Open Mic

April 2012

Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the Bachelors, the Pawn Stars and All the Rest: Reality Gurus on How to Stand Out in a Crowded Field

Hillary Atkin Posted April 30, 2012 at 7:23 AM

Host Tom Bergeron uttered words that would not normally come out of his mouth on "Dancing with the Stars" during an insightful panel discussion on reality television.

Seems that a bit of unplanned reality disrupted the proceedings at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society's Unscripted Hitmakers luncheon at the Beverly Hilton on April 26.

The fire alarm and strobe lights went off in the hotel’s nearly-at-capacity International Ballroom as Bergeron sat on stage with the people behind some of television’s most successful reality programs.

Mike Fleiss of “The Bachelor,” Conrad Green of "Dancing with the Stars," Eli Holzman of "Undercover Boss," Kris Jenner of "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," Brent Montgomery of "Pawn Stars" and Bertram van Munster of "The Amazing Race" were in the midst of discussing their respective shows when they were interrupted by what at first seemed like a stunt worthy of a reality show.

Several dozen people made their way quickly to the exits -- but most stayed put -- as moderator Bergeron tried to assess the situation, which included a PA announcement that the commotion was in fact a fire alarm. With an expletive, the experienced host urged everyone to stay, and it turns out he was right. In short order, the PA system declared that it was indeed a false alarm.

"The headline: Idiot reality people don't leave burning building," Bergeron said, to laughter from the crowd.

What is in fact a bit alarming to those on stage was that ratings have leveled off for reality shows as the genre enters middle age -- or at least teenage-hood -- and producers search for new ideas.

"Competitive shows require a huge audience,” said Green. "It's concerning because such shows rely on being special. It's crowded. The stronger ones will survive, but the challenge is to innovate."

Bergeron asked Jenner, whose family lives not only with camera crews but in the glare of an intense media spotlight, whether there is a line that cannot be crossed.

"We won't do bathroom shots," she said. "We let it all hang out. We're strong personalities and we let it fly. I stop myself from editing. That's what makes it successful."

She noted that the program only shows 22 minutes out of a 24-hour period of moments in the lives of 12 people. "If there's a crazy moment, we see smiles on the faces of the crew,” she said, revealing that the family actually feels strange when they are not around. "I'm always patting my chest to see if a mic is on,” Jenner revealed.

"There's enough weird stuff that comes out of people naturally to keep it interesting," said Fleiss of "The Bachelor" series. "Just look at the number of people who come away heartbroken. It's incredibly high."

As for other low points, he admitted that the season shot in New York was not one of its best, that the main participant was inebriated much of the time and that the crew was burnt out.

"I feel that the audience could sense that, and moving forward, we had more sincere participants, both on and off camera," he said.

Casting is always a key issue for unscripted programs, and for shows like “Dancing” it's a nearly constant process. "The key is the feel of each cast. The danger is homogenizing it," said Green. "We are looking for marquee booking. We have the opportunity to change 12 faces."

"If I don't have a good cast, I have nothing,” said van Munster of “The Amazing Race.” He continually lauded CBS's support of his award-winning program, which wins the Emmy in the reality category almost like clockwork.

CBS has also been successful with "Undercover Boss," whose producer Holzman is launching “The Pitch” on AMC, being promoted during its acclaimed drama “Mad Men.”

"It's hard work. We embedded filmmakers into the offices," Holzman said of the program, which pits advertising agencies against each other to win a prized account. He said he's working on a new show about turning a home recipe into a supermarket product based upon his own experiences with a dessert treat.

"Are you taking jobs away from actors?," Bergeron asked of his panel -- a notion they almost uniformly laughed off, with some positing that the reality genre may have even served to make dramas better in what many have termed a new golden age of television.

"It's a misconception that you don't work as hard [as dramatic actors]," Jenner said, and Fleiss agreed, citing the long hours. "Every person has a strong work ethic and our show employs hundreds of people,” said Jenner.” It makes me feel good -- and we’re having the time of our lives."

Proving once again that it takes a lot to keep up with the Kardashians.

