C.J. Hirschfield: Ringmaster of the Western Show

Dec 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

For many years C.J. Hirschfield was the Western Show, at least behind the scenes. She worked with the California Cable Television Association in 1980 as an independent contractor producing a documentary on the legislative process. She later joined the association’s staff as VP of industry affairs and essentially ran the Western Show for the better part of two decades. Ms. Hirschfield resigned last year to become executive director of Children’s Fairyland, a 53-year-old, 10-acre park in downtown Oakland, Calif.
TelevisionWeek contributor Lee Hall asked Ms. Hirschfield to reminisce about her experiences producing the Western Show and its significance to the cable industry. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
TelevisionWeek: How did you become involved with the Western Show?
When I finished the documentary project for CCTA, the Western Show was just starting to take off. It was 1980 or 1981, around the first wave of growth, when you had all these new networks being launched. The Western Show was a wonderful opportunity for the purveyors of this new programming to see and talk to cable operators, and at that point there were many more operators than there are today.
TVWeek: The show started so small and grew to become so big. How did you pull that off?
Ms. Hirschfield: First of all, we used our proximity to Los Angeles and Hollywood to our advantage. The programming services would grab celebrities and run them down to Anaheim, and that created a real level of excitement. We also had a lot of influential cable operators here. Viacom was up here in the East Bay area.
Ed Allen was running Western Communications; Falcon [Cable TV, now part of Charter Communications] was here. You had many influential [multiple system operators] in California, so geography really worked in our favor.
TVWeek: What was it like behind the scenes, putting this show together each year?
Ms. Hirschfield: Oh, the stories. It was an incredible feeling to go in as we did prior to the show. You pull into Anaheim in the winter. Nothing going on, hotels nearly empty. Then, like time-lapse photography, it all comes together, with these remarkable booths with beautiful lighting, followed by thousands upon thousands of people. We tried to make it a drama-free zone. There was so much going on behind the scenes that people never knew about.
TVWeek: Such as?
Ms. Hirschfield: We used to run around with portable sound meters. We would have one exhibit booth with loud live music, and the neighbors would not be happy, so we would have to go and check the sound levels and tell them to turn the sound down. It was so competitive.
TVWeek: You had to call out the `marketing police’ a time or two, didn’t you?
Ms. Hirschfield: Some of those stories are hysterical. Anytime that you have wonderfully creative folks, they are going to try to push the envelope. We had some very clear rules on what space could be used for marketing purposes and what could not, but we would still have to pull down stickers they put up, or stop the truck that was driving around. These people would do anything to get their image out there. We had an Evel Knievel-type person one year who wanted to jump 12 cars out in front of the convention center. We had to keep saying no to all these creative ideas because we wanted to focus on the exhibit floor.
TVWeek: Is there any one incident that stands out in your mind?
Ms. Hirschfield: Oh, yes. Comedy Central always pushed in terms of what they wanted to put into people’s hotel rooms as in-room distribution. One year they just went too far. They had an outline of a dead body on the floor in each room. Usually, about 98 percent of the people in the hotel were attending the show, but a few percent were international tourists. We had some Japanese businessmen who were not amused by that stunt, and that caused quite a stir.
TVWeek: That proximity to Hollywood you mentioned made for some stellar after-hours entertainment.
Ms. Hirschfield: There have been some incredible off-site parties, although we didn’t get to attend too many of them because we were so tired from working the show. I heard about a legendary one put on by CBS Cable, in which they simulated a desert oasis somewhere in Los Angeles. Playboy threw an event once with lingerie and fur models. In the early days you had both HBO and Showtime trying to outdo one another, all to the benefit of our convention-goers.
TVWeek: Why did you decide to get out?
Ms. Hirschfield: I was in New York when Sept. 11 happened. I don’t mean to sound hokey, but it really did cause you to put your life into perspective. When I got back home, I knew it was time for a change. With Ted [Turner] gone, and all of the industry consolidation, it was time for me to move on.
TVWeek: Why Children’s Fairyland? What was the draw?
Ms. Hirschfield: I have always been involved in volunteer work, especially for children’s literacy, and I ended up being the chair of the library commission here in Oakland. I noticed that they were looking for a new executive director, and I knew that this was the job for me, because it’s all about literacy. The board here looked at my background and my work and my interests, and we both agreed that this was a perfect match. It’s been wonderful.
TVWeek: What will it be like to attend the final Western Show?
Ms. Hirschfield: It will be a wonderful feeling attending a trade show and not having to wear a walkie-talkie. I can’t wait.