Monday, December 31, 2007
Time: September 11, 1987
Place: Atlanta, GA
On September 11, 1987, CBS Sports was covering the U.S. Tennis Open. The Atlanta CBS affiliate exercised their option not to carry the event and stayed with their regular programming. This gave the small TV station I worked for the opportunity to show the tennis matches instead.
Everything was going fine until that afternoon. The match between Steffi Graf and Lori McNeil was taking longer than expected. CBS Sports was in danger of running long which would cause the Evening News with Dan Rather to start later than its six-thirty start time.
Most people remember this incident as the famous six minutes of dead air caused by Dan Rather when he stormed off the set when he learned that his newscast was being pushed back because of a tennis match and couldn’t be found when the Evening News began at six-thirty.
I had my own problems back at my small TV station. I was the on-air switcher during and after the tennis match. I don’t know how CBS Sports signed off with their affiliates, but where I was sitting, their exit was not at a clean time and I had to figure out in a hurry where my station’s regular scheduled programming should be.
Not that CBS Sports didn’t warn me that they were leaving air. During the tennis match, the announcers said, “We are running late, so we will have to leave before the match has ended. We’re sorry, but we will leave before the match ends.” They repeated this information about every thirty seconds before they did indeed leave before the match was over. I’m not sure if they were talking about the Steffi Graf- Lori McNeil match because I was too busy slamming tapes into machines and cueing them up for air.
As I rolled tape and tried to act like an octopus as I struggled to keep my station from having any dead air, the phones began to ring. My bosses were extremely stupid when it came to the phones. They insisted that the on-air switchers answer them. The last person who should be allowed to deal with irate viewers is the guy trying to keep the station from going to black.
But I followed orders and answered the phone. Most of them yelled, “Where the hell did the tennis match go?”
“Call CBS,” I said, “and by the way, this is not CBS.”
One very nasty woman would not be placated.
“I invited a group of friends over to watch this particular match and you’ve ruined our party. Why the hell did YOU switch off the match before it ended?” she said.
“Lady, the announcers explained why they left early. This was a CBS Sports decision. We just picked up the feed from them. You’ll have to ask them why they did it,” I explained.
“But it was on your station so YOU are responsible and I want an answer!”
I had the phone in the crook of my neck, I was trying to concentrate on getting the right commercials cued up, and I was adjusting the air schedule on the fly. When I almost missed airing a commercial, I finally had it with nasty woman.
“Look lady,” I said, “I can’t talk to you about this anymore. I’m the on-air switcher and you’re about to cause me to fuck up.”
There I had said it. The dreaded “fuck” word. To a viewer. The worst thing I could have said. And the nasty lady caught it immediately.
“Ohhh, I heard what you said,” she said, “I want your name and your supervisor’s name. You are in so much trouble.”
Sometimes, adversity gives birth to the most bizarre inspirations.
“Of course, ma’am,” I said in my best calm professional voice, “my name is Arnold Ziffel. That’s Z-I-F-F-E-L with two Fs. Did you get that or do you need to get something to write with?”
“Hold on,” she said, “I’m writing it down now.”
“You ready for my supervisor’s name?”
“Yes, go ahead.”
“Okay. His name is Oliver…Wendell…Douglas. Do you need me to spell that?”
“No, I got it.”
“He’s not in now, but he will be here at eight tomorrow morning.”
I resisted the urge to sing, “Green Acres is the place to be. Faarmmm livin’ is the live for me” before I hung up.
I don’t know if the nasty lady called the next day. I just know there was a lot of pigheadedness that day. Dan Rather and the nasty lady for sure. And me, I only impersonated a pig.