Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mike’s Bar-B-Que Adventure: New York City

Part 4 of a 5-part (and growing) series

As I did my online research for my trip to NYC, one person advised me that the GMA studio tour, in their experience, was pretty quick and involved a lot of standing around in a holding pen with other tour guests. I don’t doubt that there’s a tour where this is true, and it helped to set my expectations low.

As it was, I had very little idea of what to expect from my visit to the studio. Sure, I’d worked on a show in Syracuse for a couple of years, but I had no frame of reference for the differences between a small show produced in my hometown and the official morning news program for a major US television network. Thus, going in with low expectations was a good self-defense mechanism. If it turned out to be a couple of hours in the Green Room watching the show on a monitor smaller than my living room TV, it wouldn’t be too great a letdown. But so much the better that it was nothing like that at all.

My wife and I were up at 5:30 on Saturday. The studio was directly across the street from our hotel, so we really just needed to allow time to get clean and dressed. We debated whether there’d be anything to eat at GMA and decided not to chance it – I didn’t want hunger to be a distraction. We found a little place on Broadway that was just opening up and grabbed a croissant and a muffin, then walked back to the studio, identified the correct unmarked entry door, and introduced ourselves to the security guard. Moments later, we were placed in the expert care of Alice the GMA Weekend Green Room Coordinator. Alice made sure we met everybody, and I mean everybody there was to meet, including each security guard and a member of the cleaning crew who was watching TV in a basement break room. She was extremely adept at making us feel at home and suggesting where we might like to be at each moment to get maximum enjoyment from our visit. I can’t remember ever meeting a friendlier, more amiable person than Alice and her guidance enhanced our tour tremendously.

A minute after stepping through the secured door from the back entrance, we quite nearly ran into GMA Weekend Anchor Kate Snow, who was hustling about getting ready for the show. She had her hair in curlers and didn’t look thrilled to see us at that point, but we couldn’t have been happier. Not about the curlers, per se, just to have met Kate in person, if only to say “Hello” in passing. After a trip to the Green Room, which was in fact painted green, Alice, a former State Department employee who now worked part-time for GMA Weekend making sure guests of the show were comfortable, showed us out to the set. It was glorious. If you’ve ever seen GMA (whether during the week or on the weekend, it’s the same set with one exception), you know that there’s a newsdesk, a couch, a second couch surrounded by windows (overlooking Times Square), an interview area with two armchairs, and a weather station with one enormous plasma monitor and a couple of smaller ones. These may appear to be in different rooms, but actually they’re all sets in one large studio. The cameras and talent just move from one to the next as needed. The windows look out to the northwest over Broadway and fill one whole wall of the studio.

(Click the pic for a full-sized version)

We were seated on one of two low, wooden benches near the interview armchairs. They’re actually situated right in front of the armchairs at the interview set, but the cameras shoot right over them and they’re never visible on-screen. Naturally nobody can sit on them if the interview set is in use, but on that day it wasn’t. From this vantage, we could see the entire studio fairly well, though the two couches were obscured by the newsdesk and by the camera equipment that occupies the center of the floor. Alice introduced us to several camera operators, sound techs, and Scotty Kaye the Stage Manager. Scotty welcomed us enthusiastically and seemed genuinely pleased to meet us. This experience would prove to be consistent throughout the morning – every person we met was as pleasant and warm as anyone you’d ever want to meet. Never once were we treated like outsiders or even “visitors,” but were welcomed like part of the GMA Weekend family.

Shortly after meeting Scotty and several other members of the production team (and there were quite a few of them – many of whom I either didn’t hear their names or I didn’t have the presence of mind to etch it firmly in my memory. Apologies to anyone from the team who might stumble upon this humble journal. Be assured that it’s not a deliberate snub, just my lousy memory.) Alice took us around behind the set to meet the teleprompter operator. This talented fellow normally worked only one teleprompter at a time, but today was working both. If I understood correctly, there was one for the Anchors (Bill and Kate) and a second for the News and Weather reports. He seemed confident that he could manage it, and based on what I saw I can only presume that he did so. There certainly wasn’t any overt indication that the on-air personalities were without their scripts.

Next we walked through into the control room for a quick look and were overwhelmed by the scores of monitors on the front wall, the side walls, and mounted to the ceiling. I couldn’t begin to absorb what they all represented, but I was certainly impressed. I worked at a casino for a couple of years, and every morning when I walked to my office I’d look around at the lights and the décor and the ever-present patrons and think “this is a pretty neat place to work.” I suspect that the GMA folks may get a similar thrill when they sit down and fire up those banks of monitors in preparation to broadcasting the show to the nation.

