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The Brotherhood

In writing of their own careers, TV's pioneers provide a history of the medium's early days in new book Fridays With Art 9/14/2003 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Television is now firmly in the hands of its second generation of executives. But what of that first generation, the WW II vets and radio guys who made the jump to TV and invented the medium as they went along over the next 50 years? Some have died, but many are retired or winding down their careers as consultants and such.

About 30 years ago, Dick Woollen, then buyer for Metromedia Television, and the late Art Greenfield, then the head of his own program-distribution company, began having lunch every Friday in Los Angeles, their busy schedules permitting. Just friends, comparing notes, trading gossip and sharing their triumphs and defeats.

Over the years, the number of plates around their lunch table grew as other Hollywood program buyers and sellers joined the discussion. Some Fridays, four would show; other weeks, there would be as many as 10.

Finally, someone in this loose fraternity (yes, it's all men) suggested that they write a book about their adventures in TV. Each member—25 in all—would tell his own story as a chapter. With permission, here are four anecdotes from Fridays With Art, edited by Woollen and to be published in October by Burbank, Calif.-based Parrot Communications International (Hardcover/408 pages/$27.95):

In the early 1950s, Jim Stern was peddling shows for New York-based Guild Films.

Here's what the man said to me in his rich southern drawl: "This guy [a vulgarity for defecates] cream puffs!"

The drawler was the General Sales Manager at one of Norfolk, Va.'s two TV stations to which I had been trying to sell a new show starring the talented but extravagantly flamboyant piano player, Liberace. The way he lisped slightly as he cooed the lyrics of love songs did nothing to dispel the image of homosexuality, nor did his penchant for glittery jackets with lacy cuffs and candelabra poised prettily on his piano. Liberace's show first aired on a local Los Angeles station in 1952, and by 1954 had exploded onto TV stations in 217 cities. But it wasn't easy getting him there.

It took a lot of hard selling to convince any of my customers, either businessmen-advertisers or TV Station Managers in the Southeastern part of the nation, that this odd entertainer who today in our era of political correctness would be referred to as a "gay" entertainer but was then more bluntly referred to as a "fag," could attract viewers week after week. They said "No" to me in Norfolk and Richmond and Roanoke, and in Greenville and Charleston. ...

After dozens of futile audition screenings, I had discovered that the louder I turned up the sound volume, the better the schmaltzy piano music sounded ... and also the more it attracted the avid attention of any women who were within earshot. So before screening for a major appliance dealer in Columbia, [S.C.] I corralled as many secretaries as I could to join us in the company's conference room, turned the volume up full, and let it roll. When the film ended, the appliance guy seemed uncertain and unhappy. I asked him what percentage of his customers were women. He said, "About 90%." I then asked one of the girls how she liked the show, and with a tone bordering on reverence, she said, "Ah cain't find words to say!" So I made my first sale.

In the mid 1970s, Ave Butensky was an ad buyer at Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, working on the Toyota account.

The head of NBC Spot Sales, Bud Hirsch, came to my office and said, "Ave, how would you like to buy the overtime break in the Super Bowl?" He added that such a spot would no doubt be the highest-rated part of the game, probably the highest-rated spot for the entire year. It sounded like an offer that couldn't be refused. Now, as every football fan knows, there has never been an overtime in Super Bowl history. Bud explained the cost would be $25,000 for one 30-second spot, and that only one such spot would be aired. Bud also went on to explain that in the event there was no overtime break, WNBC-TV would still keep the $25,000 but would offer a package of make-goods to run over the next few weeks as part of a bushel basket of other spots. But he showed that the overall value of those make-good spots would exceed the value of the one overtime spot in the Super Bowl. I heard enough. We agreed. That night while going home on the Long Island Railroad, I met another time buyer who worked for another advertising agency who told me that he had bought the one overtime spot in the Super Bowl. I had the feeling that something else was in play here. How was it possible that Bud had sold the same single spot to two people?

And then it came to me. I called Bud at home and asked one simple question. "Bud, to how many advertisers did you sell that one overtime break in the Super Bowl?" Bud answered, "25." This was Zero Mostel and The Producers all over again, but this time it was television. Bud was betting there would be no overtime. And he was right. Every one of those 25 advertisers paid for a bushel basket of other spots, all sucked in by the notion that each might have that special overtime break in the big game. During his retirement party, I gave Bud the "chutzpah" award.

Dick Woollen was running KTTV(TV) Los Angeles in 1962. On the night that Richard Nixon lost his gubernatorial bid, late-night talk-show host and Nixon supporter Tom Duggan left word that he would not be doing his show.

I was slumped exhaustedly in my den about 8 p.m. when Ann Duggan, Tom's wife, called me with her startling question: Would I like to have Nixon fill in for Tom that night? Airtime was 11 p.m. I mumbled something inconclusive and she said, "Well, Dick Nixon is right here. I'll put him on."

I was dumbfounded. In his (at the time) darkest hour, Nixon hadn't gone home to his loyal wife, Pat. He hadn't even stayed with any of his closest confidants such as Bob Haldeman or Herb Klein. Instead, he had somehow wended his way to Duggan's home, where he found Ann home alone.

When Nixon came on the phone, it was obvious he was drunk. I was scrambling for reasons to tell him why I didn't think it would be a good idea for him to do a live one-hour telecast "after such an exhausting day," and one of his slurred responses was so memorable that it has become a staple of our family repartee ever since. I could almost envision him drawing himself erect as he chided my resistance by saying to me, "Well, I'm not eshackly wifout intelligence, ya know!"

I finally told him I'd think about it and get back to him. As soon as I hung up I called KTTV and spoke to the guard at the security gate, giving him firm orders that if Nixon showed up, not to admit him on the lot. Then, knowing that my colleague, Rev Winckler, was a close friend of Nixon's Communications Director, Herb Klein, I called Rev with the urgent suggestion that he find Herb or somebody else close to Nixon and send them out to put a butterfly net over him. Rev reached Herb with the news. Herb tracked down Haldeman who then dashed over to Duggan's house and carted Nixon back to where he belonged. I've often mused over the incident. Call it the "what if" syndrome. What if I had let Nixon do Duggan's show that night? What if a drunken Richard Nixon had babbled on for an hour on live TV? Would he ever have later been elected President of the United States? Or would the press reports have been so devastating that it would have finished him politically?

Sandy Frank owned his own production and distribution company. In 1977, he was determined to make a movie about then Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In that effort, he visited Begin and was literally at his side when he announced that President Sadat of Egypt would address the Knesset, a breakthrough in relations between the two countries.

A day after that announcement I was walking down the corridor with ... Begin, and the subject of Barbara Walters came up. I asked him if he would be interested in an interview with her. He said, "Absolutely. I would be delighted." Based on that information, I called ABC News in New York and got Barbara Walters on the phone with a cold call. I had never met her. I told her I had just been with Prime Minister Begin and he indicated he would be willing to meet with her and be interviewed by her in Israel when President Sadat came, which would be several days later. Her reaction to this news was like that of a child, jumping up and down. She let out a loud whoop, yelling, "Begin wants me to interview him with Sadat!" I told her that the one thing I ask in return for getting her this interview was to bring me a copy of Weekly Variety, BROADCASTING , and a bottle of Eau de Portugal hair tonic. Over the years, whenever I have seen Barbara Walters she kids me about having schlepped this stuff all the way to Israel.

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