Adventures in a TV Nation, Chapter One|
|It is true that the best things that happen to you happen when you least expect them. Or, in our case, when we actively try to avoid them.|
In 1989, a low-budget documentary we made, Roger & Me, a film
about what General Motors did to our hometown of Flint,
Michigan, became a huge success. It was a complete surprise. The
film was shot over a three-year period in whatever spare time we
had with what little money we had. Our intent was to finish it, hop
in a van, and drive around the country showing it in union halls,
community centers, and church groups. We silk-screened some T-shirts
and took them to sell at our first film festival so we could
afford the trip back home. Instead, our film was bought by Warner Bros.,
and eventually shown in nearly two thousand theaters.
After Roger & Me, the head of Warner Bros. television asked to meet with us about ideas for creating a television series. We thought, "TV? Who wants to do TV?" We wanted to make movies! The meeting never took place.
Our next feature-length film was a long time coming. Michael had written Canadian Bacon in the summer of 1991, but Warner Bros. passed on it. So did every other studio. The screenplay for Canadian Bacon was a farcical takeoff on the Gulf War. It was deemed "too political" by most of the executives who read it. Michael made numerous trips to L.A. to pitch the movie in one unsuccessful meeting after another.
It was on one of those visits to Hollywood, in November of 1992, when one morning Michael found himself in his hotel room raiding the minibar and watching The Price Is Right. The phone rang with a call from a network executive at NBC.
"We just wanted to say we really liked Roger & Me and we were wondering if you had any ideas for a television show." "Uh, sure!" Michael replied, not having a single TV idea in his head. "Great! We'd like to set up a meeting with you and our president of entertainment, Warren Littlefield. How does this afternoon look?" "Uh, let me check." Mike fumbled around, trying to find the remote control to turn down the volume on the television set. "Yeah, this afternoon looks open." "Good, we'll see you at four."
Panic set in. We had no ideas for a TV show and even if we did, we didn't want to do one. We wanted to make Canadian Bacon. On the half-hour drive to Burbank that afternoon, Michael cranked up the heavy metal and we talked on the car phone trying to think up something for the meeting. It was then, with the car radio blasting out Metallica, that we came up with the idea of TV Nation. It would be a humorous magazine show but with one distinct difference--it would have a point of view. It would stand for something, instead of pretending to play it down the middle of the road, as most other newsmagazine shows do. It would side with working people against corporations.
Who would advertise on such a show? No one, we thought! We figured that
the meeting should be over in a matter of minutes. Mike
seemed relieved knowing that no network, let alone NBC, would ever pick
up TV Nation.
Upon arriving at NBC, Mike was told that the meeting was in the commissary. A good sign, Mike thought. Very low-key. He was greeted by his agent as well as an executive from TriStar Television, Eric Tannenbaum. Eric offered to join Mike upstairs and present TriStar as the studio for the potential TV show. After all the formalities, Eric asked, "By the way, what is your idea for a TV show?" Mike pitched the idea for TV Nation. "I thought you were going to come up with a blue-collar Northern Exposure," Mike's agent lamented. "They are not going to like this idea."
|"I like it," Tannenbaum countered. "It's funny and it's different." Mike was concerned that Tannenbaum approved of the concept. But he reassured himself with, "What does Tannenbaum know? He doesn't run a network! He's just a nice guy with a good sense of humor from a studio. Not to worry."|
The three of them went upstairs to see the NBC president. In the room with Warren Littlefield were various vice-presidents of development and programming. After polite introductions they sat down and Mike began to describe the show.
"It would be a cross between 60 Minutes and Fidel Castro on laughing gas." The suits sat up in their chairs, interested. "The show would be the most liberal thing ever seen on TV. In fact, it would go beyond 'liberals' because liberals are a bunch of wimps and haven't gotten us anything. This show would go boldly where no one has gone before." All smiles in the room. "Tell us more!" "The correspondents would look like shit. I mean, they'd look as if they were either on their way to Betty Ford or had just spent a year working at Taco Bell--or both." "In other words," one of the junior executives chimed in, "a real show, by real people, for real people." Excited executive smiles all around again. What was happening here? Didn't they realize that we didn't want to be on television, that these ideas would all spell suicide for the network? Obviously not.
