Well, actually, it was 30 years ago two days ago that I started in television, in cable television, to be precise.
I’d been unhappily working in country music radio in New York (not unhappy that it was country music; I just wasn’t that impressed by the boss and colleagues I had, so working there wasn’t too much fun) when unbeknownst to me my radio mentor, Dale Pon, suggested that Bob Pittman call me. Bob had just moved from a successful radio career into the then new media of cable TV and needed a promotion guy for The Movie Channel. I wanted to be a record producer (”I watch TV Bob, I don’t want to make it.”), but I agreed to a meeting. Bob was (still is) incredibly smart and persuasive, and after a insightful evening conversation with Alan Goodman during a jazz recording session I was supposed to be supervising, I turned in my resignation at WHN 1050, New York.
Talk about unsung heroes. For those of you interested in graphic design or broadcasting or branding or marketing –or you’re just a media freak like me– you really should read this book, The Visual Craft of William Golden (hit ‘Full Screen’ up above, or download a PDF; it’ll be easy).
William Golden is the father of broadcast design, having been completely responsible, under Frank Stanton and owner William Paley, for the look and feel of the television network of the Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS to you younger viewers), the first network to take into account every single aspect of it’s image and vocabulary. Most famous for the most famous TV logo of all time, the CBS eye, Golden was a philosopher and an artist in the most philistine moment of the 1950s. He was the man who was able to make one believe Paley’s conceit that his network of “I Love Lucy” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” was actually “the Tiffany Network.”
Golden wasn’t just about the logo, as a quick visual inspection of the book will bear out (but, check out the cool ways it was used, obviously but subtly, like on page 32). But, read it instead, you’ll get some great insights as to how a great creative work is done even at a behemoth like a TV network.
One quick, related, digression. George Lois used to tell me the story of his early job working under Golden’s art director Kurt Weiss, the man who actually designed the CBS logo. His gig was redrawing an original CBS type font, a Didot variation. Lois told me he worked for weeks on the “8″ alone because Golden insisted that the cross lines couldn’t actually meet, and George had to do it over hundreds of times to meet his exacting expectations.
Sadly, Golden is only known among broadcast design freaks like me (I had to become one to figure out how to do my job at MTV). He passed away (young, at 48) and the reins were handed to senior designer Lou Dorfsman who, unfairly, got the lion’s share of the credit for origination as the network matured and publicity accrued in the 60s and 70s.
Like I said, take a little time to read this hard to find book. It was rewarding to me the first time I sat down with a rare copy in the 80s, and it’s wisdom has only become richer over time.
By the mid-1990s, a teenager who’d had his mind blown by the music video visual feast was old enough to be a damn good writer and reporter, so Scranton’s Tom McGrath (now the Executive Editor of Philadephia Magazine) decided to literally write the book. MTV: The Making of a Revolutiontold the whole story (it’s now out of print, maybe since MTV: Music Television become MTV), behind and in front of the camera.
As I remember, Mr. McGrath’s reporting was fairly complete and, all in all, accurate, in and of itself often a rarity in media reporting. He made me and the work my teams did look good, which made my mother and father very happy. Me too.
There were very few “ideas” for spots I could claim as mine at MTV. Identifying talent and strategy were my strengths, and I felt from there everything else would flow. But this spot was different; it’s the one for which I feel complete ownership.
Bob Pittman wanted there to be a signal identification at the top and bottom of each and every hour of MTV: Music Television, where the VJ would identify the most important music videos in that half hour. We agreed it would be voice over animation, with stills IDing the songs.
But, what should the animation be? It had to be memorable, repeatable, and not drive a viewer completely crazy. After all, it was going to play almost 17,000 times every year. And we had only 90 days until launch.
It seemed to me MTV had the most stuck up and conceited view of ourselves. We were completely enamored of the fact that we had no TV shows on our TV networks (a new “show” every three minutes, when a new video started). That was world changing, right? (Well, not really. CNN beat us to it. But we conveniently forgot about that.)
My mentor Dale Pon had introduced me to the treasure trove of free images and film from NASA, a public government entity which we all “owned” as US citizens. It would be an inexpensive source of public domain video for us. As a start-up –no one was really sure this thing would work except us– we needed all the financial short-cuts we could find.
“Space is very rock’n’roll,” said senior producer Marcy Brafman.
This spot was going to be our most important. There would be over 30 changing video pieces every hour (music videos, promos, VJs, and commercials) and this would be the only thing all day that was constant. It would get a lot of scrutiny.
So, I thought the “top of the hour” spot should do it’s job and reflect our conceit, be inexpensive, and use our ever changing logo. Oh right, it had to have that indefinable rock attitude.
I thought the simplest way to combine all that stuff was to steal the shine from an already existing piece of video. Let’s take the most famous television moment ever and fold, spindle, and mutilate it to our nefarious purposes.
