The dispute over journalism versus message points became a struggle over writing an “acceptable” proposal for the series. By the time I took over, there were already several proposals around; some slickly bound with pictures and others simply long essays. The need for a new proposal came out of a request from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a think tank that Ted Turner was also funding.
NTI was a vehicle to implement Ted’s policies to reduce the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. It was a typical Washington think tank with deep ties to the rest of official Washington, but little understanding of how to reach a broader public. NTI had a love/hate relationship with the Avoiding Armageddon television series, because our funding came out of their budget.
In early July, NTI President Charlie Curtis asked Robert Wussler to give him an updated description of the series. Wussler told Curtis we would have a detailed series summary ready by the end of the month.
Marty, Tim and I went to work with the producers and over the next three weeks came up with a detailed description … about 12 pages for each of the four two-hour shows. It was a solid, well-researched proposal that would have given Curtis what he wanted. Unfortunately, by the end of the July when the proposal was slated to go to NTI, Suzanne Arden decided she wanted the proposal to fulfill a very different purpose … to sell the series to PBS … even though PBS had already agreed to air it.
Arden didn’t like what we had written. She didn’t think it made the issues “vivid” enough. It was “too academic.” It wasn’t exciting and it didn’t contain message points. Of course it didn’t. We knew these were the things that would infuriate the serious academics at NTI and most of the people we intended to interview. I never heard from Robert Wussler but Tim Rockwood told me that Wussler had called him and said he threw the proposals in the trash.
Arden brought in Paula Hunker, a publicity writer, as a freelance assistant. Paula and I took at crack at writing a new proposal, but Arden remained unhappy with all our versions. By this time the television segments were in full production and I had teams videotaping all over the world, but Arden’s priority remained the proposal. At her request, I started interviewing new proposal writers. Three weeks later, we’d settled on Michael Olmert a first rate professional writer recommended by WETA. Olmert started writing drafts. And more drafts. Olmert, Hunker and I wrote drafts together. Finally, in early October, I told Arden and Wussler that I had to stop working on proposals. The television documentaries required my full attention.
Arden, Hunker and Olmert continued on their own. My producer’s were appalled by the direction the writing was taking. “If the people I’m interviewing read that, they’d refuse to be on the series,” one producer told me.
On October 7th, WETA executive Jeff Bieber wrote me regarding Arden’s version: “The exec. Summary is bookended with hype and exaggeration. … Suzanne and Paula have been trying to frame the series as one that could “change the world,”…. Of course this is bunk and should be changed but again, Tim is right in that it plays into Suzanne’s and Paula’s PR for the series. … Explain to Suzanne, Paula and Robert why the documents need to be tweaked so that the team is not setting itself up for parody.”
Wussler gave a copy of that draft to NTI’s Charlie Curtis. We were called before a special meeting with the NTI team and read the riot act by one of the chairman, Senator Sam Nunn. I had interviewed Nunn in the past, and although his criticism was expected it was a real humiliation. With huge embarrassment and the evil eye of Robert Wussler upon us, we repudiated the entire document. I don’t believe the proposal was ever finished. Yet another writer, Dewey Blanton was still working on a version on January 16th of 2003 when I was fired.
Second Meeting With Ted Turner
My second meeting with Ted Turner took place at a PBS conference in San Francisco. I arrived on the afternoon before our presentation with the finished PBS trailer in hand. As I was checking into the San Francisco Hilton, Wussler called me on my cell phone. “Turner hates the promo. We’re not running it,” Wussler announced. I was stunned. We had reworked and solved the audio problems.
I checked into my room, had a quick martini and then called Wussler back.“You’ve got to look at it before you decide,” I argued. I had the hotel set up a VCR machine in Arden’s hotel room and Wussler watched the promo carefully. He asked us to play it again. And then a third time without making a comment, inscrutable as always. “It’s very good. You’ve made a lot of changes. I think Ted will like it and we’re going to run it.”
In actuality, I’d simply finished the piece with a solid sound mix and trimmed a couple of shots. Otherwise it was identical to the trailer that Turner had seen earlier at Time Warner. PBS loved the trailer and Turner congratulated me.
It was a victory for all of us but it was short lived.