Mike had no choice but to go for the kill. "Each week we'll pick one of our advertisers and go after them like a barracuda. They won't know what hit them. Then we'll go after organized religion, starting with our fellow Catholics. I've got one idea where I'll go to confession in twenty different churches and confess the same exact sin to see who gives out the harshest penances. We'll run the results and call it 'A Consumers Guide to the Confessional.'"
|There was a pause of silence in the room--and then everyone burst out laughing. "That's the funniest idea I've ever heard," Littlefield exclaimed through his belly laugh. "Genius!" "No," Mike pleaded, "think of all the hate mail you'll get from your Catholic viewers--including me! As a former altar boy and seminarian, I'd hate you to run this offensive piece!" "Mike," Littlefield said, "Catholics are the ones with the sense of humor. You know that. They'll love this!" Everyone around the room nodded in agreement. Thank-yous were exchanged, Tannenbaum patted Mike on the back for "hitting a home run," and Mike drove back to his West Hollywood hotel, wondering what had gone wrong. By the time he made it to his room, NBC had already called and left a message. It read: "Pilot has green light. Budget around one mil. Call agent."|
|We were stunned. Two years of trying to get a movie made with no luck, and in less than fifteen minutes in Burbank, we get a million bucks to produce a prime-time TV show. This is a very strange business, indeed.|
In January, 1993, we began making the TV Nation pilot for NBC. We didn't have any
experience or a clue as to what we were doing.
We called up some friends: Joanne Doroshow (coproducer of a documentary on the U.S.
invasion of Panama that won an Academy
Award), Pam Yates (Pam had also won an Academy Award), Paco de Onis, Jim Czarnecki
(a funny guy who had worked on a
Saturday morning TV show, Pee-wee's
Playhouse. That made him the most qualified of
the bunch), and David Royle, a documentary
producer who had just finished a series on the Mafia. They would all be our segment
producers. We hired Jerry Kupfer to be our
supervising producer. He had some experience on Showtime at the Apollo, and he had
set up some public radio stations on Indian
To find the show's correspondents, we conducted the normal casting sessions one does
for a new show. Except this show wasn't
"normal." There had never been anything like TV Nation on the air before. Was it news?
Was it entertainment? Even NBC didn't know
and ended up putting us in their "drama" division.
TV Nation was to be a combination of documentary and humor; the journalists we
interviewed weren't very funny, and the comedians
we auditioned for the most part knew little about what was going on in the world.
This part of putting the show together was very
In the end, we convinced Merrill Markoe, one of the key creators of the Letterman show, filmmaker Rusty Cundieff, who had just made a hilarious satire called Fear of a Black Hat, and actress/comedian Janeane Garofalo to be our on-air "reporters."
We decided that each hour program (forty-five actual minutes without the commercials) would have five eight-minute stories, plus introductions by Mike. The criteria we set were that each segment had to show the viewer something he or she had never seen before on TV; aggressively take on the powers that be, whoever they may be; and give us some sort of comic relief as we considered the horror of what we were actually watching.
It didn't take long to come up with the six segments we would shoot (hoping that five of them would turn out to be OK). The stories revolved around these ideas:
1. Is it easier for a convicted white murderer or an award-winning black actor to get a
taxi in New York City?
We decided to go with the first five stories. Mike had second thoughts about violating the sacrament of confession, so he asked Janeane to do the piece. As a recovering Catholic, she was more than willing. But when the segment was finished, Mike was confident he would burn in eternal hell if this segment ever ran, so he spiked it.
Two other short pieces were killed by the network. One was called "The Corporate Minute." The idea was that each week we would make a one-minute satirical commercial "saluting" a business. Our first choice was Dow Chemical. With patriotic music in the background, we lauded the company that has been sued for polluting the environment, causing health problems for women, and general death and destruction in Vietnam. NBC and TriStar decided that some viewers might actually think it was a real commercial sponsored by Dow.
