slacker in me savored the pace of this low-impact sport. Usually, somewhere between the third and fifth hole, a bleary-eyed buddy would lean in and with a dry mouth remark how righteous it was that our sacred game was invented 'right here in Greenville'. Never knowing just how true that legend was, I always answered by launching my own colorful orb, until it invariably took a chunk out of a poor defenseless pine tree.

Fast forward fifteen years or so. Bob Buckley and I emerge from the chilled interior of Unit Four and walk deep into the Surry County smolder. There we’re met by an unassuming fellow in his fifties, a sliver-haired sprite who quietly tells of that day in the late sixties, when he staked a hula-hoop to two makeshift poles, gathered up a handful of Frisbees and invented a game of tactics and plastic. Sadly, George Sappenfield is a Californian, but he did work in Greenville for a time and his sublime game has had a fabled Downeast connection ever since. But Buckley and I hadn't driven up twisty-ass Highway 89 just there to reminisce. Shortly after the on-camera ended, Bob and George set out to a throw a few holes, while my tripod and I sweated in the hundred degree sun. Heat stroke aside, it was an honor - for while George Sappenfield may have never made a dime off his Frisbee epiphany (leave that to the shills at Whammo!), he can go to his grave knowing he helped enrich planet Earth with a most serendipitous endeavor.

Sure hope he likes this profile.

Anchorwoman Down!

Well, that didn’t last long. Less than 24 hours after its inaugural episodes, the suits at Fox pulled the plug on Anchorwoman - citing amazingly low ratings for such a ballyhooed debut. Last night I sat down to watch it via the magic of DVR and found myself less repulsed than first expected. Sure, it was a highly contrived human cartoon, but even Mrs. Lenslinger recognized a few characters from my newsgathering past: the greasy General Manager with the bimbo fetish, the hapless News Director who’s sold his soul to the company store, the shrewish young reporter on the verge of an all-out claw-out, the lifer photog schlub who thinks he’s shot it all … Hey wait a minute, that’s ME!

Honestly, it’s probably best that Anchorwoman died on arrival. For had it continued, I suspect the supporting cast (of supposed true-life players) would no doubt have continued to hog Lauren Jones’ spotlight. After all, real-life parodies are far more intriguing than silicone-enhanced swimsuit models - once you get past the ‘clevelidge’, of course. No, the chintzy environs and wacky inhabitants of a bottom-feeder market didn’t exactly elevate the form. I mean - c’mon - that was one ugly affiliate. Back at my own shop, we all had a fine time pointing and giggling at some universal truths we recognized in the show, but do we really want viewers to form their opinions from a station that boasts ’Stormy the Weather Dog’? don’t we already rank low enough in public opinion polls?

Truth is, sit-coms, one-hour dramas and contrived reality shows have never correctly pegged the TV newsroom milieu. Mary Tyler Moore came close I guess, but it was a more a tale of female empowerment and girlish charm than a realistic indictment of local broadcasting (Ted Baxter, notwithstanding). In the early nineties, Murphy Brown gave it a go, but between the broad slapstick and the main character’s mugging, I never could bring myself to tune in for more than three minutes at the time. I’m sure other shows have tackled the subject but I’ve mercifully found a way to live without them. It’s a drag though, for as Anchorwoman briefly proved, your garden variety TV station features enough farce and fanatics to to fuel a lifetime of chortling episodes. Maybe they’ll have better luck with Back to You

I doubt it, though.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Floor is Yours...

Leave it to beFrank to find Art in a Press Conference. But then again, the West Coast Zen Master always does, whether he's daydreaming away the red carpet, babysitting the yellow crime tape or simply killing time at a Lindsay Lohan camera cluster. Either way he's placid and detached; soothing enough traits not found in your average news shooter. That's why he's the official Wizened Jedi of Viewfinder BLUES - a laconic lifer with a winning grin and an eye to die for. Amazing behavior for a guy who spends a good part of each and every day stuck in L.A. traffic...

