My Life as a TV Executive

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Like most Jewish kids, I dreamed of one day controlling the media. Specifically, I wanted to run a TV network. As I grew older, this became less of a possibility, partly because a big part of being a network executive seemed to involve owning a suit. But then my digital-cable box neared 200 channels, designer-outlet stores became more prevalent, and my dream moved within reach. Six months ago I called Trio, an obscure arts channel that reaches just under 20 million homes and doesn't even get a Nielsen rating, and asked if they would let me run the network for a week. I chose Trio not just because its president, Lauren Zalaznick, owed me after mistakenly cc-ing me on an e-mail she sent out when she worked at VH1 about how much my writing stinks, but also because no real TV channel would trade a week of airtime for a one-page magazine article. Trio was willing to cede complete control of the network. Even better, it would let me have the week around my birthday, July 19 to 27. For a two-page story, the job would have come with Vivendi stock options. I stuck with a page.

To be given charge of the channel, I had to win over Michael Jackson, who, Zalaznick carefully explained, was the Vivendi Universal Television Group chairman and could not get me into Neverland. I wrote Jackson an e-mail about my plans to serve as a curator who would contextualize Trio's role as a pop-culture arbiter and other phrases I remembered from the Matthew Barney exhibit. I didn't mention my real plan: to see if I could get ridiculous garbage on TV. Jackson liked the idea so much that Trio made the My Trio concept a quarterly gimmick, with Quentin Tarantino taking over in the fall. Tarantino got top billing on the press release.

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My first move was to play off of Trio's Brilliant but Canceled series, where, in another desperate attempt to get press, the network aired failed series that were loved by critics. My series, Just Plain Canceled, would air really awful shows that bombed. I met with Kris Slava, vice president of acquisitions and scheduling, and gave him a list of shows I wanted to air: The Chevy Chase Show, My Mother the Car, Manimal, Pink Lady and Jeff and Mr. Smith, the 1983 NBC sitcom about an orangutan that ran a Washington think tank. Slava put a lot of work into looking into this and discovered that the freaks who owned Chevy Chase's talk show not only wanted a fortune per episode but would sell us only all 30. Finally, we decided that since we had only a few hours of prime-time programming each night to spend money on, we would buy My Mother the Car and Pink Lady and Jeff, a racially offensive variety show starring comedian Jeff Altman and a Japanese singing duo named Pink Lady. I was in L.A. when we had to close the deal, and I gave the go-ahead from my cell phone to a conference room of a dozen executives. After the call, giddy with my newfound power, I canceled my reservation at the Ivy, even though I didn't have one.

Slava also bought me Battle of the Network Stars, so I could relive the thrill I got seeing Catherine Bach in the dunk tank. He got me the MTV game show Idiot Savants, where I was the only contestant ever to yell out an incorrect answer immediately after someone else had given the same incorrect answer. And he got me the Late Night with David Letterman from my junior year of high school, where Dave read my letter on the air, which is still the highlight of my writing career. As you can probably tell from this article.

Testing how thoroughly I could ruin Trio's reputation as the smartest channel on cable, I got Andrew Cohen, vice president of Original Programming, to green-light Good Clean Porn, a series where I would show adult films without the sex scenes and introduce them, Alistair Cooke style, sitting in a leather chair and smoking a pipe.

For the week, Trio even changed its slogan from "Pop, Culture, TV" to "Joel, Stein, TV" and had me introduce each show. They also had me write and host a half-hour show of clips from my selections. It was about 12 hours into the day of shooting that it struck me that I wasn't getting paid for any of my work: not the hosting, the months of programming, the Good Clean Porn show or the My Trio idea. Trio is indeed the smartest network in the world.