Ed Jones watches television for a living. That's why on a perfectly beautiful Sunday afternoon recently he was sitting in a darkened screening room in Las Vegas watching a demonstration tape of a new daytime TV series called "Chef Tell's Good Life."
As Chef Tell, West Germany's answer to Julia Child, whipped up a romantic dinner for two, the voice-over on the tape said, "Chef Tell is going to be the hottest new personality to come along in daytime in a long, long time."
But not hot enough for Jones. With a wave of his hand, Jones axed the Kaiser of the Kitchen mid-recipe. "He doesn't have the energy like Richard Simmons," Jones said. "I just don't see him in that role."
Sixty minutes worth of dead air. An hour gap with no programming, no viewers and no advertising revenues. A 60-minute hole in the fall schedule at 4 p.m., that crucial time slot leading into the local news.
That was the specter haunting Ed Jones, the 31-year-old program manager at Washington's WDVM-TV, when he arrived in Las Vegas.
He came not to gamble at the tables, but to bet on finding a winning show amid the hype, hustle and hoopla of America's largest trade show hawking television programs--the 1982 convention of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE).
While Ed Jones was vetoing Chef Tell, his counterparts from almost all the commercial TV stations in the country were roaming the exhibition floor or sitting in suites at the Las Vegas Hilton watching would-be TV stars like . . . The Dwarfs.
The dwarfs were the centerpiece of a new show actually called "That Awful Quiz Show." The format was based on the old Groucho Marx "You Bet Your Life" show, but the hosts were two three-foot-tall identical twins, John and Greg Rice, dressed in similar tan three-piece suits.
The show, created by John Barbour of "Real People" and designed for late-night TV, was billed as a comedy, and to underline the point, salesman Leo Brody would chuckle every 10 or 15 seconds, regardless of what was on the screen. If no one laughed, which was often, a baleful look would cross his face.
The show contestants were Charles, the president of the Flat Earth Society, and Laura, the women's Frisbee champion of the world. They got to answer quiz questions like this: "According to the U.S. Department of Health, in which of these states are your most likely to get syphilis?"
A high point in the dialogue came during the introductions when one of the interchangeable Rice brothers asked, "Charles, can I call you Charles?" One-beat pause. "Laura, can I call you tomorrow?"
Although Brody had probably seen the pilot 42 times during the convention, he began laughing so hard that one feared cardiac arrest.
Since 90 percent of the new shows unveiled at NATPE never make it on the air, it is customary to ask a salesman like Brody, "Is it a definite go?"
The answer invariably includes some of the following phrases: "Ninety-nine percent sure. . . I'm certain we'll be able to green-light it . . . We're inches away from closing a deal in New York."
Asked about the future of the world's only midget quiz show, sales executive Dick Cignarelli followed the script perfectly: "That's a hard question to answer. We're right on the precipice of five major markets being closed."
Back on the exhibition floor, the sales force at the Comworld booth was sticking small red felt hearts on anything that moved to promote their new daytime series, "Romance Theatre." The show would condense a romance novel into five half-hour episodes: a new tear-jerker each week, hosted by the aging Louis Jourdan.
In a typical episode, Priscilla was telling John: "I'm leaving my husband. One of the reasons I came here to Woodlawn was to break the news to Tiffany." John stared into Priscilla's liquid-brown eyes. "You're a beautiful woman, Priscilla," he said softly. Slowly they melted into an embrace as Priscilla moaned, "Oh, John, please."
On a TV monitor 29 floors above the Romance Theater showing, Tina Turner was belting out "Jo-Jo was a man who thought he was a woman . . ." The concept for the show was Turner working and singing in a L.A. record store called Woofer's Supersonic City. Claster Television, a small Towson, Md., company best known for "Romper Room" and "Bowling for Dollars," was trying to break into the world of rock.
As Turner went through her fifth costume change, switching from leather pants to a shimmering gown, Sally Gelbard, for 10 years the teacher on "Romper Room," was saying, "This is the kind of business where nobody puts you down for trying. If we don't make it this time, there's always next year."
The networks create their schedules behind closed doors. Everything at this convention was out in the open, but most of the shows on the auction block were designed for off-peak hours when advertising revenues are limited.
On display at NATPE was every cost-cutting gimmick that television has developed. The game is to minimize the use of professional performers and elaborate sets, which is why "reality programming" (shows like "People's Court" that manage to avoid using actors at all) was this year's buzzword at NATPE. In fact, there were four new courtroom dramas--ranging from "Custody Court" to "Police Court" --trying to horn in on the success of "People's Court."