CBS's Most Valuable Employee for the Last 40 Years Is on the Mend After a Heart Attack and Bypass Surgery. He Cannot Wait to Get Back to Work. How a Modest Gentleman Has Risen to the Top, Thriving in the Shark-Infested Waters That Are the TV Business

Chuck Ross Posted April 25, 2012 at 10:55 AM

Lionel Trilling, the wonderful teacher of literature, in trying to articulate the greatness of Chekhov, wrote, “Whoever tries to account for the peculiar charm of Chekhov’s work will sooner or later touch upon a certain personal trait of the author … modesty.”

When one thinks of the history of top CBS executives over the last 40 years -- Paley, Stanton, Wyman, Tisch, Stringer, Karmazin, Redstone and Moonves -- modest is not the word to describe any of them.

But modest is actually a fitting adjective to describe the one man who, I would argue, has been the most important CBS employee over the 40-year time span those executives were -- or are -- at CBS.

This employee first joined the network in 1969, and over the years has been responsible for market research, advertising research, program testing and audience measurement. Bottom line, TV is a business and CBS has thrived over the years by raking in billions of dollars in this business. So, bottom line, if one is responsible for market research, advertising research, program testing and audience measurement -- the latter being the currency that allows CBS to make the money it does -- then that person, arguably, is CBS’s most valuable employee.

That person is David Poltrack.

Many of us have been shocked to learn that the ageless Poltrack -- truly CBS’s Iron Man -- suffered a heart attack several weeks ago. Fortunately, he received treatment in a timely fashion -- a triple bypass -- and is eager to return to work. Said CBS in a statement to TVWeek, “Dave is doing very well. His recovery is going great and he looks forward to getting back to work as soon as his doctor gives him the green light. He expresses gratitude to all who have reached out to inquire about his progress.”

Not only is Poltrack modest, he’s a gentleman. And in any gathering of people in the TV business, he’s usually the smartest person in the room. He’s the secret weapon of Les Moonves, Nina Tassler and Jo Ann Ross, and I’d be surprised if any of them would not say so themselves.

Most folks who do quantitative analysis like Poltrack does are usually the bane of those in the creative community. But I’ve never met any creative executive who does not like Poltrack.

That’s because, by nature, Poltrack is a teacher and a mentor. He’s both a terrific listener and explainer. Remember the brainiac friend with the seemingly infinite amount of patience you always went to in school who could really make clear to you the arithmetic or algebra or geometry problem you couldn’t understand? That’s Dave.

In his spare time -- and I’ve never known anyone who works as hard as Poltrack, so I’ve never understood how he’s had any spare time -- he’s an Adjunct Professor at New York University. Has been for years. He’s taught marketing at the grad schools at NYU and Columbia and is a visiting professor at a grad school in Beijing and God knows where else.

He genuinely loves helping people learn. So for any reporter on the TV beat who wants to have the intricacies of measurement explained to him or her, Poltrack has always taken the time to explain those intricacies. He’s certainly made me an infinitely better reporter.

And he’s someone who’s always been right on top of the latest trends and the newest tools.

For example, check out this account of a public appearance Poltrack made just this past December. It’s by Bill Niemeyer, who writes about digital media for The Diffusion Group:

“CBS Chief Research Officer David Poltrack spoke at the UBS Media and Communications Conference on Monday and said (as reported by Multichannel News), ‘... a viewer streaming our program online is now worth substantially more to us than a person watching that program in playback mode and skipping many of the commercials. ... In fact, the value of the online viewer is now surpassing that of the live viewer as well. Poltrack added (as reported by MediaPost), ‘This is a significant tipping point.’

“Wow -- quite an observation coming from someone who's been the CBS research chief for 17 years. And he's right, this is a tipping point. It's no longer a question of whether online and other digital platforms like OTT can monetize video content better than TV (at least on a per-viewer basis); it's now a question of how fast can business practices and consumer behavior change to leverage this knowledge.