We then walked back out to the set to sit once again on our bench, and soon David Wright and Bill Weir were there, getting their final makeup applied and chatting with the crew. David is a regular ABCNews correspondent based out of Washington, DC (and a Rhodes Scholar, I would later learn). On this day he was in for Ron Claiborne, who was reporting live from Ghana. Also on the set was San Francisco’s own Sandhya Patel, who was the guest in for GMA Weekend regular Marysol Castro. Marysol was on vacation in Chicago, and even filed a story from there on the Willis Tower’s (né Sears Tower) new glass balcony.

GMA Weekend is a bit of an odd duck, as it’s similar to but different from the weekday GMA. For starters, it doesn’t use the downstairs set at all, nor does it typically have the in-studio crowds that GMA Weekday tends to pack in. These are the folks who hold up the “Sam Champion’s a cutie” signs in hopes of getting some screentime. They also much more rarely seem to move down to shoot outside on Broadway, though they have at times. They have their own signature segments, including “This Week in Three Words,” “The News You Missed,” (which I don’t remember seeing in a while, now that I think on it. A shame – it’s a funny segment), and “GMA Window” where they show some outdoor location in hi-def, with interviews of park rangers and/or local residents. But what’s most notable about GMA Weekend is that it’s only an hour-long show, as compared to the two-hour GMA that airs Monday through Friday. As Bill Weir says in their promos, “It’s different on the weekend.”

I’d gotten an introduction to how they tape GMA Weekend when I met Ron Claiborne at the Dinosaur, but on Saturday I actually got copies of the “Lineup” in my hand, including the revised copies that were distributed throughout the morning. The Lineup shows the precise order of events scheduled for the show, the duration of each, and the time to the second that it will air during the show. For example, the show’s “Cold Open,” including the GMA Weekend Theme Song, is 55 seconds long, and it’s the first thing that happens on the show. Then, at 55 seconds into the show, they switch to the 11-second-long “Live/Title/Announce,” which is a voiceover that says, to paraphrase “This is Good Morning America Weekend. Here’s Bill Weir and Kate Snow.” When this is done, the show has been on for one minute and six seconds, and the anchors start to do their thing.

But here’s where it gets funky: they tape the entire hour-long show, live, from 7:00 AM (Eastern) to 8:00 AM. There are taped segments, of course, but the show is going out live. However, some stations around the country don’t air GMA Weekend at 7:00 AM. They air it at 8:00 AM Eastern time. And it may or may not be the same show that went out live at 7 AM Eastern. You following me there? They do part or all of the show, live, a second time between 8:00 and 9:00 AM Eastern. Didn’t like how a segment played out? Do it over. Need to update the news with more recent info? Do it again. Want more current weather? Tape it over.

So we watched them tape the show twice between 7 AM and 9 AM on Saturday. There were some pieces that they aired back during the second hour “off the server,” which means they used a recording from the first hour. But other parts of the show were taped again and were partly or completely different in the second hour.

Here’s an example – one of the hot news stories on that day had to do with a mostly-minority daycare group that had been ejected from a mostly-white country club/swimming pool. The woman who ran the daycare was supposed to be interviewed on the show, but she got stuck in traffic and didn’t make it in time. During the 7 AM hour they tried to interview her over her cell phone, but the quality was poor and her tale went off on a tangent at a few points. After the interview, when the show had gone to commercial, I could hear Bill and Kate discussing (presumably with the control room as well as each other) that they really weren’t happy with the quality of the interview. So during the second hour, it was replaced with a segment David Wright had produced about GM’s Bankruptcy. Those stations who aired the 7:00 show never saw Wright’s segment, and the stations airing the 8:00 feed never saw (or heard) the interview with the daycare owner. Likewise, a segment at the end of the show on body-detoxifying diets was taped twice – once with and once without the ear-shattering super-blender that drowned out all conversation as the guest turned fruits and veggies into smoothies with the color and texture of pond scum. From the way Bill Weir guzzled down two of them, they apparently tasted better than they looked.

Watching the show being taped was neat. We were politely ushered around the studio so we wouldn’t be in anybody’s way, though I got the impression that where the stage manager told us to stand during the second half-hour was not really where the woman responsible for setting up the veggie-detox segment would have liked us. We tried our best to stay out of her way without stepping on anybody else, but it was pretty close quarters.

By the time the second hour was “on the server” and ready for re-broadcast out to the West Coast channels (for whom none of the show was live unless something major happened between 9 and 10 AM Eastern), we’d met pretty much everybody and even chatted briefly with Sandhya Patel about her trip in from California and her four-month-old twins. But we had yet to really get to meet two of the faces you’d most associate with the show – Bill Weir and Kate Snow. Meeting them turned out to be one of many memorable experiences that morning.

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