'Live Trucks in the Sky'

A dip of the lens to TV Technology correspondent Ian MacSpadden for helping me better understand last month's deadly news chopper crash. A ten year veteran of the Phoenix news market, MacSpadden knew two of the four men killed in the collision. But he doesn't let his grief stop him from providing lucid details about the current state of helicopter newsgathering. Reading his article, I'm reminded how glad I am not to have to board these overtasked birds on a regular basis. I'm all for joy-riding, but the lust for live coverage, a crowded airspace quantum-leaps in technology has heightened the inherent peril of flight to ludicrous levels. It started out innocently enough...
For years the station helicopter was primarily used for newsgathering at remote or distant sites. But a definite turning point, at least in the Phoenix market, came in 1996 when a 12-year-old autistic boy and his older brother who tried to stop him climbed to the top of a 125-foot high voltage tower near their home in Mesa, Arizona.
MacSpadden goes on to tell how powerful close-ups of the terrified youths atop that tower amped-up the expectations of those flittering eyes in the skies. Before long, every station in the market flew choppers with gyro-stabilized nose-mounted cameras. Helicopters became hovering voyuers. Pilots became personalities. When one stops to consider the extrapolated risks of such in-flight policies, it's easy to wonder why a tragedy such as the one in Arizona didn't happen sooner. Credit the skills of individual pilots for keeping everything aloft for so long. But a good track record is of little solace to the families of Scott Bowerbank, Jim Cox, Rick Krolak and Craig Smith. These men knew the risks, elected to fly anyway and died accordingly. There is absolutely no shame in that. But neither is there any in choosing to stay grounded, should your gut tell you so. No TV news story is worth your life, especially a few fleeting shots of some jack-ass on his way to jail...

Stand your ground. Go home tonight. It's only television.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Channeling Saint Bourdain

A hero of mine is having a very good year. Anthony Bourdain - big city chef, memoirist and acerbic TV host is everywhere. Don't believe me? Click around the internets and read countless accounts of his insouciant skewering of the celebrity Chef mold. Or check out No Reservations on The Travel Channel and watch this prickly New Yorker knock back seal eyeballs and warthog with the air of a seasoned bon vivant. Why, it's almost enough to make me stash this laptop and fire up the boob tube ... Naaaah, I'll just flip through my threadbare copy of Kitchen Confidential - Bourdain's seven year old memoir that took him from New York's fanciest kitchens to the human race's collective consciousness. Not bad for a self-admitted loser, user and abuser.

But then again, it was exactly that disquieting vibe that made Bourdain's book so sinfully delicious. Why else would a book detailing the kind of big city food this simple Southerner simply doesn't understand hold me so enraptured? Simple. It was his unflinching honesty; from the loving disdain he used to describe his damaged industry, to the zeal he employed while recounting his own tortured comportment. That kind of storytelling courage I can't help but admire, for the last few years of aping his on-page behavior have taught me how very hard it can be to keep it between the lines. So if you're the book-reading type, pick up Kitchen Confidential or flip over to The Travel Channel and witness his gastro-global domination. I'm not promising you'll find everything that comes out of (or goes into) his mouth appealing, but at least you'll get a taste of what I've been trying to cook up all this time....

Just don't call the waiter over, would ya?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Paul Bunyan's Sock Drawer

What, like you ain't got a three story chest of drawers in your town? We sure do - but then again, what would you expect from a burgh that calls itself 'The Furniture Capitol of the World'. Once upon a time that label was even accurate - but with factories shutting down, textile mills going dark and skanky Las Vegas threatening to steal the twice-annual furniture market, it's hard to even feign optimism over High Point's future. Case in point: the giant bureau on Hamilton Street. For as long as many can remember, this distinctive landmark has sat abandoned; a shuttered symbol of this city's thwarted potential.

But now the highboy that time forgot now has a new owner: Pam Stern, a local woman whose enthusiasm (and heart rate) knows no bounds. When I dropped in on her today, she unspooled a stream of consciousness rant that would make Kerouac dizzy. I immediately liked her - even if she did scare me a bit. See, Pam's got a passion for High Point unmatched by many of its elected officials. Where others see a city brimming with potential, this lifelong native sees a town in its death throes, a skeletal shell of a once thriving manufacturing community. Having spent ten years myself cruising its mostly deserted downtown streets, I can't help but agree. But unlike myself (and perhaps Fantasia), Pam Stern intends to do something about it. Having spent ninety minutes in her presence this afternoon, I'd advise any and all opponents to seek shelter immediately.

