Queen for a Day

Knowing that you don't know everything is, as a rule, a gift bestowed on people in later life. When I was much younger I knew everything about everything, and it took me a very long time and a lot of pain to realize that I didn't.

In the late seventies I was a Television Divisional President of Columbia Pictures. I sent the then President of the Corporation (a Harvard MBA) the two pilots of the ABC program Soap along with a note that said something like "I will need several million dollars to acquire the syndication rights to this series and I promise you that it will be the biggest comedy success in the history of television, unless it isn't."

He called me laughing and wanted to know what I meant. I told him the truth, which was that I liked it a lot but, "Who knows in the content business what will succeed?" He asked why they paid me all that money if I didn't "know what will work" and he about died when I told him that I didn't know, and I went on to tell him that the movie people did not know either what would attract a paying audience.

He went on to ask me about the other content acquisitions I had made like Barney Miller, Charlie's Angels etc. and he about died when I told him that these deals were just "blind and stupid luck."

I was born in 1932 and I spent the first forty years of my life "trying to know about life," the next twenty years believing that "I did know about life," and the last twenty realizing that I "will never really know about life."

I was a New York born and raised Jew who was an electrical engineer who moved to Los Angeles in the television business, and at "forty something," I was trying to decide what Christian wives and mothers wanted to watch in the afternoon in Alton, Ill.

I always believed that William Goldman was correct when he said: "Nobody knows anything."

As a television executive with responsibilities in sales, management and production I realize that many people in all aspects of television and motion pictures earned significant amounts of money believing that "they know" and are scared to death that people will find out that "they don't really know."

My business life has involved "pitching" program concepts to television programmers who would as a rule say, in one form or other: "that will never work." The truth was that they did not know what would work but were busy pretending that they knew. I was pretending as well, in that I did not have the slightest idea what an audience would want to watch.

At MGM/UA I commissioned a pilot of Queen for a Day and I was foolish enough to change it from a program that depended on pathos and tragedy, demeaned and exploited women and tried to make it "uplifting" because I believed that it would make "better television." We cast Vikki Carr, a great and popular Latina singer as the host and she was just terrific.

Boy was I wrong about the program! I was an East coast "elitist" and believed that I could "enlighten" the masses. I was both arrogant and most of all dead wrong.

My former boss at Columbia, John Mitchell, once commented to me about "good television" by saying "good for whom?" This was a difficult lesson for me to learn. My newer definition of "good television" is ANY television that enough people choose to watch.

Television can be dreadful when its attitude is "we are here to teach you things." I have believed that television is here to engage the public in content that it wants to be engaged by. Now how simple is that? The system responds to the wishes of its audience, and that is a good thing.

Many many years ago I pitched a "redeeming" children's program to the Head of Programs at a New York station who told me how much he liked the program. My joyousness ended quickly when he told me that he wouldn't buy it because in his opinion, kids had a "shit detector" and wouldn't watch anything that was overtly trying to teach them "anything."

Some complain that "there is never anything good on Television." I believe that there is so much "good stuff" for everyone on cable that the problem has been that great content abounds, and the challenge is to find it.

Television today is wonderful because it gives the viewers what they want to watch and not as a rule what ANYONE thinks that they should watch. The "system" fails when programmers believe that "they know" what people "should" watch and not what they "want" to watch.

Bring back Vikki Carr and Queen for a Day!