Within the world of television, talk is cheap, so there were dozens of chitchat shows, little more than a set, a host and three visiting soap opera stars. Even late-night puppet comedy was a major program category at NATPE. Part of the explanation for this odd trend was financial--puppets are notorious throughout show biz for their willingness to work cheap.
Television isn't bad by accident. It takes months of careful planning to achieve the right blend of lowest-common-de nominator mediocrity.
But Ed Jones didn't have months to fill the 60-minute hole in WDVM's fall schedule. Just three weeks before NATPE, Group W announced the cancellation of "The John Davidson Show." The show, which WDVM runs weekdays at 4, may be an inane blend of celebrity chatter and road- company entertainment, but it allows the station to go head- to-head with the reruns of "Charlie's Angels" on WRC- TV (Channel 4). The abrupt demise of the Davidson show had the following consequences for Jones:
* He could thumb his nose at this year's NATPE convention by wearing a crimson jogging suit, with a gray University of Alabama sweat shirt underneath, instead of a pin- stripe suit.
* He was confronted with a knotty programming decision that would, in his words, "test my Freddy Silverman golden gut," a reference to the body organ that the former president of NBC claimed he used to select new shows.
* And it meant that Jones would be hit by high-pressure sales tactics that would put a Florida land developer to shame. THE JOGGING SUIT
In the past, Jones, one of just four black station program directors in the country, suffered from a form of not-so-benign neglect at NATPE. No overt racism, just little things like important program distributors walking past him without nodding.
But thanks to John Davidson, this year would be different for Jones. Almost everyone in television knew that WDVM had a 60-mnute hole to fill. That's why, no matter how Jones dressed, syndicators would treat him with the kind of deference normally shown to Jackie Onassis when she strolls into Bloomingdale's.
Hence, the jogging suit. When a salesman trying to pitch reruns of "Real People" kidded him about his choice of wardrobe, Jones said, "I made a conscious decision to wear it. It's comfortable. I'm buying, not selling. Who am I trying to impress? I'm here alone. My station manager's playing golf inere to Woodlawn was to break th St. Thomas." THE GOLDEN GUT
Even Jones describes the Davidson show, which will be on the air until the end of August, as "basically boring." But such esthetic judgments are dwarfed by two other considerations--ratings and money.
In Washington, unlike most markets, the Davidson show often has been top dog in its time period. It has also been a veritable bargain, costing WDVM about $1,000 for each 60-minute program.
For more than a decade, Channel 9 has used a talk-variety show like Davidson as a segue into the news. The format delivers an audience heavily skewed toward older women, a demographic group that also loves the happy-talk of local news. Ideally, Jones would have wanted to replace Davidson with another talk-variety show. But the marketplace had other ideas.
Jones is convinced that Group W purposely waited until the last possible moment to pull the plug on Davidson, although Group W vehemently denies that. But regardless, there were no other talk-variety shows in the market. Westinghouse was pushing "Hour Magazine," a talk-information show now in its second year of syndication, as the obvious solution for stations losing Davidson. But the magazine show had already bombed in Washington. Last season, WRC-TV put it up against Davidson and then cancelled after 36 weeks.
The other options facing Jones were equally flawed. Although WDVM is a CBS-affiliate, it can buy syndicated reruns of shows from other networks. But such off-network shows can be prodigiously expensive. For example, "Little House on the Prairie" would cost WDVM about $25,000 for each one-hour episode. Even though the price (about $500 a minute) includes the right to repeat programs, that still works out to about five times the cost of the Davidson show.
There was no choice: the station would have to change its 4 p.m. look. The decision would be made by a committee back in Washington, but it would be shaped by what Jones found at NATPE.
PolyGram was trying to sell a revamped version of "Queen for a Day" starring Vicki Carr and Michael Young. "We want to make it more upbeat than the old Jack Bailey show," the salesman explained.
The first contestant on the pilot was a 7-year-old girl who wants to be an Olympic star despite a crippling ailment. "What is it like having juvenile rheumatoid arthritis?" asked the eager Michael Young. THE HARD SELL
Sandy Frank sells television shows like revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson peddled salvation. This year Ed Jones was on his mind.
Last year, risking his own money, Frank managed to revive "You Asked for It," a 30- minute globe-trotting, roving- camera show that was one of the staples of 1950s television. "YAFI" wasn't shown in Washington during its first season. But that will change if Frank can convince Jones that "YAFI" is half the solution to the John Davidson problem.
