Forecast: fog at the top Essay

FORECAST: FOG AT THE TOP There are at least three ingredients for a happy life: first, tohave good health; second, to have a family that you love and that lovesyou; and third, to have a decent job that you’re happy with. I think a job is awfully important –but not because of anyprestigious title, responsibility or power that may come with it.

No–the primary contribution of a good job is to enhance your pride andself-esteem. Of course, you don’t usually move right into that ultimate jobthat’s going to provide you with supreme happiness. When I firststarted out at NBC, I was the lowest man on the totem pole–a page. Butmy position really didn’t matter at all to me.

I was perfectlyhappy to start at the bottom if it meant I had a chance to rise in anorganization I admired. My main job at one time was fetching hot dogsfor the other NBC staffers. Yet, I don’t think anybody ever lookeddown at me in that job, and if he did, I really don’t care.

Mostpeople knew that being a lowly page was the way you got started in thebusiness, and I was willing to do anything to be in my chosen field. I was so proud that I had finally gotten to work at NBC that I sentmy first dollar I ever earned there to the then chairman of NBC, GeneralDavid Sarnoff, and I asked him to sign it. When he returned it, I alsogot Arthur Godfrey to sign it. It has hung on my wall ever since.Years later, when I told the general this story, he asked, “Whereis the dollar now?’ “It’s still on the wall in my rec room,’ I said. He replied, “You’re losing interest!’ Because my job allows me to be up-beat and spontaneous, I get a lotof mail from people who tell me funny things about their own jobs.

Alight touch now and then can help to lighten the load for everyone. Sometimes, I admit, people misunderstand when I poke fun. In fact,people have written to me, “Willard, you should be ashamed ofyourself– you’re antimanagement!’ Well I’m notantimanagement.

I love NBC, and I’ve been with the network for along time. But I’ll never pass up an opportunity to give themanagement team–and particularly our crack NBC vice presidents–alittle friendly ribbing now and then. One of the things that I love to ride management about–andI’m sure this is true of almost any company –is its supercautiousneed for high-priced outside advice. Forget the fact that we’re onthe set, day in and day out. When something’s not clicking in theratings, management’s always on the horn to the”experts,’ the consultants. Even back in my radio days, when some deejays were involved in the”payola’ scandal for accepting gratuities to promote certainartists, our station’s management team decided to hire outsideexperts. Their mission: to find out if we had accepted any favors fromthe artists we broadcast. They spent countless thousands of dollars tohave this team of stern-looking men ask us questions about ourrelationships with the artists and the record distributors.

Now, that may sound fair enough at first glance. But itwouldn’t have taken a genius to figure out that management reallyhad nothing to worry about. You see, ours was a Big Bandsound format,and practically every artist we played had either died or retired a longtime past. Even record distributors had little to gain from ourstation. After all, they certainly couldn’t expect any upsurge inrecord sales, especially from a program that catered to nostalgia.Besides, most of our recordings were hard to come by. Nonetheless, I broke down and confessed. “Yes, yes,’ I blurted out under this third degree.

“One time I accepted a deck of playing cards from a major recordcompany, and, yes, I had played their Montovani records on theair!’ Ah, confession is good for the soul. Silly enough as this may seem, you still might give our execs highmarks for being thorough. Unfortunately, as with other bigcorporations, when it comes to overlooking the obvious, televisionmanagement really goes overboard. As the great radio personality FredAllen used to say, the definition of an NBC vice president is a man whocomes into his office each morning at nine o’clock to find amolehill on his desk and then spends the remaining eight hours trying tomake a mountain out of it.

In television, not a step is made without expert advice fromtop-dollar consultants–the more expensive the better. But hardly aquestion is posed to the people on the air. You see, if there’s aslackening in the spring ratings, management gets apoplectic and runsfor “corrective’ advice. They’ll do anything to givebirth to a bright, profitable new idea. Someone told me that you canalways tell when it’s spring at the RCA building –that’s whenthe NBC vice presidents crawl up the carpets to spawn–thanks again,Fred. Before you know what’s happening, they tinker around with theset, change the show’s format ever so slightly and hold theirbreaths until the next ratings sweep. Pretty soon, they’ve spent ahalf-million dollars to answer the question: “What’s goingwrong?’ Whatever the advice, it rarely helps the ratings anyway.

But it does get management off our backs for a few months. Management’s insistence on finding out what’s wrongisn’t the funniest part of the whole situation. What gets me isthat even if the ratings are doing wonderfully, management gets itchy.They run to the consultants to find out what they’re doing right!I don’t know about you, but where I come from, people say, “Ifit ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

‘ Although I think NBC’s management team is topnotch, Idon’t put too much stock in “professional’ critics likeoutside consultants. Sometimes, the things they hate the most are themost popular with the people. For instance, not too long ago I appearedon the show dressed as Carmen Miranda. If you saw me, you know I’mnot just talking bananas on the head.

No sir, I went the whole shebang.I put on a dress, wore earrings, platform shoes, a fruit-filledheaddress –like everything else I do in life, I went 100 percent, allthe way. I really wasn’t sure if I could pull it off.

But one day as Iwas working with my Rototiller in my garden, I came up with some greatlyrics, and I felt I just had to try it. After all, that’s whatenjoying life is all about–being spontaneous and having the courage ofyour convictions. Predictably, the critics hated it. But the people loved it! Infact, it became a sensation. Wherever I went, traveling for”Today,’ people screamed, “Do Carmen! Do Carmen!’It just confirmed for me that–regardless of what the critics andoutside consultants say–as long as you please the people, you’regoing to be a hit.

But there was one incident in particular that really showed mewhere I could find the best advice in the world. During a particularlylowrating period of the “Today’ show, the management hired ahighpowered consulting firm to jazz things up. It must have cost themat least $250,000 just to sign a contract with these guys. And they didthe usual–a new set was constructed, costing another quarter million.So by then, NBC’s ante had been raised to a neat half-milliondollars. I was flying across the country on one of my many trips for the”Today’ show and had a nice coach seat next to a lovely,grandmotherly woman. We exchanged polite–but infrequent–conversationfor the first thousand miles of the trip.

But after granny knocked backher third martini, things began to change. “You know,’ she said, “I used to watch your show,but I just can’t any more. They rush you through the weather andnever give it enough time.

Half of the subjects they feature are of nointerest at all. Then, when they finally do get a good interview, theyalways cut it off too short.’ Just my luck. A thousand miles to go and I’m stuck next to alady who thinks she’s David Hartman’s mother. I couldn’tfind a parachute, so I just settled in for a long flight. “Just who decides the content of the show?’ shecontinued, biting out the pimiento from her olive. “It’s allso shallow.

Everything is so frantic. The hosts talk too fast, andthey never seem to listen when the people they interview try to answer.They always cut them off– “No more time!’ That’swhat’s wrong with your show, sonny.

‘ Well, I had to admire her spunk, even if I may not have liked whatI was hearing. When I got back on the set of “Today,’ I wasin for a surprise. The latest consultants’ report was, point forpoint, exactly what granny had told me on the jet! She had given me forfree the same advice that had cost NBC a half-million dollars. You can come up with your own moral to that story: “Bigcorporations should listen more to little old ladies.’ Or,”Little old ladies should go to work for consulting firms.’As for me, I wouldn’t like that.

If they all worked forconsultants, then I never would have had the pleasure of meeting such agrand dame. After all, if she had been a consultant, she would have beenriding in first class– not coach, as I was. Photo: Former jobs as Bozo the Clown and Ronald McDonald helpedprepare Willard Scott for the highs and lows of his present post as the”Today Show’ weatherman.


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