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Sohmer’s sonnets: Shakespeare scholar and big 3 promo man, his career resonates with winners

Dec 30, 2002  •  Post A Comment

If you think it was tough to promote a dog of a show like “Push, Nevada,” try pushing a series NBC put on back in the ’80s called “Buffalo Bill.”
“Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses come into [my office] one day in 1983, demanding to know how I’m going to promote their new series for the summer,” recalls ABC’s Steve Sohmer, the promotion maven whose job it was to get viewers to tune in to both “Push” and “Buffalo.” They said, “It’s a comedy. It’s called `Buffalo Bill.’ So I said, `How am I going to promote it? What’s the difference?’ They said, `What do you mean, what’s the difference?’ I said, `You’ve done a sitcom about a guy who hates women. He’s mean to women. He’s cruel to women. He talks down to women. He picks on women. How am I gonna get women to watch that? I’m a promotion guy, not a magician, for crying out loud.”’
Archie Bunker had been a bigot, but he wasn’t a misogynist. How tough was “Buffalo Bill”? Well, the theme song for the character and the show was “Hit the Road, Jack.” The series Sohmer was being asked to promote wasn’t a sitcom, it was a sarcastic black comedy at a time when shows such as “The Love Boat” and “Three’s Company” were big hits. In other words, it was doubtful that “Buffalo Bill” would be a mass appeal vehicle.
Buffaloed by a cream pie
“So they got huffy,” Sohmer remembers. “I said, `Wait a second. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, and I will open this show.’ We got a little old lady standing at the bus stop. And a guy comes over to her with a camera, like one of these interviews, sticks the microphone into the frame, and says, `Hey, lady. This summer would you like to watch reruns on TV or get a pie in the face?’ And the little old lady thinks a minute and says, `I’ll take the pie.’ Wham! They hit her with this big cream pie. Then the announcer comes in and says, `This summer there’s another alternative, called “Buffalo Bill.” It’s on NBC, it’s very funny and it stars Dabney Coleman and you’ll really enjoy it. And you don’t have to watch reruns.’ We cut back to the old lady, who’s wiping the cream off her face, and she says, `I wish I’d known about “Buffalo Bill.”
“The show opened with I think like a 35 share, or something like that, and the second week it was almost like it was not on television. We got ’em in the tent and then, boom, they were gone.”
Sohmer has a Ph.D. in getting people to tune into a show’s premiere. He’s Dr. Opening Night. And, amazingly, his hiring by ABC earlier this year means that he’s now held the top promotion position at each one of the Big 3 networks.
First up was CBS in the late ’70s, and the first series he ever launched was “Dallas.”
“I went into the pilot screening and [CBS Entertainment President} Bob Daly says to me, `What do you think?’ I said `It’s a hit.’ It was `Romeo and Juliet.’ I thought the pilot was terrific. [But] I wasn’t smart enough to know that that form would be such a vacuum cleaner on Friday night.
“[Later] we did `Who Shot J.R.?’ I did that promotion campaign. But you know, it’s really the guys on the show [who] came up with the idea. I just promoted it.”
Which proves a truism about the business, Sohmer says: “In this business you get a lot of credit for things you had very little to do with and you get blamed for things you had nothing to do with. You just gotta take it all in stride.”
One of those things you have to take in stride is when a show you like doesn’t make it.
“We had good shows that sometimes didn’t work,” Sohmer recalls. `”The White Shadow’ was one of them. I think it was before its time. And then we had terrible shows that didn’t work, like a comedy called `The Last Resort.’ We did a big promotion campaign, and nobody showed up. It was all about college kids working in the kitchen. I came away from that thinking, `Well, gee, Americans must hate college students.”’
One reason Sohmer keeps getting hired by the networks is that he’s extremely competitive and he’s not shy about controversial material. Take this story, also from his CBS days.
“We had `Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones.”’ Indeed, it was the success of that two-parter that inched CBS past ABC on the last night of the season.
“And I got in trouble, because without being authorized, I went out and bought big ads in a hundred newspapers. I realized that we were within hundredths of a ratings point of beating ABC, and I just was convinced that [the film] had hit the nail right on the head. If that hadn’t worked I would have been doing something else.
“[The film] said: `How could this happen?’ It raised the question which was on the minds of everybody in the world who knew about this. How could something like this happen? Nine-hundred people committing suicide is extraordinary.”
The promotion was a success and viewers came to the show in droves. “You never get any credit for this stuff,” Sohmer says. “But that’s OK. To tell you the truth, I don’t care. It was fun to do.”