The stories surrounding Frank and his hard-sell tactics are legion. Another Washington program director recalls Frank calling and saying, "I just left my brother's funeral," as part of his sales pitch for "Face the Music," a low-cost game show.
When Jones showed up to discuss "You Asked for It," Frank was already juggling three other program directors and so he put Jones in the hands of salesman Lou Israel for the initial softening-up process.
The avuncular Israel, who once peddled "Laverne & Shirley" reruns for Paramount, went right into his sales pitch: "We've got 26 renewals. We need just two more major markets. If Ed Jones is the smart guy I think he is, he'll sign on the dotted line before he leaves NATPE."
Frank and his team build their presentations around two-inch stacks of oversized cardboard charts. Taking Jones into a small screening room, Israel races through the charts with the speed of a blackjack dealer worried about card counters.
The patter that accompanied a typical chart went like this: "You'll sign up after this one, Ed. On WRTV in Indianapolis, we replaced 'Barney Miller' as the news leare to Woodlawn was to break thd-in . . . The news went up 28 percent in audience share."
Somewhere between the charts for Little Rock, Ark., and Huntington, W. Va., Jones came to the point: "You know my problem. We need two half- hours. That's what scares me. What do we do at 4? I see this at 4:30, when the men start coming home. If I want to go with two half-hours, I've got to have a strong program at 4."
Israel suggested reruns of "Real People," but Jones said, "They came in with a ridiculous price."
Enter Frank, in a coal-black suit, all angles and sharp creases. With his arm around Jones' shoulder, Frank tells him to hold firm and "Real People" will cut their asking price: "They're living in a dream world. They'll come back to reality. They've no place else to go. They can't get much for it from the indies in prime time."
After he finally escaped this full-court press, Jones said, "That's what I'm faced with-- the hard-sell, the pat on the back, all that talk about how I'm such a smart programmer."
But then Jones added, in a more serious vein, "I have a lot of respect for Sandy Frank. He may be crazy, but that money's coming out of his pocket, not some corporation's. He presses because he has to." THE SOFT SELL
Jones didn't need to go to Las Vegas to see Group W's "Hour Magazine," the leading contender for the Davidson slot. He remembered the show from its abortive run on WRC and had also been watching it on Channel 13, the Westinghouse station in Baltimore.
When Jones arrived at the Group W exhibit, he had to run a gauntlet past a talking robot, TV star Chad Everett handing out autographs and a photographer taking souvenir pictures using a painted backdrop that simulated a French cafe. As Jones paused for breath near the well-stocked bar, Judith Bernat, part of the Group W sales force, greeted him with the kind of enthusiasm last seen on V-J Day.
Bernat, 36, immediately wanted to pitch "Hour Magazine." But first Jones asked to take a look at two other Group W talk shows, both long shots being premiered at the convention.
One was our old friend Chef Tell and the other was "Getting Personal," a show that Bernat insisted was "really hot." The key word on "Getting Personal" was "share," as in "thank you for sharing your problem with us." It was standard exploitation TV: real-life couples discussing real-life problems with the host, veteran actor Joseph Campanella, and a feminist shrink.
Confronted with a couple arguing over who should stay home with the baby, Campanella shared this personal revelation: "Twenty years ago, I would have died if you told me I couldn't be an actor. Now I'd die if I couldn't see my children." Wild applause from the studio audience and a request from Jones to turn off the TV monitor.
When Bernat began her sales pitch for "Hour Magazine," her approach was sweet reason: "Let's use logic, which is never used in program decisions." Her mission was to prove that, for all its flaws, "Hour Magazine" was superior to "Weekday," a new talk-information show from Metromedia.
Bernat acknowledged that both shows were "fundamentally the same." But she argued that "Hour Magazine" had learned from the mistakes of the first year. "It's twice as good now as it was when it started."
There was no urgency to Bernat's presentation--Group W had already renewed "Hour Magazine" for a second year. She knew WDVM wouldn't make a decision for weeks.
With all this in mind, Bernat unleashed her last gambit. "If you don't buy my show," she said jokingly, "I'll cry."
One of the late-night novelty shows at NATPE was Metromedia's "Singles Magazine"--part self-help and part televised personal ads.
"Hi, I'm Marjorie," announced one of the beautiful single women who apparently needed the help of Metromedia to get dates. "I fly and model and act for a living. If you're a guy who likes dancing and knows how to take care of a woman, write me care of this program."