Trouble is, they ain't. Spurred on by her recent publicity and perhasp stinging from the fact that a local interior designer relieved them of a building they never claimed to want, shadowy figures are giving this fast-talking firebrand all kinds of static. That's a drag, as from all that I can tell, Pam Stern's intentions are pure. She sees the oversized dresser as a headquarters for High Point's revival; a place to meet, chill, network or even get married. Most of all, Pam wants jobs for her fellow residents, from the laid-off third shift worker to those crack-addicts defecating in the great sock drawer's shadow. So why am I telling you all this? Dunno - just wanted to make use of the details I couldn't cram into the seventy second opus we aired at six. Give it a glance anyway - and if you're ever in High Point drop by and tell Pam that Lenslinger sent ya. You'll be glad you did, long after your ears stop ringing...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Confessions of a Failed Reporter

Serge Brockman ReportingLens Puppet, Meat Stick, Talking Hairdo … I have lots of fun disparaging reporters. That’s because the very worst of their lot are three-dimensional buffoons; on-screen charlatans whose antics eclipse the finer efforts of their more qualified cousins. Over the years I’ve worked with ‘em all: the pampered mama’s boy, the glowering feminist, the genetically deficient. Though it made for awfully long shifts, those future flunkies have given me so much to think on and write about - far more so than whatever lessons I learned from the Truly Great Ones. While I could fill post after post with tales of these master storytellers and all they’ve taught me, it’s frankly more fun to highlight Those Who Sucked. And I feel slightly entitled to do so too, for once upon a time, I too was a lousy reporter.

Okay, so technically I was a one-man-band - one of those small-market schlubs who ran around in a sport jacket and blue jeans, the kind who kept a collection of wrinkled neckties right next to his oversized bag-phone and rusted-shut light kit. At the time, I thought I’d be one forever. Why wouldn’t I? Inspired by the great Andy Cordan but nowhere near as talented, I followed his footsteps into the world of crime and grime reporting and loved every shoulder-mounted minute of it. Trouble was, I usually stunk up the joint. Sure I could run, gun, shoot, write and edit with the best of them back then but the poor viewer rarely ever noticed. They were too busy watching me hiccup my way through awkward live shots. When I wasn’t delivering my nightly clichés in a booming ‘anchor’s voice’, I was fumbling words or sweating profusely. Other times I was merely squinting like a Prisoner of War, or just making a goofy-as face that detracted from whatever scandal I was relating. I’d invite you to ask the good people of Eastern North Carolina but I’m pretty sure no one there remembers me. At times, I wish I could forget.

But, alas, I can’t. See, the nearly four years I spent on-air taught me a lot. It taught me there was more to communicating on-screen than having your facts straight. It taught me the value of being versatile, the consequences of being cocksure, the pitfalls of being unprepared. I was always pretty adept at pointing the camera correctly, words rarely failed me and I truly loved to edit videotape - but the on-air shtick - the one part of the reportorial repertoire that Sally Joe Housecoat remember after the credits roll, - that I sucked at so distinctly. That’s why walking away from it all to crank out promo tripe was so easy. And while I deeply regret ever pretending to abide the wishes of one Michael D. Weeks, my time away from news did give me time to think. For it was there I realized how ill-equipped I was, how my penchant for ten dollar words, southern-fried stammer and brazen hatred for daily shaving made me the perfect person to eschew the spotlight.

It’s something I dwelled on long and hard upon plotting my return to news. Though I had no desire to be the classic photog (still don’t), I damn sure didn’t want to taste the acrid backwash of a butchered live shot. That’s a special blend of live(!) humiliation I wouldn’t wish on many people. To this day, whenever I see a reporter choke on-camera my heart aches for their real-time suffering. I tell ‘em too, just as soon as I catch my breath from laughing so hard. Most times, though, I’m alone. I prefer it that way - not because I hold reporters in especially low regard but because I feel I do my best work unaccompanied. In the world of local affiliates, that makes me a certified weirdo and occasionally the passing reporter will take my tic as a personal affront. It ain't. I simply do not play well with others - never have. So when you hear me pile-on a certain type of reporter, know that I mean it. But know too that there are just as many on-air correspondents who do hold my respect, for more than most photogs out there - I truly understand how much work it can take to appear so damn relaxed on the evening news.

That said, I still reserve the right to heap endless derision on whatever human microphone stand I deem unfit. I feel as though I've earned it.

Weighing Anchor(woman)

Two days before the new reality show Anchorwoman (dis?)graces the airwaves, swimsuit hottie turned serious newswoman Lauren Jones is hitting the publicity trail. Sadly, she has not returned my calls. That's a shame too - since, ostensibly, we both work for the same people. Sure, the former Barker's Beauty spent her thirty day news career at KYTX in Texas, but her real gig is deep within the entertainment wing of a certain global communications empire named after a small red mammal. I know what you're thinking: the very fact that I work for the same parent corporation that foists this alleged abomination on the viewing public will hinder me from expressing my true feelings, will stop me from being completely coy, will cause me to bite my tongue in appreciation of my bi-weekly stipend. Well ... you're right! For the most part, anyway.

