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Friday, July 23, 2010

Wing Nut Commander!

Wing Nut Commander! 
A tale from my days peddling trinkets on TV...

 I am standing on the convention center floor in Anaheim, California, drinking a huge cup of coffee, bracing myself for yet 
another round of presentations to groups of white men, all Cable Television executives from someplace in America.  I am resplendent in black suede high heels, shooting me up to 5'9" and my scrumptious red wool double-breasted Tahari pant suit, that just reeks of power. My hair is perfectly coifed in a pageboy, my make-up is absolutely flawless, I am Executive! -- and doing quite a splendid impression of one. 

Centrally located in this colossal arena is a slightly scaled down version of the Sleeping Beauty Castle from Disneyland which rumors are, has cost the brand new Disney Channel over $40,000 in 1987 dollars.  This is the largest Cable Television Programmers Convention to date, with over 200 hopeful exhibitors.  The objective at this event is to lure local cable system operators into your booth, who have come here from everywhere in the Untied States, and convince them to carry your programming.

This is the Rock ’n Roll era of Cable TV and systems are no longer limited to a dozen or even 20 channels.  Over 50 million households in the United States will be subscribing to cable television by the end of the year. That’s a whole lotta eyeballs.  This is the beginning of the end of Broadcast Network domination. (Read -- Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost their way by Ken Auletta, which tells the whole story rather nicely.)

I’m on a break, watching the traffic between two competing booths, The Comedy Channel and Ha!  Both claim to be the funniest.  Ha! has better buttons.  The Comedy Channel has a better-looking booth and twice as many sales reps circulating the floor.  Down the aisle, I see The Crazy Eddie Channel, run by an old friend from my Pay Television Days.  These Brooklyn guys look completely out of place and their booth, if you can call it that, is kind of pathetic.  They have no idea what they are doing in this very orthodox American crowd. HBO, an early front-runner, has the cleanest-cut crew of the bunch and a very slick presentation.  Our booth is just o.k. with it’s patriotic hues and quasi-military style. We have regional sales representatives with name like Dottie and Ginger, which in my constricted New York Metro Jewish Suburban experience, is more likely to be the name of a beloved pet. 

If you’ve never been to a Cable Television Programmers convention or any other industry convention, in brief, it’s a whole bunch of people checking out their competition, luring their targets upstairs to private suites where they pitch their product after plying them with very good alcohol and food, and then try to close the deal.  The sale force minions act like barkers at a carnival, circulating on the floor, reporting in random rumors from who knows where, and setting up the 20 minute appointments for the assault upstairs with the heavy hitters like me, suited up for the occasion, -- although no one else dared to wear red. 

We did not have as expansive a budget as Disney and I frankly wasn’t that keen on our own booth’s theme, which reflected our Institutional Advertising campaign we had created in a knee-jerk response to having immediately kill another much more effective one that had been running for months.  Our theme was based on the Air Force, how we would be your system’s Wing Commander – navigating you to money making opportunities if you carried our programming. Lame.

The original campaign featured the Shopping Service transformed into an ATM Machine (newly fangled at that time) spewing cash to cable system operators with a multi-million dollar number indicated on the front that had been paid to date to those who had been smart enough to affiliate.  My team had come up with this concept, which included a 4-color die-cut glossy piece for the sales reps to use in the field. With a black plate change, I could alter the dollar amount as we continued to pay out millions in commissions. I would check my numbers with the President of the company intermittently to try and keep it current.  

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your perspective, the new eagle-eyed head of our legal department upon seeing this asked me nonchalantly where I got my numbers from.  When I told him, he turned pale and ran back to his office.  Ten minutes later he called and told me to kill the campaign.  “Why?” I entreated.  

Because, he said, Mr. President had been making the numbers up.  Oops. 

What had begun as a local Florida shopping service with 4 fulfillment outlets, where consumers could pick up their merchandise, sold by Budget Bob and others, on a local cable service and with some spotty carriage in the Southeast; had metastasized by the end of 1987 into a National service available in over 40 million homes.

The way this worked, was that if you carried our programming, you received a commission based on sales revenue from your cable subscribers. So imagine -- you are Jack Smith and you are the manager of Comcast West Orange, New Jersey (my home town) with 50,000 subscribers.  Every time your subscriber Mary Jones or her Aunt Sarah bought something from us, you made a percentage of the sale.  We paid you, Jack Smith, to carry our programming.  In return, you ran the customized promotional spots we provided, directing your subscribers to the appropriate channel on your system and allowed us to drop inserts into your cable bills.

My job was to create these puppies as well as supervise our very first National Advertising Campaign, the efforts of two very well-known advertising agencies, one on each coast, for which we had budgeted over $40,000,000.   Yes, I was responsible for spending over $40 million.

My assignment at this Cable Convention was to pitch this advertising campaign to the various executives, senior managers and subordinate staff that came upstairs to our suite.  That meant I was to re-enact both the television spots and radio commercials as well as show the layout and samples for several collateral pieces, cross channel video promos we had created in-house. (I had a staff of 24 people based in Florida to supervise as well.)  I was the advertising shill and shill I did. By the end of this two-day craziness I had my first and only ever case of laryngitis but had racked up a serious collection of “Atta Girls*” by my boss, one of the rarified breed of very smart cable television executives out of Denver.  

* Heretofore known as Atta Boy, the penultimate compliment from a boss to a subordinate, by a generation of men who weren‘t sure what to make of us, so we wore suits to calm them down.

The last presentation of the show, with my voice reduced to a scratchy whistle, I took the storyboards in hand, just one more time and took my audience through a campaign which revolved around “ Don’t bother me, I’m shopping!”

The premise of which, was that our programming was so compelling, that even a bride, about to walk down the aisle, would delay her wedding to take advantage of some unseen bargain on her television. The campaign never happened for many complicated reasons, but that is not so unusual. The company still managed to gross $750 million dollars that year, up from the $10 million made the year before.  And I, in my fabulous red suit, helped.

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