Forecast: fog at the top Essay

FORECAST: FOG AT THE TOP



There are at least three ingredients for a happy life: first, to
have good health; second, to have a family that you love and that loves
you; and third, to have a decent job that you’re happy with.



I think a job is awfully important –but not because of any
prestigious title, responsibility or power that may come with it.
No–the primary contribution of a good job is to enhance your pride and
self-esteem.



Of course, you don’t usually move right into that ultimate job
that’s going to provide you with supreme happiness. When I first
started out at NBC, I was the lowest man on the totem pole–a page. But
my position really didn’t matter at all to me. I was perfectly
happy to start at the bottom if it meant I had a chance to rise in an
organization I admired. My main job at one time was fetching hot dogs
for the other NBC staffers. Yet, I don’t think anybody ever looked
down at me in that job, and if he did, I really don’t care. Most
people knew that being a lowly page was the way you got started in the
business, 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 sent
my first dollar I ever earned there to the then chairman of NBC, General
David Sarnoff, and I asked him to sign it. When he returned it, I also
got Arthur Godfrey to sign it. It has hung on my wall ever since.
Years later, when I told the general this story, he asked, “Where
is 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 lot
of mail from people who tell me funny things about their own jobs. A
light 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 of
yourself– you’re antimanagement!’ Well I’m not
antimanagement. I love NBC, and I’ve been with the network for a
long time. But I’ll never pass up an opportunity to give the
management team–and particularly our crack NBC vice presidents–a
little friendly ribbing now and then.



One of the things that I love to ride management about–and
I’m sure this is true of almost any company –is its supercautious
need for high-priced outside advice. Forget the fact that we’re on
the set, day in and day out. When something’s not clicking in the
ratings, 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 certain
artists, our station’s management team decided to hire outside
experts. Their mission: to find out if we had accepted any favors from
the artists we broadcast. They spent countless thousands of dollars to
have this team of stern-looking men ask us questions about our
relationships with the artists and the record distributors.



Now, that may sound fair enough at first glance. But it
wouldn’t have taken a genius to figure out that management really
had nothing to worry about. You see, ours was a Big Bandsound format,
and practically every artist we played had either died or retired a long
time past. Even record distributors had little to gain from our
station. After all, they certainly couldn’t expect any upsurge in
record 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 record
company, and, yes, I had played their Montovani records on the
air!’



Ah, confession is good for the soul.



Silly enough as this may seem, you still might give our execs high
marks for being thorough. Unfortunately, as with other big
corporations, when it comes to overlooking the obvious, television
management really goes overboard. As the great radio personality Fred
Allen used to say, the definition of an NBC vice president is a man who
comes into his office each morning at nine o’clock to find a
molehill on his desk and then spends the remaining eight hours trying to
make a mountain out of it.


In television, not a step is made without expert advice from
top-dollar consultants–the more expensive the better. But hardly a
question is posed to the people on the air. You see, if there’s a
slackening in the spring ratings, management gets apoplectic and runs
for “corrective’ advice. They’ll do anything to give
birth to a bright, profitable new idea. Someone told me that you can
always tell when it’s spring at the RCA building –that’s when
the NBC vice presidents crawl up the carpets to spawn–thanks again,
Fred.



Before you know what’s happening, they tinker around with the
set, change the show’s format ever so slightly and hold their
breaths until the next ratings sweep. Pretty soon, they’ve spent a
half-million dollars to answer the question: “What’s going
wrong?’ 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 wrong
isn’t the funniest part of the whole situation. What gets me is
that 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, “If
it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’



Although I think NBC’s management team is topnotch, I
don’t put too much stock in “professional’ critics like
outside consultants. Sometimes, the things they hate the most are the
most popular with the people. For instance, not too long ago I appeared
on the show dressed as Carmen Miranda. If you saw me, you know I’m
not just talking bananas on the head. No sir, I went the whole shebang.
I put on a dress, wore earrings, platform shoes, a fruit-filled
headdress –like everything else I do in life, I went 100 percent, all
the way.



I really wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. But one day as I
was working with my Rototiller in my garden, I came up with some great
lyrics, and I felt I just had to try it. After all, that’s what
enjoying life is all about–being spontaneous and having the courage of
your convictions.



Predictably, the critics hated it. But the people loved it! In
fact, 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 and
outside consultants say–as long as you please the people, you’re
going to be a hit.



But there was one incident in particular that really showed me
where I could find the best advice in the world. During a particularly
lowrating period of the “Today’ show, the management hired a
highpowered consulting firm to jazz things up. It must have cost them
at least $250,000 just to sign a contract with these guys. And they did
the usual–a new set was constructed, costing another quarter million.
So by then, NBC’s ante had been raised to a neat half-million
dollars.



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–conversation
for the first thousand miles of the trip. But after granny knocked back
her 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 and
never give it enough time. Half of the subjects they feature are of no
interest at all. Then, when they finally do get a good interview, they
always cut it off too short.’



Just my luck. A thousand miles to go and I’m stuck next to a
lady who thinks she’s David Hartman’s mother. I couldn’t
find a parachute, so I just settled in for a long flight.



“Just who decides the content of the show?’ she
continued, biting out the pimiento from her olive. “It’s all
so shallow. Everything is so frantic. The hosts talk too fast, and
they never seem to listen when the people they interview try to answer.
They always cut them off– “No more time!’ That’s
what’s wrong with your show, sonny.’



Well, I had to admire her spunk, even if I may not have liked what
I was hearing. When I got back on the set of “Today,’ I was
in for a surprise. The latest consultants’ report was, point for
point, exactly what granny had told me on the jet! She had given me for
free the same advice that had cost NBC a half-million dollars.



You can come up with your own moral to that story: “Big
corporations 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 for
consultants, then I never would have had the pleasure of meeting such a
grand dame. After all, if she had been a consultant, she would have been
riding in first class– not coach, as I was.



Photo: Former jobs as Bozo the Clown and Ronald McDonald helped
prepare Willard Scott for the highs and lows of his present post as the
“Today Show’ weatherman.

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