This is a story about Don Hewitt and This Is Spinal Tap. Ultimately, it's an important lesson: everybody gets fucked. I've told this story many times, because it's important to grasp its significance in the media jungle. This is also the first entry in this web log that draws on my real-life career experiences, warts and all, names named, to convey essential elements of media career strategy.
Tonight I watched the 35th anniversary episode of 60 Minutes. It wasn't much of a compilation. Watching it, if you're under, say, 35, you would have no sense of the greatness of this series. 60, as it's referred to by insiders, was created by Don Hewitt 35 years ago, and Hewitt is the executive producer to this day. 60 is the most successful series in the history of television. It may seem hard to believe, but for many, many years, 60 Minutes was the #1 TV show, week in and week out.
Hewitt invented the magazine form, and is the greatest true story teller in the history of the medium. No one has ever come close to Don Hewitt in shaping a script, developing a story with conflict and resolution, and wielding unimaginable power as a broadcast journalist.
Hewitt is being forced out of his job by CBS management over his now-muted but recently vigorous objections--being replaced by a younger executive producer, for whatever reason.
When I got my first job after college as a news writer at WCBS-TV, my goal was to be Don Hewitt some day. Decades later, the man who single-handedly made more money for CBS than anyone else is getting fucked. And, as I know Hewitt has pointed out to CBS management over the years, he has worked on a salary all this time. If he had owned 60 Minutes, and packaged it for CBS, like any other series packager, he'd be a zillionaire today.
I know of, and took part in, another time when CBS, in the person of Bill Paley himself, fucked Don Hewitt, at a time when 60 was cruising at #1. And I can tell you virtually no one knows this story. This is where This Is Spinal Tap comes in. Spinal Tap, which Entertainment Weekly crowns the #1 cult movie in this week's issue, is really the end of the story. The story begins with my phone ringing, and Harry Shearer at the other end of the line.
The time is the early 1980's. I knew Harry Shearer, "Derek Smalls", through Joel Siegel, Good Morning America's movie critic. When we first met, Harry was a member of a comedy group called The Credibility Gap, along with David L. Lander, Michael McKean, and Richard Beebe. We came to know each other a bit, and during the year Harry spent as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, when I was a senior producer at 20/20, I helped once or twice in truly inconsequential ways with bits he was working on. Harry flattered me with his regard for my work. He is, of course, brilliant, and truly respected by the great comics we enjoy in movies and on TV.
This call was a stunning offer--mind-blowing. Harry had gotten a green light from CBS to develop a weekly late night satirical sketch comedy series to be seen on Friday nights at 11:30pm. Harry was offering me the line producer position. The job, as I came to understand it, entailed very specific functions. The format was to follow that of a radio series Harry had been doing. The show would run 1/2 hour, and would consist of 3 sketches. Each sketch would be topical, and would be a fictitious recreation of some event behind the headlines of the week. Each sketch would be set up with a 2-minute news piece reporting the true story the sketch was going to send up. For example, suppose that a meeting were arranged between French President Jacques Chirac and President Bush. They might be meeting to put their differences over the war in Iraq behind them. Chirac would come to the White House, and visit with the President. That Friday night, Harry Shearer, or another cast member (all now major stars) playing President Bush, someone else playing Chirac, would do a comedy sketch, politically outrageous, making a joke of the event.
As far as Harry was concerned, I was to create the news pieces to set up the comedy sketches, and to liaison with the network. That liaison with the network part of the job was the frightening part. The show was being developed by Jennifer Aylward at CBS, and when I was flown out to LA to meet Jennifer and hopefully win approval for the job, she made it very clear that what my job was all about was being the person through whom the network would communicate with Harry. Fair or not, Harry had somewhat of a reputation in the business as a "loose cannon", and Jennifer was shopping for someone to hold responsible for Harry's giving CBS what it wanted and when, and for feeding Harry the network's "notes" on the show. This job could be big trouble. Well, what the hell, who cared? This was enormous! Martin Short was going to be involved, Michael McKean of course, Penny Marshall, Albert Brooks, many more.
Time went by, as it does during development. Then, suddenly, everything changed, and here's where Don Hewitt comes into the story.
Coincidentally, Don Hewitt was renegotiating his contract. As I understood it, he wanted an ownership position in 60 Minutes. I am in no way privy to Don Hewitt's business; I'm relating what I heard. Short of ownership, which CBS would not give him, Hewitt wanted a deal allowing him to form a privately owned production company which would supply programming to CBS, and the first show he wanted to produce was a weekly late night sketch comedy series focusing on political satire. Apparently, Hewitt had been speaking with Jeff Greenfield, now of CNN, about working on the show with him.
Jennifer called me to tell me about all this. This wasn't exactly anything Harry Shearer wanted to hear about, and it was very depressing news to me. I was already in the package. I was so excited. I daydreamed about the show constantly. Now, Jennifer was saying CBS was going to marry the projects--combine Harry and Don. My resume was being sent to Hewitt for review. I figured I was fucked. Why would Hewitt pick me? He knew hundreds of producers who could make the news pieces, and he would certainly intend to deal with CBS management himself. He was responsible for the #1 TV series, for God's sake. Plus, I had been with 20/20 from the launch, not a plus, I imagined, in his view of things, and had no producer's reel, having been moved into senior management the week after the 20/20 premiere.
Then it occurred to me--strategy! Lobby for the job! But how? Who did I know? Boing!! I knew Jeff Greenfield! I had never worked with him; I knew him socially, and not well. But he had Hewitt's ear, and he was a phone call away. So I called Greenfield, and told him that Hewitt was going to review my resume, that I had already been in Harry Shearer's package, and that I really wanted the job. Greenfield said he would look into it. God bless him.
I heard from Jennifer that Hewitt had approved me. Greenfield had given him a solid recommendation. I was back in the game!
Now I'm going to cut to the chase, because after all, the title of the entry is Everybody Gets Fucked.
One week before Harry and all the comics were due to fly into New York for final rehearsals leading up to the premiere of the show, I received a phone call from Jennifer Aylward. She said she had bad news. It seemed that William S. Paley, founder and chairman of CBS, had just heard about the show for the first time. As I understood it, his assistant, Kidder Meade, mentioned the show in passing, and Paley stopped him and demanded details. Two things became clear.
One was that no American political figures were to be made fun of on CBS. The other was that Don Hewitt was not getting his production deal.
And there went one of the great opportunities I've had in my career. As far as Everybody Gets F*cked, I'm not talking about me, I've been f*cked a hundred times. I'm talking about Don Hewitt. They pulled the rug right out from under him at a time when he was delivering the #1 TV show. This is the lesson to remember. Michael Eisner grovels for his job. Unless, like Rupert Murdoch, you own the majority of shares, you get f*cked.
I have another story for another day about a project I worked on with Harry. When the time comes, I'll tell it.
And where does the story end? After recovering from the blow CBS dealt Harry, he put together, with Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, a mockumentary about a rock group.
The day it opened, I went to the noon show at Loew's Orpheum in Manhattan. I think I was the only one there. No one had ever heard of This Is Spinal Tap. After maybe the first 5 minutes of the movie, I began to cry. I laughed and cried until it ended.