I talked to Jay Leno the other day. That sort of sounds like we’re pals and I can pick up the phone and chat with my buddy Jay. No, Jay sat in a chair in some room in Los Angeles and did about 25 three-minute interviews with people like me from all over the country. As I sat in our studio, waiting my turn, I listened to others interviewing Jay and it became obvious that most of us asked about the same questions and he gave about the same answers. Jay Leno is a professional, and from everything I hear, is genuinely a nice guy. In each interview he was patient and funny and acted like each question was the best one he’d been asked. It’s easy to say, well heck, the man makes a zillion dollars a year, he can afford to be nice to everyone. Trust me there are plenty of well-paid folks in the TV business who are pure jerks that you wouldn’t want to spend 5 minutes with. Jay Leno is one of the good guys.
When someone off-camera said, “OK, Birmingham is next, you’ll be talking to Mike,” Jay said, “Birmingham, what a great town.” When I was told he could hear me, I told Jay that Bruce Ayers from The Comedy Club said hello. Jay said Bruce is a great guy and to tell him hello too. He went on to say what a great job George Barber has done building the road course here and how much he enjoyed seeing the track. That’s Leno -- he believed his mother when, like all mothers do, she taught him that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
I have an example of the opposite. I think former Today Show host Bryant Gumbel is one of the smartest guys on TV. He now hosts a news/sports magazine program on HBO. A few months back they did a feature about well-known orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, who for years has performed surgery on some of the biggest names in sports. The feature was well-done and certainly casts Dr. Andrews and Birmingham in a positive light. However, in his introduction to the story, Gumbel said that Dr. Andrews and his team are headquartered in “of all places, Birmingham, Alabama.” Really, “of all places”? By implication, it was hard for Gumbel to believe that the top orthopedic surgeon in the world would want to live, let alone be headquartered in Birmingham. Being smart doesn’t have to include being respectful or nice.
Jay Leno told me that this new venture into primetime television is a lot different from when he took over The Tonight Show two decades ago. Then, he was replacing a legend and that’s enough pressure for anyone. Monday night, Jay will do what he’s been doing for all of his professional life. He’ll tell jokes, he’ll be funny and he’ll get paid for it. His hope is that with the news of the day and the current economic quandary our country is in, Americans might like to wind down their day with a smile instead drama or violence. We’ll see.
I do believe he’s right about this. Jay says that the future of television is live. I think the future of local TV has been and will continue to be live and local. The relationships between local TV stations and networks aren’t getting stronger; they’re getting weaker and more expensive. I’ve heard some veteran broadcasters advise young people that local TV might be a tough career choice because of the economy and changes in how news and programming will be delivered in the future. I may be wrong, but I tell young people just the opposite. I tell high school and college students that television is a great career choice. Sure, things are different than they used to be, but guess what, that’s true of every career and profession. I think in the not too distant future, local TV stations will have more time to produce their own programming. They’ll be more newscasts, not fewer. They’ll be more opportunities to serve viewers with live and local programs. Live and local, in my opinion, is the future of local TV. We’ll see.
35 years ago my boss at the last radio station where I worked advised me that taking a low-paying TV job wasn’t a good career move. He told me that television is too competitive and that I’d get lost in the masses of college graduates who wanted TV jobs. I ought to write him and thank him for the worst advice I’ve ever been given. I took that TV job and was paid $8,000. I set a goal in 1975 to someday, somewhere make $25,000 a year. If I can hang in there a little longer, 2010 just might be my year.
I’ll see you tonight at 5:00, 6:00 and 10:00.
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