Tuesday, March 09, 2010

JB Blunck recalls Affair with Murdoch

The brave glory days of tabloid television are far behind us, but many of the original innovators, all pups when they changed the medium, journalism and the world, are still out there pushing new media forward from all different angles Among the foremost: Joachim Blunck, "JB" to those in the know, media entertainment professional who was among the core group of producers who created and launched A Current Affair in the 1980s. A key player in the book Tabloid Baby, the former Baltimore City Paper and Village Voice art director went on to play a key role in the development of the FX network and is recognized as an innovator in new media across the board, from independent filmmaking to web design.

Long based in Los Angeles, JB was interviewed this week by old pal Russ Smith on Splicetoday.com. JB hits all the hot button topics of mainstream and new media, while also looking back on the days working for Rupert Murdoch in the tabloid television trenches:

ST: You worked for Rupert Murdoch for a number of years, with A Current Affair, Good Day New York and the FX Channel. How much interaction did you have with Murdoch and how much autonomy did he give you and your colleagues? What led to you severing ties with News Corp and do you regret it now?

JB: In my early days at News Corp it was still a relatively small company on the executive side. One of my many hats was to work at the corporate offices on a variety of things for Murdoch. I had my share of meetings and interaction, and got a good fly-on-the-wall view. It was during that time that I gained enough trust to be thrown into Fox with a couple Aussie journalists, and basically set loose to do whatever had to be done.

A Current Affair was the answer to Murdoch's request for an evening news show. Murdoch had considerable interest in our progress— he regularly spoke to us, and was present at a couple early, formative meetings— but the interpretation and execution was left to us. Peter Brennan was the editorial heart and soul of the show; I worked the visual style and got it to air. Sound familiar? We were housed at the Fox NY station, the former Metromedia WNEW. There was no help— we were Murdoch interlopers. I remember putting together equipment and people, spending what would become millions of dollars without regard for the internal accounting systems. The show went from concept to air in less than eight weeks. If anyone ever asked "by whose authority," I just said "Rupert." That was fun.

"People often think back
to A Current Affair

as tawdry and salacious,
when in fact
it was just
good tabloid reporting

with a twinkle in our eyes.
We were renegades
with a healthy sense of humor."

...In my time at News Corp I was never afraid for my job, and always felt supported. I left after moving to Los Angeles. New York was an oasis in the television system, and our distance from Hollywood and proximity to Murdoch made things easy. As long as we succeeded and delivered, we were left alone. In LA, everyone gets into your business and looks for ways to either piss on or co-opt your work. It wasn't fun anymore, and I had my fill.

ST: When A Current Affair started its buzz-meter was off the charts in New York, with personalities like Steve Dunleavy and others landing in the gossip columns and just a lot of excitement around the show. I imagine it was a rush to be a major domo on the show, if exhausting. What was the atmosphere like? Maybe like an extended coke/meth high or something different? And how do you look back on those Fox shows today? I see that you did the "Color Correction" for the film Outfoxed.

JB: Not drugs, but an awful lot of liquor. We had a phone extension installed in the bar across from the office. We were reinventing storytelling for television. No one had ever seen anything like it, and we were too naive to say no to anything that was suggested. We were renegades with a healthy sense of humor. It was very much the same outlaw mentality that we had at City Paper.

People often think back to ACA as tawdry and salacious, when in fact it was just good tabloid reporting with a twinkle in our eyes. If you got the joke, fine, if you didn't, at least you were entertained. In our first month we got a positive review in The New York Times! The reviewer got it. For the most part, so did the audience, and the rising ratings just fueled our daring.

"Murdoch is fearless
and incredibly smart.

He listens, considers, decides,
and often provides the initial idea
that fuels the machine.
He's the last of the old-time journos."

Aside from the preppie murder, Jim and Tammy Faye, and all the other big stories that we led with simply because no one else did (that changed, didn't it?), the one I remember with a laugh was the Peter Holm story. Holm was a dumb hunk of a Swede who was being divorced by Joan Collins. He sued for palimony in LA Court. We put together, in a day, a show (live to air at the time) that was a mock telethon to raise money for Holm. Our studio had been used for years for the Jerry Lewis Telethon when it came from New York, so in the rafters were phones, tables, chairs, risers, decorations, all the stuff you needed to do a telethon. We set up the studio with mock phone banks populated with celebrity lookalikes (and Cindy Adams), did a backdrop with a tote board that looked like a big thermometer (The Peter Meter), recorded tape packages with New Yorkers and what they would donate (a slum apartment, food from the trash, etc), ran a text zipper on the screen with amounts people were giving (all fake—Joan Carson $1000… Joanna Carson $10,000), and had the telethon portions of the broadcast hosted by one of our reporters in a tux.

Maury Povich, of course, would not lower himself to our descending levels, and hosted the "show" from his usual set. The show did include an actual package about the trial, but the capper was a satellite interview with Holm as he left court that day. He, of course, could hear our show in his earpiece between Q&A sessions with Maury. While a viewer would have seen the obvious satire, hearing the show interspersed with Maury’s conversation seemed to give a different impression. After the show was over I got a call in the control room from our producer in LA. Holm wanted to know how much money we'd raised.

ACA, Good Day, the FX shows and everything else all had the same sensibility. I had the time of my life. Of course, we begat a tectonic change in news. There are no more tabloid news magazines. Everything is just tabloid, and without the consideration and execution that we invented. News is now salacious and tawdry, and increasingly stupid.

Not much of a story with Outfoxed. I do color work on occasion to bridge between producing assignments. It was a four-day gig. The producers of Outfoxed made some good points, but on the whole they were as misinformed as everyone else.

ST: Do you follow the continuing acquisitions, plotting, subterfuge, etc. of Murdoch today, and do you think, as is commonly thought in some quarters, that he's an evil media force? Or, rather, an old-fashioned entrepreneur?

JB: Success breeds detractors. Murdoch succeeds. He is fearless and incredibly smart. It was always an eye-opener seeing him run a room. He listens, considers, decides, and more often that not, provides the initial idea that fuels the machine. In media, he's the last of the old-time journos.

Politics aside (and I think Fox News is awful), his moves in publishing were always copied, whether it was changing the game with the unions or using technology to further coverage and production. He's leading the charge to save what's left of real reportage. The Wall Street Journal and Harper Collins will be among the first on the iPad. Murdoch understands more than anyone that newspapers represent power, and that he and the rest of the industry failed to understand the impact of the Web. Unfortunately, his people screwed up MySpace. My impression is that the touchpad moves are being encouraged directly by him. Will it all work? Dunno.


Kings Farmer said...

Great interview with JB. Right on it. See you on the East Coast soon, I hope.

الفيسبوك said...

yes this is a very good interview it good to remember those golden people