Jim Fitzerald will be watching "The World's Largest Indoor Country Music Show" on NBC tonight in his Laurel, Md., home with his wife Debbie and their 8-month-old daughter Kelley Annette. They're country music fans and in addition to that, Jim - former concrete finisher, bellhop, newspaper route manager, seller of magazines and walker of racetrack horses - is executive producer of the special.
At 26, that makes him probably the youngest executive producer of a prime-time network special ever.
"If you told me a year ago that I'd be the producer of a prime-time television show, I'd say you were crazy," Fitzgerald says. "I mean, this is the kind of thing everybody wants and dreams about, and I just kind of fell into it. It hasn't hit me yet, to tell you the truth."
The two-hour show, edited down from a 4 1/2-hour concert that drew 70,000 people to the Silverdome Arena in Pontiac, Mich., on March 5, airs at 9 o'clock on Channel 4. In Washington the audio will be simulcast in stereo on WMZQ-FM (98.7) and on radio stations in 55 other markets as well. That's because the executive producer arranged for the simulcasts himself.
"I set the whole thing up," says Fitzgerald. "And every program directors at every station is going to phone me and write me a letter telling me what the response was in their cities. One criticism I would make of the network is they don't realize how much promotion radio can give something on television."
And this helps explain how Fitzgerald accomplished the formidable feat of breadking into the big time of prime time even though he was strictly a small-time producer. He was the energy and he got the breaks, but also, and importantly, he has the soul of a promoter. No, those are not mutually exclusive terms.
Thus, when the deal was set with NBC, one of the first things Fitzgerald and partner Rudy Callicutt, 51, did was hire a New York public relations firm to be their publicists. From this promotional spiritual center, Fitzgerald modestly dubs the event itself "the Woodstock of country music."
That doesn't mean the program is one big pool of puffola, like most net-work pop music specials turn out to be. Fitzgerald was wary of plastic packaging and ignored network "suggestions" that he hire an orchestra to support all the acts (and help make them all sound the same) and build a fancy set. "We wanted the audience to be the set," he says. And even though he was a novice in the saber-toothed word of competitive network TV, Fitzgerald says NBC executives like Aaron Cohen, in charge of specials, let him do most things his way.
"You hear a lot about how evil the networks are, but we didn't run into that at all," Fitzgerald says. "They let us have complete creative control, which was beautiful."
The pivotal domino in Fitzgerald's success was pushed over by Monty Newman, manager of WRC-TV, the NBC-owned station in Washington. Newman asked Fitzgerald to help arrange a country music special taped by the station last October, then made a call to Cohen in New York when Fitzgerald suggested an all-out, whambam country spectacular for the net-work.
When Fitzgerald and his partner went to New York to meet Cohen, they couldn't even afford the air shuttle. They took the train instead.
Soon they found themselves deep in six weeks' worth of negotiations involving "hundreds of thosands of dollars," Fitzgerald recalls. "We had no money to pull the thing off, and NBC gave us the entire budget," which was somewhere between $500,000 and $800,000.
Fitzgerald and his associates were also in charge of staging the concert itself, which eventually attracted more than 10 different country music performers. Those on the special include co-hosts Dottie West and Kenny Rogers, old-timers like Roy Acuff and new-timers like the Oak Ridge Boys.
Veteran Nashville musician Charlie McCoy opens the program with a pretty eltctrifying "Orange Blossom Special" on the harmonica, played over a 38-second, snappily edited film montage of the Detroit-Pontiac area. The film took two weeks to shoot in itself. The concert is on tape; it has "ambience" of a live event and conveys the sense of rapport between performers and audience that Fitzgerald wanted.
Cohen had told Fitzgerald that the air date for the concert would be "late May or early June" and not to worry but on March 1, four days before the concert, Fitzgerald got a call from The Coast where the boys at NBC had suddenly decided that the show had to play on April 5. That gave the producers, director Vincent Scarza, and everybody else involved a lot less time than they though they'd have to edit 14 hours of tape (including backstage and audience footage) down to a two hour program.
In the meantime, Fitzgerald says, he was learning that ascendancy into big-league TV had the trappings of mixed blessing.
"The wolves started coming out of the woodwork," he says. "There was an epidemic of greed. People tried to force their way into the project. Sunddenly everyone wants to be your friend.You mention 'network special' and they get dollar signs in their eyes. It drives people nuts!"
Whether this story will have a truly Algeresque finish is now in the laps of the Nielsen family. It remains to be seen - by them, mainly ' whether country music has the kind of broad appeal that results in what network executives religiously refer to as his numbers.
Fitzg, who will be calling. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] in New York for the "overnight promptly at 11 o'clock tomorrow morning, thinks the appeal of country is broadening and that the old "truck driving farmer hillbilly" image is in.
"Four years ago there would have been no such thing as a two-hour country music show on prime time television," he says. Six months ago he didn't even know he'd be produced just such a special himself. The concert had people dancing in the aisles, stomping in the aisles even, but Fitzgerald remained slightly skeptical until all the evidence was in.
"I didn't realize until the next-to-the-last song that the show was a success, even though 5,000 cars had to be turned away from the stadium because of a traffic jam," Fitzgerald says. "I've never been so high drinking water in my life."
The first sip, of course, is the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]