I haven’t worked a steady job in TV news since 2009. Still, about once a month I have the same nightmare about it. There are variations with regard to my employer and co-workers, but it’s the same basic, awful, sweat-producing nightmare.
Mail carriers probably have equivalent dreams—being chased around and around and around a city block by a pack of ravenous dogs, for instance. Singers might dream they’ve lost their voices; writers might dream they’ve forgotten the alphabet; surgeons might dream they’ve grown ten thumbs.
Last night, I was working for NBC News in New York. I had just returned from a dangerous reporting assignment in Afghanistan. I was unpacking my suitcase in the newsroom when a producer approached me in a breathless panic (which is not abnormal behavior for producers).
“We need you to anchor the studio portion of Nightly News,” she panted.
“Tonight’s Nightly News?” I asked, bewildered.
“Yes. Tonight’s Nightly News,” she answered without slowing her pant. “You’re on in less than five minutes.”
I quickly donned a suit and tie as the producer, a thirty-something Caucasian woman whose ambition of becoming the next Diane Sawyer had ended the first time she looked into a mirror, explained that anchor Brian Williams (my nightmare hasn’t updated to Lester Holt yet) would be handling the bulk of the show from a remote location.
“All you have to do is read the intro to the remote anchor and then come back for two segments after the second break,” she said.
“Okay. No problem,” I said, sitting in the big boy anchor chair. I clipped on my microphone and connected it to the wireless box the stage manager had clipped to the back of my pants. I connected my earpiece to the box as well.
Less than a minute later, I was on.
“Good evening, I’m Matt Stevens,” I read from the teleprompter. Then, it happened. The prompter started moving so fast that the words were a blur. I paused. I bumbled. I stumbled. I tried to ad lib, but I hadn’t been told anything about the lead story, so I couldn’t even fake it. I had no idea where Brian Williams was located, so I couldn’t toss it to him.
I became the 2007 Miss Teen U.S.A. contestant from South Carolina.
[This cringeworthy clip went viral a few years back and was requested by my father. See if you can get through it without losing faith in all humanity.]
My nonsensical blathering lasted at least thirty seconds. Finally, they just cut away from me and gave me the “all clear.” I unhooked myself and stalked off the set, silently vowing to kill the unpaid intern who’d just ruined my career by screwing up the prompter.
Terrified and tormented, I shook myself awake, as always. I silently celebrated the fact that it was only a nightmare. Then I chuckled at the notion that it was all quite plausible. In fact the fate of every high-priced TV anchor in the country is placed in the hands of the lowest-paid person in the newsroom—the prompter operator—every night of the week. How ridiculous is that?
Tess' Note: It reminds me of that moment in Anchor Man where they switch the prompter text and all hell breaks loose, "Fuck you San Diego." Right?
The late Jerry Dunphy, who was the inspiration for the newscaster on The Simpsons, was making over a million dollars a year when I worked with him at KCAL in Los Angeles.
He was a nice man, but if anyone messed up his prompter, they didn’t get a chance to do it again. I’m not sure if they were allowed to live.
In my experience, the incompetent teleprompter operator becomes the incompetent assistant assignment manager; then the incompetent associate producer; then the incompetent producer; then the incompetent executive producer; then the incompetent assistant news director; then the incompetent news director.
Tess Note: My theory is that these kinds of people have made my dad the Grumpy person he has become.
Then, after decades of incompetence, the former incompetent teleprompter operator is inducted into the broadcasting hall of fame without ever doing a damn thing that made sense.