Our brainstorming turned up some famous, or really infamous, stuff. The biggest one we thought about was the Lee Harvey Oswald shooting by Jack Ruby that was live on television in 1963. Aside from it’s wrongness, it occurred to me that it was only an American moment. We were claiming that MTV would be “the world’s first video music channel.” We needed a world moment.
Right then it came to me. In the summer of ‘69 I was traveling behind the Iron Curtain with my family on the day of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. The streets of dirt poor Sofia, Bulgaria were chocked with walkers looking for apartments with televisions to witness this seemingly impossible achievement of man. Truly, the most memorable worldwide event in TV history.
Let’s cop it, I figured. The worst that could happen is that a generation of kids would grow up wondering why NASA photoshopped in an American flag with MTV’s used to be.
Alan Goodman and I enlisted Buzz Potamkin’s Perpetual Motion Pictures (soon to be Buzzco) to put together the spot. David Sameth produced for Buzz, Candy Kugel illustrated and directed (logos originally designed and illustrated by Manhattan Design), and music was by John Petersen and Jonathan Elias.
By the way, this version of the spot never ran. The day before launch the lawyers informed me we needed, and would never receive, permission from astronaut Neil Armstrong to use his quotation.
The spot ran more than 75,000 times, through variations of animation and music. Now, it’s sense memory DNA is left in the “Moonman” award from the VMAs (the idea of Manhattan Design’s Frank Olinsky, I believe); no one in the audience knows why it exists. It was only retired, tragically, on January 28, 1986, when the Challenger Shuttle exploded in mid-air. The end of the first space era.
This story’s shorter. A couple of months after the network launch, Bob promoted me to Vice President, MTV’s first (a big deal in those pre-title inflationary days); I was probably whining too much about how hard I was working. He put together a huge congratulatory event and asked Alan to make some video just for the party. He asked director Steve Oakes and producer Peter Rosenthal at Broadcast Arts in Washington DC to modify one of the awesome claymation spots they’d made for us. They put a plasticine me in the spot and ignobly ran me over. I got what I deserved.
Lunch yesterday was at Kate Mantellini’s (white bean chili!) with the lovelies Steve Woolf and Zadi Diaz. These guys are the brilliant minds behind Epic-FU (néethe Jetset Show) and you should definitely check them out. Even though we don’t work together right now (Epic-FU used to be distributed by Next New Networks), we hook up every once in a while and learn a little something from each other.
Slowly over the last few years I’ve been putting some of my archivesonline. For me it’s easier to organize than shelves and drawers.
Anyhow, one of the things I uncovered was this fave that I think regular readers of Frederator Blogs are going to love. My partner Alan Goodman and I took one of our favorite doo-wop groups, Eugene Pitt’s The Jive Five, and built the on-air Nickelodeon brand around them.
Soon Nick-at-Nite was the most popular cable network in prime time and we needed to start selling some ads. Bill Burnett came up with the idea of a faux editorial campaign for the advertising trade magazines (like Advertising Age and Adweek) from a media pundit, Raul Degado (written by Bill, modeled by Tom Pomposello, who had one outrageous media buying scheme after another, every week. By the end of each column, of course, Nick-at-Nite seemed the perfect real time solution to the advertisers’ problems.
This one could be my favorite. It’s funny, and, it came true!
I suppose you’d have to be a certain age to appreciate this Bewitched poster my old ad agency created in the 1980s for Nick-at-Nite. Or any of the other ads we made for them. But I wanted to put it up anyway because it’s some of my favorite work from those days (and it’s funny). My partner Alan Goodman and I conceived the idea for the network and built it for Nickelodeon in 1985, and Fred/Alan Creative Directors Bill Burnett and Noel Frankel created the campaign. (You probably know Bill from his cartoon life as the co-creator of ChalkZone and a number ofOh Yeah! Cartoons.)
For whatever it’s worth, I’ll throw in the first written description we put together for Nick-at-Nite, two or three years after it went on the air. You might note that it’s also the first linking of Nick-at-Nite with TV Land (”Hello out there from TV Land!” a variation of the 1950s original “Hello out there in TV Land!”), the precursor to MTV Networks spinning off the 24 hour network called TV Land.
Running into this old article on the origins of the MTV logo (designed by Manhattan Design: Pat Gorman, Frank Olinksky, Patti Rogoff) in my junk recently reminded me of the accidental process that “branding” is and how often the most successful stuff seems to have an innate intelligence that really isn’t there.
Sometimes I watch a great cartoon and marvel about how the creative team thought about something or other, or how smart they were to use the music a certain way, or how they must planned for the world domination they have.
And then I remember. It’s all an accident. Sure there’s talent, often there’s who knows whom, maybe the fix was in. But luck, never underestimate it.