L’affair Redgrave
And then there was another controversial movie CBS aired, called “Playing for Time.” Based on a true account, it starred Vanessa Redgrave in a story about a group of women concentration camp inmates who played music in Auschwitz in order to survive. “Redgrave had become somewhat controversial because she had gotten people’s noses out of joint,” Sohmer says.
That’s an understatement. Redgrave, who portrayed one of the Jewish inmate orchestra members in the film, incurred the wrath of a number of Jewish organizations, who said it was an insult to have her playing the part since Redgrave had made remarks that the organizations claimed were anti-Semitic.
“I [screened] the film,” Sohmer recalls, and “I thought it was absolutely brilliant. We did a major promotion campaign for this thing.”
As the Sunday airdate approached, Sohmer was visited by some of the protesters.
“I had some fancy paintings on my office in Television City in those days. And a couple of the guys came around and said, `I hope you’re going to take those down because there’s going to be a demonstration here this weekend.’ They said, `If these people get angry and break the windows, your pictures could get ruined.’ And I said, `I’m not going to let a mob force me to change my life.”’
Then, the kicker. Sohmer told the protesters in his office, “Don’t worry. I’m going to be here Sunday, anyhow. They said, `Are you working this weekend?’ I said, `No, you son of a bitch. I’m going to march.’ Because I thought it was inappropriate to give her the role. That was my personal opinion. I did march. I got it. I knew why people were angry about this, and I was sympathetic. She’s a wonderful actress, don’t get me wrong, but I was very sympathetic with people who felt deeply wounded about this.”
Did his bosses at CBS ever find out? “I didn’t get my picture taken [with the protesters], let’s put it that way,” Sohmer says.”
The next stop for Sohmer was NBC. There, right out of the box, he created a truly memorable promotional campaign. The show was “Taxi.”
“We had just picked up `Taxi’ from ABC,” Sohmer says. In one of the promos, “Judd Hirsch gets into a taxicab and he says, `Take me to NBC.’ So the driver says, `Why do you want to go there? They got nothing. I never watch them.’ So Hirsch says, `Well, wait a second, this year they’ve got “Taxi,”’ and he takes him through a few of the shows and he opens the cab driver’s mind, you might say.
“So, one of the NBC executives calls me on the phone and says, `Can I see some of the stuff you’re working on?’ I show him the promo with Judd Hirsch and the taxi. He says, `Oh my goodness, you’re not going to put that on the air, are you?’ I say, `Jeez, it’s been on the air for two weeks.”’
The promo was vintage Sohmer. As he likes to say, he always aims for “language dogs and cats can understand” and for “the kind of stuff that gets the audience in the kishkes.”
Another memorable campaign did for NBC was for the premiere of “The A-Team,” which was going up against ABC’ s monster hit “Happy Days.”
“The star of `The A-Team’ was
George Peppard, but the heat in the show was Mr. T,” Sohmer says. “So as I began to prepare the promos for that show, I found myself in something of a dilemma. I wanted to build a promotional campaign around someone who was not the lead. So I went over to see George Peppard, who, you know, depending on the day of the week could be your friend or punch you in the nose. I said to him, `I need you to help me with something. This is an 8 o’clock show, there’s a lot of young children and all that. I want to do promos with Mr. T.’ Peppard is now looking at me funny. So I said, `But the problem I have is Mr. T is not really a trained actor. I don’t know how to get the performance out of him.’ George says, `Well, why don’t you let me come and direct him?’ So we shot the promos with Mr. T directed by George Peppard.
“Since it was going against `Happy Days,’ we had Mr. T, with his little undershirt with the spaghetti straps, making muscles and saying, `Hey, Fonzie, your happy days are over.’ That’s in all the Hall of Fame reels and all. And `A-Team’ went in and just blew `Happy Days’ out of the time period.
“George Peppard was fine with it. He got it. We promoted him heavily once the show was on the air. “
But not all of the “A-Team” promos went so smoothly.
When we put Mr. T in TV Guide, dressed up like Uncle Sam – `I want you to watch `The A-Team’ – I got a lot of letters about that. People were offended by that. You can’t always figure.”
Another controversial promotion involved O.J. Simpson, who co-starred in the 1977 CBS movie “A Killing Affair.”
“In the promo, I had O.J. kiss Elizabeth Montgomery. And, jeez, the roof came in. The promo aired, and we got all kinds of letters, and the affiliates reported that they got all kinds of letters … but it was a long time ago.”