Truth is I can't get too cranked-up over a reality show concept that is so clearly farcical. I mean, come on, who ever heard of a small market news director hiring some ditzy bombshell to front a newscast? That's just NUTS! Next thing, you'll tell me news anchors read their scripts out loud with the help of some crazy glass contraption. PFFT! Allright, so I'm cutting The Company some slack and not just because they once greenlit the Greatest TV Show Ever. No, I'm keeping my ire (or raves) to myself, at least until I lay eyes on a full episode. After all, this titillating foray into newsroom scandal could actually be high-brow satire. What better way to highlight all that's wrong with broadcast journalism than reduce its very players to human cartoons? Hell, throw in a caustic photog with literary ambitions and I"M THERE! Now, have I ever worked alongside such a creature - a person whose only job qualification was a dazzling 8X10 glossy - a overly-coiffed colleague whose contempt for viewers was dwarfed only by their collosal vanity - a co-worker whose deeply-seeded incompetence was excused only because they could melt the glass off a teleprompter from fifty paces???

I'm sorry, what was the question?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Here Comes the Pitch...

So there's this movie playing inside my head, one of those over-the-top action flicks starring a swashbuckling cameraman and a few wisecracking sidekicks. It's not so much a buddy flick'cause the protagonist is something of a loner. I haven't even caught his name yet, but everyone just seems to call him 'Photog'. Anyway, he's all Billy Bad-Ass when it comes to laptop editors and live trucks and such - but drop him in a fancy ballroom without his camera and he's just another mumbling schlub. I suspect deep down inside he may have super-powers but I haven't gotten that far yet. All I know is dude schleps from one glittering set-piece to the next; slingin' lenses and droppin' one-liners as crackheads, dirty cops and his own bellowing bosses propel him from cinematic adventure to the next. Toss in a sexy weather bunny and few slow-motion fireballs and you got 'Franchise', baby!

Let's just say it's trilogy for argument's sake. We could spend the first film setting up the characters at breakneck pace. You know, place a few key characters at the edge of peril, then dispatch our tortured hero there 'to put some eyes on it'. Once on scene, our leading lenslinger could do something heroic. I know - he could shoot exclusive video of a ghetto beatdown, then erase the tape to spare River City the inevitable riot! Or ... he could crash a hostage stand-off with lenses blazing, befuddle the bad guy while the counter girl escapes! How 'bout some a natural disaster? Send our princple into the teeth of a hurricane with an ailing sat truck and an ornery drama queen? Here's the thing though: No matter how our hero saves tHE day he never, ever, ever gets credit because - as we finally reveal in the last few minutes of Part 3, The Station is out to get him! Huh? Huh? Am I a genius or am I a genius?

O - Kay, you don't seem thrilled so let's switch gears. What say we make this little puppy The Feel Good Hit of the Year? You know, Friday Night Football Games, Independence Day Parades ... maybe toss some hapless pet poodle down a possibly toxic hole while our champ tracks a small town's uplifting fight to KEEP LITTLE FLUFFY ALIVE! Can't you just feel the tearful tension as a square-jawed cameraman risks life and limb to get the shot - shirtless, of course. Heck, I'm gettin' verklempt just thinking about it. Who knows how females 18-49 will respond once our Single Dad Photog zooms in on a bruised pooch, repentant drill instructor handicapped quarterback? I know, work in a love interest subplot with a grubby studio chick (one who cleans up well in Act Three) and you got a classic case of Dirtbag Love in the Land of the Pretty People! Forget the video rights, I smell Oscar!

Then again, we'll never get Denzel to play a photog ... Hey, here's what we can do: Make it a Raucous Comedy! God knows the photog life is rife with parody! You think 'Anchorman' was goofy? Knock down that newsgathering schtick a couple of paygrades and you got laughs by the carload! Speaking of which, let's saddle our addled lenser with a couple of reckless interns! Come on, nothin' says funny like bumbling assistants - especially if one's a petulant wedding shooter and the other's a bosomy foreign exchange student! Send that crew to a campus protest or underwater wedding and you'll get more box-office business than when that guy made a date out of that apple pie! Are you with me? NO? Well, Why Not?!? I got template-fitting scenarios that scream to be a feature film. Drop the genre and I'll pick it up and run, confident in the fact that no fiction can compete with what I've seen( with only one eye!) while running around, making news.

Still unimpressed? Okay, how's this: A network cameraman stows away on the space shuttle just as aliens descend on 30 Rock...

(Special Thanks to Gonzo Photog for the mental storyboarding.)