“How did CBS get to this tipping point? While widely known that online runs of primetime broadcast TV shows generate higher CPMs than live TV runs, the total revenue generated per show has been lower for online due to its lower ad loads. Poltrack says that CBS is now running 10-14 ads/hour for online programming, much greater than the 5-6 ads/hour when CBS and the other big four broadcast nets first started showing episodes online. And a lot lower than the nominal 32/hour of national ads, local ads, and promos seen in live TV.”

Poltrack has also made the astute observation that one of the effects of the Internet and social media is that if someone suggests or insists you watch some TV program they like or love, there’s a good chance you can watch it right then, online.

Over the years Poltrack has been quoted thousands of times. In a real sense, when it comes to talking about measurement and TV, Dave Poltrack is a brand unto himself.

But what none of all those words about Poltrack captures is the measure of the man. In Yiddish we’d say Poltrack is a mensch. Leo Rosten in his “Joys of Yiddish” says a mensch is "someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being 'a real mensch' is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous."

Over the years, as various executives at CBS may have yelled and screamed and demanded this and commanded that, after all the histrionics have ended, they’ve turned to Dave, the dignified, quiet one in the room, and listened to his smart, sober, realistic assessments, and have acted accordingly.

One of my favorite writers, Somerest Maugham, once wrote the following about one of his characters. I’ve altered the quote a bit. It equally applies to Dave Poltrack: “The man I am writing about is not famous. It may be that he never will be. It may be that when his life comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. But it may be that the particular strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever growing influence over his fellow man so that it will be realized that there lives in this age a very remarkable creature.”

Dave, thank you for being the remarkable person you are. Get well soon and get back to CBS. Between you and me, what’s true today has been true for the past forty-three years -- they wouldn’t know what to do without you.

Dave Poltack.bmp

'Of course, you won't be able to lie on your back for a while, but then you can lie from any position, can't you?' Sparkling Dialogue, Wonderful Films. It's the TCM Classic Film Festival, Part 2

Chuck Ross Posted April 13, 2012 at 6:59 AM

That line above is from “Charade,” the movie wherein Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant sparred in the best example of a romantic comedy meeting a mystery thriller since Nick Charles hooked up with Nora.

Written by Peter Stone and directed by Stanley Donen, “Charade” (1963) is usually compared to the movies made by Alfred Hitchcock. That may be because Grant had starred in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” five years earlier.

But “Charade” is much closer in tone to the wonderfully fun Thin Man movies, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. In those films the dialogue -- often written by France Goodrich and Albert Hackett -- crackled.

Bright dialogue is a hallmark of Stone, who was a playwright as well as a screenwriter.

The best anecdote about “Charade” was told by Stone in a commentary he made for the Criterion Collection release of the film in 1999. Stone says he originally wrote “Charade” as a screenplay, but could not find a studio interested in making it. So he turned the screenplay into a novel, and sold an excerpt to Redbook magazine. The next thing Stone knew, studios were tripping over each other trying to convince Stone that each of them would be the best place to make the movie.

Besides Grant and Hepburn, the killer cast includes Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass.

“Charade” will be on the big screen on Sunday, part of the third annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.

Since I mentioned Hitchcock above, a must-see on the big screen is the TCM Festival’s presentation of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) today, April 13, 2012. One of Hitchcock’s most intricate works, I am among many who consider it his best movie. The movie also has the most nuanced performance Jimmy Stewart ever gave, the best score Bernard Herrmann ever wrote, and the best title sequence Saul Bass ever created. Robert Burks, who won an Academy Award for his cinematography for Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief,” wasn’t even nominated for this film, though the look of "Vertigo" is exquisite.

I also would urge you to check out “Raw Deal” (1948) at the Festival. It’s one of the tough, hard-as-nails B-movies that define the film noir genre. It was shot by John Alton, the cinematographer whose work on a handful of movies helped create the look of film noir. Somehow, almost magically, it appears that he just turned on the camera in shot after shot in this movie, with no artificial lights set up anywhere. And the story is terrific too, with both Claire Trevor and Marsha Hunt vying for the affection of con Dennis O’Keefe. It’s one of several film noirs that Anthony Mann directed at the beginning of his career.

