Saturday, September 13, 2014

I Have Seen The Future And It's Deathly Quiet

September 13, 2014
   Thanks to PR person, Leslie Bay, I got a TV gig this morning at Channel 3 in Phoenix to promote "The 66 Kid." I Left the house at seven and landed at their impressive studios on Seventh Avenue south of Bethany Home Road at 7:45. This isn't my first rodeo and I know the drill, and I have to say I hate the door code bit, especially on the weekend when there is no receptionist in the lobby, but managed to finagle my way in (two previous guests—hopelessly good looking male and female body builders—were coming out and I scooted in past the first locked doors).

   Knowing how slammed morning show producers can be I decided to take a chance and brought along one of my new pop up banners. It comes in a nice carrying case. The guy who opened the door asked me if I played guitar. Ha.

My Pop-up banner, at left, used at the last history dinner at Cartwrights in Cave Creek

   The first time I can remember being in a TV studio was probably in about 1978 when I was allowed to go and take pictures at Channel 12 in Phoenix. I wrote a column called Scoops, in New Times and someone at the paper managed to get me a behind the scenes pass, although in those days it was much looser in terms of security. Billy Jo Guinn changed all that when he simply walked in Channel 10 and held the news team hostage and demanded they read his maniacal manifesto on the air (The crusty anchor, Bill Close did). Picture Ted Baxter reading the musings of Andy Kaufman and you'll get the picture.

   But what was amazing is that the behind-the-scenes at Channel 12 in those days was pretty impressive, especially all the people it took to put on the news. First there was a news assignment room on another floor, full of desks and editors and reporters running around, phones ringing, people yelling. Gene McLain (sic) flipped me off when I took a photo of him typing up his report. And, he was probably smoking as well. There were make-up people, key grips, and in the actual studio lots of cameramen and their assistants, manhandling the huge cameras, two to a camera, with key grips and technicians running everywhere. Then, as the director counted down very loudly, everything quieted down and a hush fell over studio as the talent did their thing. It was literally like watching a three-ring-circus perform. Everyone knew their job and they jostled and fought to get it right.

  All of this flashed through my mind this morning as a guy named Scott came out to the lobby and told me to follow him. We went through two sets of doors and hung a right, going down a short hallway with a big sign at the end with the Channel 3 logo and the words BIG studio (they actually have it styled like that with capital letters: the BIG studio). We went through another set of doors and there we were in a very big, but very quiet room. It wasn't just quiet though, it had an eerie silence, almost an unsettling silence because parked along the front of the studio were a whole row of massive machines (transformer looking cameras), five feet high standing in a row like in a show room. This is in a room that is about as big as half a basketball gymnasium. There are only two people in the entire space that I can see. One is a female anchor sitting at the anchor desk—looking small and lonely—apparently getting ready for the next news break. There are no cameramen, no lighting people, no make-up people, no grips, no crew to be seen, except Scott who talks constantly on his head set (one of those barely visible ones that are translucent and fit in the ear with a little noodle of a microphone that arcs toward the mouth). The other person, over in a far corner, turns out to be a weather "girl" who steps out from behind a big wall and stands pensively in front of a green screen. It is so bizarre to see her do the weather, gesturing towards the blank green screen and taking her cues by watching a small monitor off camera that shows her where all the towns and temperature numbers are on the blank screen she is pointing at. She is performing this to nobody who is visible. Once again there is no cameraman behind her camera, no director, no set person, no techies of any kind. She is doing her bit all by her lonesome.

   Scott sets up my interview space. Thank goodness I brought the pop-up banner because we would have done the interview against a blank wall. I help him cart out two chairs and a table. Scott is doing everything, and it is incredible to me he has no crew of any kind to help him.

   "One minute to air," he says both in the head set and pointing to an anchorman named Ryan who has wandered in and asks me how to pronounce my name. It is obvious he has no clue who I am. Ryan and I sit on high chairs and Scott talks to—I assume—the unseen control room, which is allegedly in another building but for all we know it's in another town, possibly even in another country. We never hear them (in the old days, the studio was equipped with an intercom and some booming voice would come on, bellowing orders). At about thirty seconds before air, two of the cameras on the line start to move out and turn, gliding towards us. I can't say they "came to life" because there was no sound, no beeping or clanking noises, they both come to us silently with precision and a fluid, other-worldly effortlessness. They stopped about five feet apart and the cameras turned into position, focussing silently, as Scott counted us down to the interview.

   Five minutes later I am packing up my stuff to leave. Scott is off to stage another setup, all by his lonesome.

   I couldn't help but think of all the people these machines have replaced. Those self-regulating cameras don't take smoke breaks, they don't leave for lunch and they don't demand overtime or pensions. And they are breathtakingly efficient.

   As I left I said to the three on-camera people, "You're next." They didn't even laugh, because, well, it isn't all that funny.

"Somewhere up ahead were towns where he had never been, country he had never seen. The trail stretched out before him, a line of possibilities worn in the sand."
—Louis L'Amour, The Trail to Seven Pines (1951)