Favorite flop
Lest one thinks that all Sohmer does is create great campaigns for hit shows, Sohmer is actually acutely aware that most TV series flop. His favorite flop story?
“Hmm. There are a lot of them, but let me pick my favorite. Brandon Tartikoff and Jeff Sagansky came up with a show called `Manimal’ [at NBC in 1983]. [It was] about a fellow who could turn himself into different animals. I thought it was pretty clever.
“We did the most wonderful promo. [The show was scheduled to run] on Friday night against `Dallas.’ [So we put] an absolute dead-ringer J.R. lookalike [in a] swimming pool on one of those chairs that float in the water, talking on the phone, sipping a mint julep. He says, `Well, Bobby, I think we’ve got Friday night wrapped up again next year.’ Then comes music like `Jaws,’ and when we pan across the swimming pool, there’s a shark fin. And as he’s talking on the telephone, this shark comes out of nowhere – I mean a big shark – and devours him. I can’t quite remember the slogan, but it was that `Manimal’ was coming.
“I thought that was a screamingly funny breakthrough, good-natured, whatever you want to call it promo, and the show went on and nobody came. I mean nobody wanted to see the show. `Manimal’ was about as big a washout as you can get.”
Now after four years at Paxson Communications, Sohmer has joined ABC as executive VP of marketing, advertising and promotion.
And with almost no trace of irony, Sohmer, 61, points out that he is actually the archetypal ABC family man: only seven years out of college with two young kids (10 and 7) and a wife who works outside the home.
The wife in question just happens to be one of daytime TV’s enduring divas – Deidre Hall of NBC’s “Days of Our Lives.” And the two children are the result of matches made in modern-medical and surrogate heaven. It’s a story that the couple shared with People magazine readers and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” viewers and that Sohmer later turned into the TV movie “Never Say Never – the Deidre Hall Story,” starring – who else? – his wife.
And yes, Sohmer is actually just seven years out of college. The degree he earned in 1995 from Oxford University certified that he is able to really call himself “doctor,” and that he is officially schooled in the parsing of “Hamlet.”
Furthermore, Sohmer wrote the best-selling novel “Favorite Son,” which he turned into a hit miniseries for NBC in 1988. (The promo we would’ve loved to have seen but never did on that one: “Hi. I’m Steve Sohmer. Remember `Manimal’ and all that crap I told you to watch because it was so great? Yeah, I know. But listen, this Sunday we’re showing this great miniseries, `Favorite Son,’ which I wrote. It’s sorta like `The Manchurian Candidate,’ only better. Trust me on this one.” )
Vibrant is in
Soon after he was approached by a headhunter about the ABC job “I said to Deidre, I really want to do this thing because I think it’s a tremendous challenge. I’ve done two turnarounds and a start-up, all of them successful. If I could do this third major network turnaround, I’d really have a feather in my cap. I’d have the bragging rights till I was 100 years old.”
Fifteen minutes into the initial meeting with Sohmer, ABC’s top two programming executives, Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne, looked at each other, arched their brows and silently agreed they’d found their marketing Prince Charming. They felt certain Sohmer could help ABC out of the fourth-place ashes it had gotten itself into over a couple of bleak seasons, while at the same time play Yoda to a department of “really smart and talented people” who had a lot of seat-of-the-pants training but who could use some of what Braun calls Sohmer’s “experience and gravitas.”
“He had a marketing mind unlike any Susan and I had experienced,” said Braun, who calls the hire “clearly one of the most important Susan and I were going to make” and one that had to be made in time to have maximum impact on the launch of ABC’s fall lineup.
Thus far, ABC’s – and Sohmer’s – success has been a mixed bag.
Coming up, Sohmer is rushing to oil ABC’s midseason promotional machine, which will tout more premieres than in last September’s lineup. Among the tentpoles: the Jan. 26 Super Bowl, which is the relaunch pad for sophomore “Alias” and the launch pad for freshmen “Dragnet” and “Miracles”; “The Bachelorette,” “Bachelor III,” “Celebrity Mole” and “I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here”; plus the Oscars, two late-season comedies and the network’s 50th anniversary celebration in May.
With ABC’s prime-time branding makeover completed – yellow and black is out, vibrant colors are in – it’s time to think about an ABC anniversary logo.
“We’re going to have a new little golden meatball, I guess they call it,” said Dr. Sohmer.
What? No kishkes?