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Can’t sleep. Cat will eat me.

Sunday, 24 September, 2006

I have one of those ideas for a movie or perhaps a continuing series. It is partly based on the legend of Don Schroeder, the patriarch of local news back home, with updated flavorings of WKRP in Cincinnati. The idea would explore the possibilities of local television, and the classic theme of what happens when a rag tag group of misfits come together and do something consequential.

In short, we meet a fiftyish television journalist doing time at the dominant television news operation in a medium-sized city to be named later. He is rather abruptly fired for being too old and out of touch with the new world of news. Less city-council meetings, more gore. Due to his network experience and excruciating personal thrift, he in fact has more than enough money to retire happily. Indeed if his wife had not found a job in [career unrelated to media to be named later] in this town, he probably would have retired XX years ago, after being released from The Network for [scandalous, but ultimately noble reason].

He is a cross between the noble and well-regarded news personality in your town … Fred Cantú in Austin … and what Les Nessman would probably be like in real life.

Our hero finds himself on the street with the items from his desk in a recycled paper case. He’s downtown, from which he typically commutes by bus due to his thrift, and is intending to head to the bus stop to go home to reassess. (The people he meets on the bus and who want to talk to the guy from TV about local issues can become a plot device.) Walking the other way down a one-way street he happens upon our other principle.

Our second principle had been bouncing around from town to town primarily as a television technician with some experience in the front office. A long time ago, he wanted to be a television journalist, but just didn’t have the stuff. Our two principles attended college together within the same program, but it wasn’t until they were living in the same city they became reacquainted. This was some time ago. Due to [long wacky story] he came into possession of a low-rent television station with a poor signal and elected to make a go of it. He’s been in this town running channel 37, for almost 20 years.

It has to be channel 37. Channel 37 has never been allocated.

Our secondary is a rough and tumble working-class guy who you just know is the guy splicing the cable answering the phone and making the occasional trip out to the transmitter. Even if someone else was there to do it, he’d be staying late to do it himself.

Several years ago, channel 37 lost their network affiliation. Since then things have become decidedly low rent. The programming consists of a healthy dose of infomercials, well chosen syndicated series in rerun and very conscientiously selected movies every night in prime time. Film is his secondary passion after TV. 37’s evening movie, and Saturday night three-hour cartoon block are considered local treasures among self-appointed sophisticates. Still, it is local independent television and with the small ad buys money is always short.

He pulls up in his immaculate car, which was classy fifteen years ago, to find his old friend walking down the street with a paper case. They have a brief exchange and retire to small neighborhood bar to commiserate. The established journalist is hesitant to spend time at such a place, but relents to “just one”.

Hours later, this twosome and the bartender are engaged in conversation in a mostly empty establishment. They are sharing the kind of wacky stories broadcasters tend to tell about the business. Eventually the station-owner says: “Why don’t you come and work for me?”

“Since when did your station have a news department?”

He looks at his watch. “About two hours ago.” They elect to retire to the facilities of channel 37 which happens to be right down the street. The station-owner elects not to drive. Upon arrival we meet the second recurring character (after the bartender), the receptionist and general assistant who unofficially runs the front office. She’s not quite 30, a lefty politico in her spare time and has come to the station after a referral by a placement agency for an “Admin A”, but remains mostly out of a sense of romance for the station. She rushes the arriving boss with torrent of issues which have arisen since his departure many hours ago, and is frustrated but not shocked to discover that he is drunk. Her torrent is interrupted when she realizes with whom he has arrived … and of course, the studio is all but a disaster area.

Cut to the series, or second act of the movie. Our people and a few folks they’ve met along the way start a news division with the Journalist at the lead. Among the characters we meet along the way:

  • A nerdy, degreed meteorologist who waxes romantically about the nature of the weather during prolonged and uncommonly detailed weather reports. He arranges for the station to get access to an atmospheric radar system and shines during emergencies. Eventually he gets permission to interrupt programming at any time for emergency coverage. He quickly develops a cult following among local nerds. Since they have no budget for a proper weather set, he reports from the roof of the studio’s building, without regard to current conditions, which happens to have a view of the city skyline. What graphics become available are manipulated by him on a laptop computer which is clearly visible.
  • The receptionist evolves into a reporter and replacement for the anchor when he is unavailable. The first occurrence of her replacing the anchor happens under emergency conditions to be determined later.
  • The station’s two technicians, who share shifts with the owner. One is an old school hard ass in some ways filling a role not unlike Coach Pantuso from Cheers. The other quite young, overly ambitious and generally a mess. From time to time, Gilligan style, he pulls off a stunning success.
  • Around the station and helping out is a fellow with a learning disability. It is not clear whether he is actually paid. As a favor, the younger technician shoots and edits a spot with him either at a festival or touring a local factory. The LD fellow’s enthusiasm and curiosity make the piece a big hit, and he becomes on occasion the stations light-subject reporter.

Their news programming becomes a hit among critics and news junkies, but money is remains tight. As a series the show could become about community and the people who tend to settle for working within this environment. As a movie, it would be all about this community of people succeeding precisely by breaking the rules of the establishment.

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