These are just a few of the remarkable movies that will be shown at the TCM Festival through Sunday. Others include “Chinatown,” “Trouble in Paradise, “Seconds,” “Fall Guy,” “The Scarlett Empress,” “Black Narcissus,” “Letter From an Unknown Woman” and "Gun Crazy," which originally had the wonderfully evocative title "Deady Is the Female" with the tagline "Nothing Deadlier is Known to Man."   

Thank you TCM for letting us see these gems on the big screen.#

Theater, Cigarettes, Sex and Cinema. A Brilliant Movie Is Revived. The TCM Classic Movie Festival, Part 1

Chuck Ross Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:16 AM

In the annals of film history, 1972 will forever be associated with “The Godfather,” Francis Ford Coppola’s huge popular and critical success. The movie won the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year, and rightfully so.

And yet. For only the second time in history, the director -- in this case Coppola -- who had nabbed the Director’s Guild's top prize for Best Director did not also win the Academy Award for Best Direction.

That prize went to Bob Fosse for directing the musical “Cabaret.” And oddly enough, that was also rightfully so.

Of course it seems absurd that the director of a film that wins Best Picture does not also win Best Director.

My contention is that “The Godfather” and “Cabaret” probably both should have won Best Picture Oscars that year.

In the past 40 years there in no doubt that “The Godfather” has remained a pop culture icon, and its influence continues today.

The movie version of “Cabaret,” on the other hand, if not almost entirely forgotten, is certainly not in the same league as “The Godfather” in our culture, high or low.

And yet. It is one of a handful of films that I would say are brilliant. Just as “The Godfather” transcends the gangster genre to speak to bigger issues about America, “Cabaret” is a musical like no other, as it transcends the genre to become a fascinating portrait of pre-World War II Berlin and a statement about decadence and where that can lead.

The movie of “Cabaret” takes place in Germany, beginning in 1931. It’s about a nightclub performer, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), and the characters who populate her world, as the Nazis are getting stronger and stronger.

All of the musical numbers, save one, are performed in the cabaret, where Joel Grey is the emcee.

Cinematography and film editing are two hallmarks of “The Godfather.” Likewise, the photography of Geoffrey Unsworth and the film editing of David Bretherton are equally memorable in “Cabaret.”

Another thing I’ve read over the years is that both “The Godfather” and “Cabaret” were projects that were not easy to put together, despite the fact that “The Godfather” was based upon a mega-bestselling novel and “Cabaret” was based upon a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.

Neither Coppola nor Fosse was first choice to direct their respective films. Nor were they the second or third choices either.

And the problems making the films didn’t stop there.

Coppola, for example, had huge fights with the studio executives over casting particularly, as they wanted Ernest Borgnine to play Don Corelone instead of Marlon Brando.

Fosse, for instance, was not pleased with the script by Jay Presson Allen, and brought in a friend of hers, Hugh Wheeler, for a rewrite. Furthermore, the initial preview screening of “Cabaret” was a bust, so the movie was re-edited before release.

One of the big surprises I had a number of years after “Cabaret” came out was seeing the stage production for the first time. The stage musical of “Cabaret” is not nearly as good as the movie version. Fosse, who also directed the original Broadway production back in 1966, clearly saw a vision of how he could use the medium of film to make “Cabaret” a far richer work of art. Part of that included having the team that wrote the songs for the stage musical--John Kander and Fred Ebb--deemphasize some songs in the movie version, while including some addional songs. Another part of that vision was going back to the source material that the stage musical was based upon: Christopher Isherwood's "Berlin Stories," and "I Am a Camera," a play--by John Van Druten--based on Isherwood's stories.

Another distinguishing feature of “The Godfather” is the vivid performances Coppola elicited from Brando, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Richard Castellano and the rest of the cast. Likewise, Fosse was able to draw out dazzling performances from Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem and other players in the movie. It’s by far the best Minnelli or York has been on the silver screen.

"Cabaret ended up winning eight Oscars--the most a movie has ever won that was not also named Best Picture.

Unlike Coppola, who’s made many movies, the chain-smoking Fosse -- who died in 1987 at age 60 -- only made five movies. Besides “Cabaret,” his autobiographical film “All That Jazz” is also a must-see.

