In order to get a show or series on PBS, you need a public television station to “present” it to the network. Wussler chose WETA, and as soon as they got involved, the pervasive atmosphere of dysfunctional infighting became one of venomous intrigue. We didn’t have to become involved with WETA. Any number of public television stations would have been delighted to represent what everyone expected to be Ted Turner’s first of many television series. But Wussler wanted the Washington station as a partner.
While negotiations with WETA were going on, several colleagues warned me to avoid WETA like the plague. They said WETA would try to take over the project for their own ends. But the WETA team put on a good show and many of them were top professionals. Our point man was Jeff Bieber, twenty year management veteran who thought, like many middle managers, that if given the chance he could do a better job than the creative team with whom he was working.
We began to screen segments in October, and soon these lengthy sessions became one of the most bizarre aspects of the entire project. The review team consisted of Robert Wussler, Suzanne Arden, Jeff Bieber, Paula Hunker, Michael Olmert, Marty Schram, Tim Rockwood and the production team whose program was up for review.
The setting was a small, dark room with low ceilings, no windows and an air conditioning problem in downtown Washington. It was the modern equivalent of a dungeon in the Vatican during the inquisition. In fact, the editorial sessions resembled in their pedantry, conformity to authority and air of threatening malice, the dark days of the Catholic Inquisition. I was Galileo before the Grand Inquisitor and his eager sycophants.
A huge, blond wood conference table dominated the room, leaving scant space for wooden chairs and walls lined with storage cabinets and shelving. At one end of the table, a giant television screen and sound system.
We gathered at 8:15 in the morning around the table, drinking coffee and munching bagels, cream cheese and Danish pastries. Wussler would arrive after we had assembled and take his place at the head of the table, impeccably dressed as always. In a soft, measured voice that gave a magisterial or judicial atmosphere to the proceedings, he would pull the wings off one of his senior lieutenants and warn us in dire tones that we had an enormous amount to do and little time to do it in. These pep talks put everyone on edge and meetings usually began on a tense or smug downer, depending on which side you were on.
It was not a room full of people sharing a common production goal. The production team and I all sat on one side of the table, at Robert’s right. Suzanne took the seat across from me, at Robert’s left. Everyone else not part of the production team, sat next to Suzanne in a strict order of importance. Jeff Bieber sat next to her, generally a cautious voice and for the first few months rarely unreasonable, steady like a good poker player.
Marty Schram usually sat next to Jeff, largely in support of the producers, but frequently critical enough to be unreliable. Tim jockeyed with Marty for third place. Paula Hunker was fourth, but she had little to say unless asked and then tread a careful line that was loyal to Suzanne. Michael Olmert sat next to her through most of October and well into November, until his general support for the efforts of my production teams got him into trouble and he was fired for liking the shows too much.
Evaluating works in progress is of the essence of our craft. All good producers want input from people outside of the project they’re working on. Are you confused? Can you follow the story line? Have we provided convincing evidence for our assertions? Are the pictures telling a story? Is the narration clear? Are you interested? So it’s not criticism that made these sessions so discouraging.
It was the deadening tone of constant, corrosive carping over the editorial points that drained energy out of the room like some science fiction neurological magnet. Comments were not made to improve the shows, but to weaken the power of the production team, edging toward what would eventually become a WETA takeover. By early December, it was clear that Arden and Bieber had an agenda. As for Wussler, he enjoyed the constant play of power in the room and supported whichever side seemed weaker at the time.
At the mid day break, we rushed from each other’s presence to make urgent telephone calls, then reassembled for a catered lunch of sandwiches, sliced vegetables, and uncomfortable small talk. Fifteen people trapped underground in a small conference room with intermittent air conditioners, Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, where hell is other people.
Arden led the attack, but she was uninformed about the issues and easy to tie into intellectual knots. She broke down in tears of frustration after a heated discussion about whether or not we needed to explain why one gunman was a “terrorist” while another gunman was a “freedom fighter.” “A terrorists is someone who wants to kill me and my family. That’s all I have to know,” Arden exploded, red in the face, voice choking. “I know you think I’m stupid, but I’m not.” I had made a real enemy and should have seen the handwriting on the wall.
The sessions went on well into the evening. At the end of each one, Wussler would announce his verdict, like a magistrate ruling on competing legal arguments or a judge awarding debating points. In every editorial meeting we had, Wussler endorsed the direction my production teams were taking. His one complaint: trim the pieces more to cut their lengths. We were winning battles but losing the war, it turned out.