During screenings of "Weekday," Dick Moran, a Metromedia salesman, kept stressing that the show had been "pre-tested in 2,000 cable homes." But every clich,e of talk TV was jammed into the pilot:
* The Inquiring Camera: "Weekday" went on the streets of Manhattan to try to answer this penetrating question: "Should a woman be on Mount Rushmore?" A typical response: "If you put a naked woman on Mount Rushmore, that would be nice."
* The Celebrity Cook: Famous Amos, of chocolate-chip fame, takes you into the kitchens of New York restaurants where you learn how to make gourmet desserts in your own home for less than $5. At Tavern on the Green, Amos gushes famously, "Chef Gaspar, what mouth-watering dessert are you going to show us today?"
* Then on to the obligatory titillation tidbit ("Nancy Friday discusses sexual fantasies") followed by the mandatory soap segment ("We go behind the scenes at 'General Hospital'").
Although he was troubled that the three hosts of "Weekday" were all unknowns, Jones told Moran, "I like the show." The man from Metromedia beamed.
"I don't know any show that has taken off like this one has," Moran said. "It's a 90 percent go. I don't know how we can miss."
As Jones strolled the convention floor, he attracted glad-handers the way Reggie Jackson collects autograph hounds. Hilary Schacter, who once worked at WDVM, grabbed him for a bit of auld lang syne. Ten seconds later, Schacter was trying to pitch a talk show, "Leave It to the Women," as a replacement for Davidson.
When that failed, Schacter said mournfully, "I feel like such a prostitute doing this. At least the women working the bars get paid for it. I want to go back to producing."
Jones told him soothingly, "Just remember that Norman Lear was here just six years ago selling 'Mary Hartman.'"
The exhibit hall at NATPE was scheduled to close in 15 minutes. The salesmen were packing up their tapes, the bartenders were boxing unopened bottles of Chivas Regal, and Sandy Frank was still working.
One instant he was barking into the phone, "I'll be at the Beverly Wilshire tomorrow night, tell Paramount . . ." The next moment he was closeted with two TV executives from Australia. At NATPE, Frank would chalk up almost $1 million in new sales, foreign and domestic, for "You Asked for It," helping cover the deficit from the first year's production costs of $20 million.
Just moments before the roustabouts began carting off the facade of his exhibition booth, Frank tried to explain the manic energy he brings to his job of selling TV shows:
"If I had to sell refrigerators, it would bore the s--- out of me. I'm interested in money but only as a byproduct of my achievement successes . . . $20 million is not a bad investment to get your name on the TV screen when people tune in 'You Asked for It.' That's my ego kick, when my name goes across the TV screen all over the country at 7." EPILOGUE
It wasn't until six weeks after NATPE was over that Ed Jones and his colleagues at WDVM resolved their dilemma. Until the last minute, Sandy Frank was calling three times a week, still pushing "You Asked for It" and still handing out free advice on how to negotiate for "Real People."
As Frank predicted, "Real People" dropped its price by $7,000 an episode. But "YAFI" still didn't make it past the preliminaries. As Jones explained, "It was just too big a risk. We couldn't find a vehicle strong enough to carry it at 4."
Despite the cost, WDVM took a long, hard look at reruns of "Little House on the Prairie." But eventually it came down to a head-to-head battle between Metromedia ("Weekday") and Group W ("Hour Magazine"). As they struggled to keep "Weekday" afloat, Metromedia unveiled a barrage of phone calls, telegrams, market research and testimonials from other program directors who bought the show.
It was to no avail. After a 31/2-hour meeting with Bernat on April 27, WDVM decided to replace John Davidson with "Hour Magazine" effective Aug. 30." Woodlawn was to break th One of the major arguments that clinched the decision was that it was still highly questionable whether "Weekday" would be produced.
As for some of the other favorite shows at NATPE:
Chef Tell's good life probably will not include his own TV show. "Getting Personal" seems to be getting nowhere. And Claster Television and Tina Turner will have to wait until next year. "Romance Theatre" is a definite go, but no one has bought it for Washington.
As for the Rice brothers, dual Grouchos in miniature, they still may make it on the air . . . somewhere. The latest word from Leo Brody at D. L. Taffner is: "The way we're sitting now, it's not a dead issue . . . I'm not giving you a tall story . . . There still is a possibility it will be produced this fall . . . It definitely has not been put on the shelf."