The great Italian movie maker Federico Fellini once said, according to Vanity Fair, that his movies, like his life, could be summed up in “circus, spaghetti, sex and cinema.” For Fosse it would be in theater, cigarettes, sex and cinema.

Tonight, April 12, 2012, in Hollywood, at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, you can see a restored “Cabaret,” at the opening event of the third annual TCM Classic Film Festival. It’s well worth the effort to try and see it on the big screen.

Also scheduled to be shown tonight at the TCM movie jubilee is a wonderfully gritty film noir standard that rarely plays on the big screen. From 1948, it’s “Criss Cross,” starring Burt Lancaster in an early role that mesmerizes. His co-star is Yvonne De Carlo, best known to TV audiences as the mother in “The Munsters.” Here she’s the treacherous femme fatale monster. Also on board is the prodigious Dan Duryea, whose nasty roles were a noir staple. The heist in this picture is still one of the best ever captured on celluloid, and the movie’s director, Robert Siodmak, is one who should be much better known. A lot of film noirs, in my experience, fall apart at the end. This is one ending, however, that doesn’t disappoint or betray this fatalistic genre.

This is TCM’s third go-round presenting a film festival of classic movies here in L.A. Two years ago I saw a sumptuous print of “Sweet Smell of Success,” (1957) which contains Lancaster’s best role. Last year I had a lot of fun seeing, for the first time on the big screen, the remarkable “Dodsworth” (1936) starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor.

I’m not sure which movie or movies I’ll see at the festival in the next few days, but TCM has really outdone itself with its expanded offerings this year. In tomorrow’s column I’ll write about some of the other gems at this grand TCM moviefest.

In a Career That Spanned the History of TV Itself, Mike Wallace Became the Medium's Best Reporter and Best Interviewer. How He Came to Develop His Interview Style. Some Early Examples of the Bulldog Unchained

Chuck Ross Posted April 9, 2012 at 9:32 AM

"I’m Mike Wallace and the cigarette is Philip Morris." With that introduction every Sunday night on ABC at 10:30 p.m., the nation was introduced to interviews by a TV reporter like no other. The interviews were so different, in fact, from most interviews on TV at the time that the program carried the name “The Mike Wallace Interview.” The show ran on ABC from April 1957 through September 1958. The program then ran another two years in syndication with more original interviews.

In his 2005 memoir “Between You and Me” (co-written with Gary Paul Gates), Wallace, who died at age 93 on April 7, 2012, wrote about the origins of the show. It started in December 1956. At the time Wallace was anchoring the local 11 p.m. news on Channel 5 in New York City. His producer, Ted Yates, came up with an idea for a local interview show that Yates had named “Night Beat.”
“ ‘Night Beat’ was a radical departure from the usual pablum of radio and television interviews,” Wallace wrote in his memoir. “We agreed that, properly primed with solid research, I would ask our guests the kinds of questions that folks in the TV audience might ask for themselves if they had the chance: nosy, irreverent, often confrontational. Within just a couple of months, we knew we were on to something special. The viewers told us so, the TV critics did the same, and best of all, the famous and infamous figures of the time -- politicians, tycoons, entertainers, athletes, just about everyone of any consequence in New York, it seemed -- wanted the chance to test themselves against our role-playing arrogance.”
Within six months ABC offered Wallace and Yates the chance to take the show national. “In making the jump from a local program to the showcase of a coast-to-coast broadcast, Ted Yates and I were determined to maintain the candid, sometime combative style we’d introduced on ‘Night Beat,’” Wallace wrote.
But some of the element of surprise was gone. Wallace says the press was already calling him such names as “Mike Malice” and “The Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition.”
Most TV shows of the era of “The Mike Wallace Interview” are no longer around to be seen today. But soon after the series ended its run, Wallace had the foresight to donate a number of interviews from the show’s first two seasons to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

And you and I have the good fortune that those 65 shows in the collection -- 60 kinescopes and 5 audio tapes -- are available, for free, 24/7, on the Internet here. Wallace says in his memoir that “Of all the interviews I did in that long-ago era of black-and-white television, none was more stimulating for me than my conversations with the grand old man of architecture -- Frank Lloyd Wright.” Wright was 88 years old at the time.

