By Chuck Ross
“Bernard ‘Bud’ Hirsch, 85, passed away peacefully on Sept. 29, 2014. He worked as a television executive for both CBS and NBC from the ’50s to the ’90s, and, after retirement, traveled the world.”
So begins the paid obituary in The New York Times today, Friday, Oct. 3, 2014.
But friends, it doesn’t come close to describing the man who was easily as colorful as Harold Hill, and whose selling of TV ad time was always sweet music in the ears of his employers, primarily CBS and NBC.
According to one of Hirsch’s official bio’s he started his sales career in 1954, in the print game, selling for GQ magazine, then known as Gentlemen’s Quarterly. He switched to TV ad sales in 1958, selling for WXIX in Milwaukee. (The station lasted only about a year with those call letters. The current WXIX is in Cincinnati.) Hirsch climbed the sales ladder at CBS for a number of years, finally landing as the sales manager at CBS’s flagship WCBS-TV in New York.
In 1966, NBC hired him away to run TV station sales for the Peacock Network. He eventually became executive vice president of sales and marketing at NBC. He left NBC after the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992.
OK, here’s an unforgettable story about Hirsch. It’s told by Ave Butensky — himself a TV legend perhaps best known for revitalizing the TV Bureau of Advertising years ago. Ave told this story in a wonderful 2003 memoir about TV called “Fridays with Art” (Art was Art Greenfield, and the book was edited by Dick Woollen).
At the time of this story, Ave was at ad agency Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, buying TV time for Toyota. It’s about 1974 or 1975 and Hirsch is at NBC, selling time for the local NBC owned-and-operated TV stations. He’s pitching the Super Bowl and he’s got a fresh angle.
He asks Butensky if he’d like to buy the one 30-second commercial he was selling in case the Super Bowl ended in a tie and went into overtime. The cost was $25,000. Knowing Ave was no fool, Hirsch quickly added that, of course, it was extremely doubtful that the game would end in a tie — but no worries. NBC Spot Sales would keep the money, but would then “make-good” for the spot that didn’t air by giving Toyota a ton of spots in other programming over the following few weeks. Moreover, the ratings of those make-up spots would be more than the value of the spot that would have run in the Super Bowl. Realizing a good deal when he heard one, Butensky immediately signed onto the plan.
Within 24 hours Ave is talking to a buyer friend of his who worked at another agency. The friend eagerly told Butensky how Hirsch had sold HIM the one overtime spot NBC Spot Sales had to sell in the Super Bowl. Wait a minute, Ave thought to himself, there must be some misunderstanding here. Hadn’t Hirsch realized that he wanted that spot for Toyota?
After a few minutes it dawned on him what was happening. He called Hirsch and asked, calmly, a single question: To how many advertisers had Hirsch sold that single overtime spot in the Super Bowl? Without hesitation Hirsch answered “25.”
It was a scheme right out of “The Producers,” Butensky realized. But Hirsch had history on his side. There had never been an overtime period in the Super Bowl. And that year there wasn’t one either. (In fact, there still has not been a Super Bowl that has ended in a tie and has thus had to go into overtime.)
Butensky said that when Hirsch retired many years later he gave him an award for having the most chutzpah of anyone he had met.