The other piece was called "Lie of the Week." We were going to use a voice-activated lie detector, attach it to a TV, and then run a test on what the news tells us each night. Either the machine didn't work that well or the network news division had some explainin' to do because when we tested this, the machine registered a lie in nearly every report on the news. Needless to say, the plug was pulled on this segment.
In between each segment, we decided that we would conduct an actual poll of the American public--but not with the same dull and unrevealing questions that are asked in your typical Gallup poll (see Appendix A). We hired a man named Robin Widgery from Flint who had his own polling firm and we had him call a sample of 204 people from around the country and ask them questions that would yield results like "67 percent of Perot voters believe that Forrest Gump was a documentary" or "51 percent of all Republicans believe that if dolphins were really smart, they'd find a way out of those nets."
|We also decided that, instead of having a studio audience or a fake set, we would shoot the introduction of all segments, including the opening and closing of the show, with Mike hanging out in Times Square.|
Finally, we wanted a cool title sequence that would open each show. We hired graphic designer Chris Harvey to come up with the images and the music group tomandandy to write the TV Nation theme. We told them it should be a cross between Metallica and the Leave It to Beaver theme song.
We completed the pilot in three months, then brought it out to NBC in Los Angeles. On the day it was screened, all the executives of the network sat in the room and laughed nonstop at all five segments. As the lights went up, one suit asked another, "Can we sell any advertising on this thing?" They decided to screen the show for a focus group. These instant critics gave TV Nation the highest marks. NBC then decided to test it with the entire town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. It scored the highest of all pilots that season.
Unfortunately, there was no room in the fall schedule for our show. The prospects of an audience ever seeing TV Nation were bleak. So, Mike went back to trying to get Canadian Bacon made, but with a new tool to convince Hollywood--the tape of the TV Nation pilot. We loaned the pilot to John Candy and Alan Alda, and they loved it. We then showed them the script of Canadian Bacon and they agreed to star in it. With their names attached to the project, we were immediately able to raise the funds to make the movie, which we did in the fall and early winter of 1993.
Then an odd, lucky thing happened. You don't usually think of the person who runs the BBC in Great Britain as being an avid devourer of TV Guide. But Michael Jackson (no relation to The Gloved One), then head of BBC-2, was reading TV Guide one day and noticed a one-sentence gossip item which said that Michael Moore had made a pilot for NBC. Jackson, who had seen Roger & Me, was intrigued. Wondering what this pilot could be about, he called NBC and asked them to send him a tape. After viewing it, he called TriStar and NBC and told them the BBC would like to buy the show. You could see the lightbulbs going off in the network craniums in L.A. "You know, if the British like it, it must be good!"
On the night after Christmas 1993, we received a phone call from Eric Tannenbaum of TriStar Television. "What do you think about doing a summer season of TV Nation on NBC?" he asked. "They want to do it and the BBC wants to do it. They'll share the cost." We were stunned. We thought the show would never see the light of day. We immediately accepted the offer.
A month later, we were setting up our production office in New York. Virtually everyone who had worked on the pilot came back to be a part of the show. On the first day of work, we gathered everyone together and gave them, essentially, the following pep talk:
"All of us need to behave as if we'll never work in television again. Because, if we do this show right, nobody will ever want us. It will be too dangerous to have us around. 'Oh, you worked on that show that pissed off all the sponsors!' That's what they'll say. So, if you want to work on 20/20 or Live with Regis and Kathie Lee after this show is over, we suggest you leave now and apply there. Because they will not want you after this show airs. This is not a place to build a resume. We are here to produce a show that will be brutally honest and devastatingly funny. We will not make any friends in Congress or Corporate America. We will not lie to the viewer. This is a rare chance for all of us who usually do not have a voice in the media to have our voices heard. For one hour each week, we're going to give the average person like ourselves the chance to watch a show that is clearly on THEIR side. They'll know it and love us for it--but we'll never work in television again."
Just a little pick-me-up to get things going right on the first day! The results that followed are chronicled in this book. Thanks to the hard work and take-no-prisoners attitude of the staff, we were able to make a bit of television history.
And all of this because we never really wanted to do a TV show. Go figure.