Here's an excerpt of that interview -- which can be found here in its entirety -- that Wallace quotes in his memoir.

MIKE WALLACE: What do you think of church architecture in the United States?
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT: I think it’s a great shame.
WALLACE: Because it improperly reflects the idea of religion?
WRIGHT: Because it’s a paragon-monkey reflection and not a reflection of religion.
WALLACE: Well, when I walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral -- and I’m not a Catholic -- but when I walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral here in New York City, I am enveloped in a feeling of reverence.
WRIGHT: Sure it isn’t an inferiority complex?
WALLACE: Just because the building is big and I’m small, you mean? Ah -- I think not.
WRIGHT: I hope not.
WALLACE: You feel nothing when you go into St. Patrick’s?
WRIGHT: Regret.
WALLACE: Because of what?
WRIGHT: Because it isn’t the thing that really represents the spirit of independence and the sovereignty of the individual. Which I feel should be represented in our edifices devoted to culture.

Another of the Wallace interviews in the Ransom collection worth watching is one with the great silent movie actress Gloria Swanson. Seven years before the interview Swanson had made her great comeback in “Sunset Boulevard,” and by the time of the interview, she was once again out of the public eye. It’s as hard-hitting an interview as any actor has had to endure, and Swanson doesn’t flinch at any of the uncomfortable jabs with which Wallace hits her. Take a look here.

One of the more uncanny thoughts that will likely strike you watching these early Mike Wallace interviews is how much he reminds you of his son, Chris Wallace, who has followed his dad’s footsteps in the pointed interviews he does every Sunday morning on the Fox News Channnel.

And don’t miss the Ransom Center interview Wallace did with 12-year-old Leonard Ross (no relation to me).You can find it here. You’ve most likely never heard of Leonard Ross. The intro to his interview on the Ransom Center website says, “Leonard Ross, a 12-year-old California school boy who won a total of $164,000 on the game shows ‘The Big Surprise’ and ‘The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Challenge,’ by answering questions about the stock market, talks to Wallace about the effects of quiz shows on children, school, politics, eggheads, spanking, mothers, and Santa Claus.”

To Wallace’s credit, he doesn’t alter his bulldog, attack style when talking to the child prodigy. Talking down to Ross would have been an embarrassment.  
Sadly, Ross ended up committing suicide at age 39. He had been suffering from severe depression.
Ironically, severe depression also struck Wallace, who later talked about the disease and his own suicide attempt in 1986, a scant year after Ross had committed suicide.
In these early interviews one sees how Wallace perfected his interview style that became the hallmark of his pieces on "60 Minutes."
As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, “The Mike Wallace Interview” was sponsored by Philip Morris, and Wallace would do commercials for the cigarette maker.
Said Wallace in his memoir, “Even after ‘The Mike Wallace Interview’ went off the air, I continued to do commercials for Philip Morris because, frankly, they were a lucrative source of income during a period when I was bouncing from one job to another. When I finally extricated myself form them in the fall of 1962, my decision had nothing to do with cancer or any other health concern.”
What happened is that Wallace wanted to get into network news, and he could not do that and still be a commercial pitchman.
Later, at “60 Minutes,” Wallace became intimately entangled in reporting on the dangers of smoking. The resulting episode, “Up in Smoke,” and the controversy surrounding it was made into the 1999 feature film “The Insider,” starring Al Pacino as then “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman, and Christopher Plummer as Wallace.  
We’ll give Wallace the last word, as he comments, in his memoir, about the casting in the movie:
“[E]ven though Al Pacino played a very good Al Pacino, I didn’t recognize much of Lowell Bergman in his rendition. As for Christopher Plummer’s performance, let me just says that it’s not the worst thing in the world to see yourself portrayed on the silver screen by a handsome and urbane Canadian who has been hailed as the most gifted classical actor in North America. I may not know much about how they make movies in Hollywood, but I do know enough to recognize typecasting when I see it.”