Wednesday, February 27, 2008
All About Ed (An Epilogue)
I don't usually do this; I typically write what I write and let that speak for itself. Unfortunately, I feel like I need to clarify a few things with regard to my column from Monday (How to Lose a Job in 13 Days?/2.25.08) -- specifically, my feelings about my former boss Ed Litvak's "resignation" from CNN.
I do this for the usual reasons -- because at least two media outlets ran stories about my reaction which twisted my opinion all to hell until it sounded like I was literally pissing on the man's grave.
So, let me make it unequivocally clear: I harbor no ill-will at all toward Ed.
In fact, I actually think he's a pretty decent guy, regardless of his decision to fire me two weeks ago. There are things that I believe Ed did wrong during his tenure as executive producer and ostensible leader of American Morning, but I see no need to pettily point them out. Anyone in a position of authority will find him or herself the target of criticism and obviously Ed has now received the worst kind of professional criticism there is. In his defense, he was charged with a gargantuan task: helming an unwieldly monster of a show, with staff working in separate shifts 24-hours a day, during a time of major upheaval. He was forced to constantly juggle duties while making sure to placate the various egos, each of whom believed that his or her wants and needs should be top priority. I have no doubt that he was micro-managed to death by Jon Klein, a situation made worse, in all likelihood, by the ironic and ever-present feeling that he would be the one getting fired if Klein's own directives failed. The true advocates on his behalf would say he was set up to fail.
I may not have agreed with Ed Litvak, but I damn sure didn't envy him either.
Whether or not the fallout from my termination played a role in Ed's own, I'll never know. I do believe though that if American Morning had been a consistent ratings bonanza under his watch, no controversy in the world would've ended with Ed packing up his office.
And that's really the saddest part.
Let me clue you in on something the type-A personalities in upper-level news management always refuse to accept, making life hell for all those beneath them: Sometimes, the audience just doesn't come.
The fight to get people to watch a particular station or network is always a brutal and unforgiving one, but in the end you simply cannot control what a person will do (let alone thousands of them) -- whether a potential viewer will watch you, someone else, or shut the damn TV off altogether. It's frustrating as hell until you abandon the control-freak mentality that's de rigeur among the producer set and admit -- maybe submit -- to the reality that ratings are often completely arbitrary. You can put together the show of your career and no one will watch; you can be at the reins of an on-air trainwreck that makes you wish someone had thought to install a full bar in the control room and the numbers will be huge. You may as well be playing the lotto.
Management can convene all the "average viewer" focus-groups it wants, then accept as gospel the opinions of a bunch of people who probably just showed up for the free food; it can do a minute-by-minute ratings breakdown, which as far as the executives can tell would seem to indicate that the anchor's half-second hiccup just before tossing to weather is the reason 30-thousand people suddenly made the collective decision to change the channel. (Believe me, Kafka couldn't have invented a more surreal and ritualistic ordeal than being forced to sit in an office with a group of seemingly intelligent higher-ups while they over-analyze and knee-jerk react to this kind of worthless crap.) Management can take all the institutional psychology and "Intro to Chaos Theory" classes it wants; it can commission AR&D, Magid, Broadcast Image and Rick James TV Consultants, Bitch, of Studio 54 and the China Club to take the entire staff on a retreat to a nudist camp in the Poconos; management can do all of these things and more -- none of it will ensure that anyone will be sitting in front of that TV watching a given channel at a given time.
I'm not suggesting that TV news departments simply give up and not arm themselves with as much knowledge and research as possible.
I'm saying that, cases of herculean incompetence notwithstanding, it seems patently unfair not only to fire someone over something he or she has no control of -- but to meddle in that person's day-to-day decisions while making sure that he or she knows at all times that a steady paycheck hangs in the balance.
I realize this is just the nature of the beast, as it is with most businesses.
My point is this though: As far as I know, Ed Litvak gave Jon Klein exactly what he wanted; during my tenure as a producer on AM I never saw anything that would make me believe otherwise.
Once again, I may not have agreed with Ed on many things, but I never doubted that it was always Klein running the show.
And yet when all Klein's big ideas failed, guess who wound up taking the blame and losing his job?