TV or Not TV


Pictures Flying Through The Air

A couple of thoughts went through my mind as I reviewed this series of interviews featuring sports journalist and former talk show host Bob Costas. The first was that the interviews hold up surprisingly well, despite being more than 15 years old. Snyder and Costas compared notes on dated material such as the end of Bob’s run on “Later,” the big baseball strike, and Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary. While the specific references might not be fresh in the minds of most people, the substance of the interviews seems to stand the test of time. The second thought I had was that, for reasons I cannot explain logically, I could watch Bob Costas read classified ads out of the back of a Los Angeles Times and be entertained. He is immanently watchable, and the excitement and enthusiasm he brings to certain topics is infectious.

Costas was only in studio with Snyder for one segment, and then only briefly. The other two interviews feature Bob speaking from a remote location. Anyone wondering exactly how stupid one must feel sitting in a remote location should check out the first segment (from Tom’s CNBC show), which features a “tour” of the facility that will make you laugh. For the most part, such facilities are glorified broom closets, as this clip demonstrates.

Another clip features Bob’s ability to multi-task, as he is able to carry on a conversation with Tom while watching the last few minutes of an NBA playoff game on a monitor just off camera.

Those who know me know I have little interest in sports, so for me to find these interviews interesting says a lot about the people involved. Costas goes into sometimes lengthy, most times comedic descriptions of changes to the structure of professional baseball, the legacy of a strike that resulted in an unfinished season, and the strangeness of a documentary about baseball not including interviews of baseball players talking about their greatest moments. None of these topics matter to me, but I found myself compelled to watch them, and continue to watch them years later.

Tom Snyder has been dead for a few years, but Bob Costas is still alive and kicking. Can somebody please find a place for him on a broadcast network? He is capable of more than color-commentating a Clippers game.

Next time: Dennis Prager, and the lost ideal of the compassionate conservative

Pictures Flying Through The Air

Allow me to introduce yet another semi-regular (is it fair to call them irregular?) series, this one centered around the late Tom Snyder. Snyder worked in local and network news, hosted late night talk shows on two networks and one cable channel, and was one of the first celebrities to openly embrace the internet, blogging on the now defunct (it isn’t technically defunct, but it is now in a language I don’t recognize). My plan is to periodically write about one or two moments from one or two of Tom’s shows, and embed a video clip from those shows so people can enjoy a taste of what was. I have to say that I am disappointed in the networks for not archiving old video clips. Tom Snyder and others interviewed thousands of people over their lifetimes. There is no good reason for not throwing those interviews up on a website and allowing a whole new generation to experience them. Until they do, I will. Here is the first humble installment:

NOTE: I plan to embed clips into subsequent installments of this series, but the first clip is more than an hour in length, and I’d need a sledgehammer and dynamite to convert it properly. Here is a link to the Quicktime video clip.

“Fire up a Colortini.”

Each night, Tom Snyder encouraged his faithful viewers to enjoy a beverage as they watched his show. But on one fateful day, more than just Colortinis were fired up.

On May 10, 1994, fire broke out at CNBC’s studio facility in Ft. Lee, NJ. A transformer exploded, and the heat melted the casing of a nearby battery, resulting in a leak and the release of harmful fumes. The entire building had to be evacuated. At the time, all of CNBC’s programing originated from the New Jersey studio — every show except one.

Tom Snyder came on board as a “CNBC Talk All Star” on January 25, 1993 and remained a part of the NBC cable family until December 1, 1994. Others in the lineup included Geraldo Rivera, Mary Matalin, Bob “How’s Your Penis” Berkowitz, Phil Donahue, Vladimir Pozner, Dick Cavett, Al Roker, Cal Thomas, and Daisy Fuentes. For nearly two years, Snyder’s show was the flagship of CNBC’s prime time lineup (during the day, the network focused on business news).

Snyder and his crew did the show from a small studio on the second floor of the Catalina Building, a small office building located across the street from NBC’s main studio facility in “beautiful downtown Burbank.” The studio was tiny and poorly lit. It lacked the capability of generating graphics, but it did have a small control room to switch between cameras. On May 10th, 1994, with CNBC East out of commission, the responsibility fell to the crew of CNBC West to put on a show — to keep the station on the air.

Two months later, I would play a non-vital role as a summer intern at CNBC West. I’d get to know Tom Snyder a little bit, as well as the members of his crew, most notably Mark Kennedy (the stage manager), Michael Hollander (the west coast bureau chief), and “the legendary” Ray Figelski (Tom’s cameraman and the former A.D. for Carson’s “Tonight Show”). But I happened to be flipping through the channels on May 10th and spotted Snyder on the air earlier than usual. In a nice bit of fate, I popped in a tape and recorded a few hours of the “Ft. Lee telethon.” Since the home office in New Jersey (normally in charge of archiving programing) was on fire (or at least smoldering), I assume this to be the only copy of the show in existence. Watching it now, more than 15 years after the event itself and nearly three years after Snyder’s passing, it doesn’t stand out as a great moment in Snyder’s history, but it does stand out as a decent bit of live television.

The show relied almost entirely on Tom Snyder himself. A few guests would pop in and out, and there were a few taped segments, but most of the three hours of live television was Tom being Tom. Tom commented on everything around him, from a light bulb being changed in the studio to whether the stage manager had cut the proverbial cheese while on-air. He took phone calls from people wanting to ask questions, but Tom Snyder was always quick to turn around and ask as many questions (if not more) of the callers. He also received periodic calls from other CNBC talent who were stuck outside the Ft. Lee facility and unable to broadcast.

The in studio guests were largely unknown local personalities (like consumer reporter David Horowitz and LA weatherman Fritz Coleman), but Snyder treated each guest with respect, regardless of how big or small they were. The laughs flowed freely, as did steak and salad (compliments of “The Smoke House,” the unofficial dining choice of “The Tom Snyder Show”). It would not be out-of-line to assume that a few Colortinis were fired up in the studio during the three and a half hour show.

Where I believe the magic lies in this video is the simplicity of it all. No flash. No sizzle. Not even a network logo in the corner of the screen (again, no graphics capability at CNBC West). Just one guy in a chair talking for hours. Others periodically riding to the rescue with a quick story or a kind word or two. Live. Unscripted. Full of flaws, but entirely unapologetic about them.

In 2010, the era of screen crawls displaying the latest headlines, streaming web cams from all around the world, and giant touch screens with animated charts and maps, you wouldn’t think this simple style would be as compelling as it is. But it works. It is watchable. It is entertaining. And it is more real than most of what passes for “reality” TV these days.