Sunday, October 9, 2016

My Notes on Billy Bush

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  I wish Paddy Chayefsky, the screenwriter of 1976's NETWORK, was alive to see this current presidential campaign.  If this campaign was one of his original screenplays, we'd laugh and wonder how he comes up with those outrageous ideas -- the mouthy Manhattan millionaire host of a network reality TV game show becomes the unpredictable Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency.  And a former First Lady is his Democrat opponent.  But that is our real life, my friends.  As CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of each newscast, "...and that's the way it is."  I'm sure you've heard about and/or read about the newest Donald Trump firestorm.  He made lewd, aggressive comments about women during the time he apparently was to be spotlighted on NBC's Access Hollywood.  He made the comments to former Access Hollywood host, Billy Bush.  They were not on camera but had this locker room-type chat while Trump's microphone was clipped onto his clothing.  Clipped on and turned on.  We can hear Bush laugh at Trump's lewd and rude comments.
The story gets even juicier.  The Washington Post reported on Saturday, Oct. 8th, that NBC News was aware of video tape of Trump making those remarks for four days but delayed reporting the story for fear that Trump would sue the network.
This is like a Frankenstein movie from the 1930s with the monster creating fear that it will turn on its creator.  NBC tirelessly promoted and publicized Donald Trump as he hosted The Apprentice, a Mark Burnett production that airs on NBC.  NBC gave him the electric charges that increased his ego, his fame and his hunger for power.  He takes diversity and tosses it aside like the monster picking up and throwing a scared villager. He offended us black people by relentlessly proclaiming that President Obama was not a real American and demanding to see his birth certificate.  Yes, a TV game show host did that.  Then he outraged the Mexicans.  Then the Muslims.  But when he made vile horny comments about a white woman, as folks in my old Harlem neighborhood would say, "shit got real." He talked about having the power and entitlement to grab women by their private parts.

Trump gave an apology that really wasn't an apology.  He said that the comments were about 11 years old and pretty much do not reflect him today.  Then he criticized Bill Clinton's extra-marital affairs, which happened a little over 20 years ago.  Billy Bush fared better in this controversy. Much better.  He apologized with no "but."  He apologized, blaming his irresponsibility on his youth.  He was in his mid 30s at that time the remarks were recorded.

In Donald Trump and Billy Bush, we see characters who would have been ripe for satire in a Chayefsky screenplay.  We also see TV celebrities whose careers are examples of why we minorities push for diversity in entertainment.  The playing field has never been level.  If NBC had a young black host of a network game show and the host made red carpet comments that Rudy Giuliani disrespected black people and that Sarah Palin was an absolute idiot who was not the right woman to be a Vice President of the U.S., that host surely would have been replaced for the show's next season.  But Trump was still NBC talent as he demanded to see President Obama's birth certificate.

On the Saturday, Oct. 8th, Weekend Edition hosted by Scott Simon on NPR, one guest Scott interviewed about Trump's lewd remarks asked "Why didn't Billy Bush tell NBC he had this video?"  I think I can answer that.  Billy Bush was not about to bite the corporate hand that feeds him and his family -- and that hand is NBC.  Another thing -- and this is major -- is that Billy Bush was hired by NBC news but he was not a journalist.  He didn't enter 30 Rock with hard news reporter skills, instincts and experience his bones.  I write this as someone who worked at WNBC, knows people who were there when he worked on local NBC news programs in New York City, and I write this as someone who worked with Billy Bush for one week on a radio show back in 2003.

Billy Bush was hired by WNBC News in 2001 when he had a relative in the White House.  This was his second relative to hold the office of Republican President of the United States.  Billy was the host of a local Washington, DC morning radio show on a rock music station.  He'd not taken journalism courses in college.  He'd never covered any news stories.  He had no TV experience whatsoever.  But lucky Billy got hired by WNBC news.  He made his debut doing light features -- fashion trends, pop culture news -- and, within six months, he was doing network pieces on the TODAY Show.  Then he was booted up to host NBC's prime time version of the Let's Make a Deal game show. Within a year or two of his WNBC debut, Billy became a contributor on NBC's Access Hollywood hosted by Pat O'Brien and Nancy O'Dell.  During those years something that seemed like a male version of All About Eve occurred.  Billy went from regular contributor to replacing the older Access Hollywood male host, Pat O'Brien.  Billy co-hosted the show with Nancy O'Dell.  In time, she left the show and he became the primary host.  Now Billy is formerly of Access Hollywood.  He was added to the host list on NBC's TODAY Show.  He's been co-hosting the show's third hour called Today's Take.  He's the second member of the Bush Family to be talent on the morning program.  Jenna Bush Hager, former White House daughter, was hired and turned into a news contributor.
I worked with Billy Bush for one week when we were judges on the WPLJ morning radio show's in- studio version of American Idol.  In person, as on TV, Billy Bush struck me as a charismatic, over-aged and privileged frat boy jock who was lucky to have network dudes determined to make him a well-paid TV host -- lucky because his resum√© was rather light.  The Trump "locker room" chat was inappropriate talk.  What kind of journalist would carry out that kind of conversation while a microphone was clipped on and turned on?  AND one of the women Trump made vulgar comments about was Billy co-host, Nancy O'Dell!  Billy Bush recently argued with the constantly jovial Al Roker live on TODAY when Billy defended disgraced Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte after news broke that Lochte lied to Billy on TODAY about having been robbed at gunpoint in Rio.
Billy Bush is not a hard news journalist.  But he will be fine.  NBC will figure out how to refit, repackage or relocate him.

I've written before that, in its first 50 years, the TODAY Show had only two African American contributors/hosts.  They were Bryant Gumble and Al Roker.  That was visually noticeable in its 50th anniversary special edition.  The show is diverse now but think about it ...only two black people as on-air talent in half a century that started in 1952.  Now think of all the black journalists who probably wanted to be on TODAY but got no consideration from its network executives.

Those of you who know me already know this.  I was approached to work for WNBC News.  It was launching a new program called Weekend TODAY in New York. I was approached to do film reviews, other entertainment reports and some lifestyle features.  That appealed to me because then, as now, it's rare to see a black person as the regular film critic on a news show.  And black reporters in New York City rarely get the theater beat so they can cover Broadway and off-Broadway.  I took the WNBC job in September 1992 and then my assignments were changed.  I was to be the "community calendar" guy who told you about things to do around town. I was shifted to be the funny man-on-the-street contributor.  Of course, I argued with management about that but I kept the weekend job because I needed the money. My boyfriend had been diagnosed with full blown AIDS.   I became his New York City caregiver. He died in June 1994.

I went to WNBC after having had my own prime time talk show on VH1, a show that got a great review in The New York Times.  During my VH1 years, I did six months as talent on CBS Late Night.  After my VH1 years, I was an occasional guest host on CNBC's Talk Live and I was the host of a summer replacement syndicated late night TV game show.  The game show was airing when I was contacted by WNBC.  The game show's summer run ended and I took the part time WNBC job.  We premiered on September 1992.

After pushing to do them, I got to do occasional entertainment interviews on the show.  But, for the most part, I was assigned live shots in shopping malls and at street fairs.  At the beginning of January 1995, the news director called me in for a meeting.  He told me that my work was excellent and that I was very popular with viewers.  However, I would not be moving up to full time employment at WNBC and I would not be doing any entertainment features for the network edition of Weekend TODAY.  I gave my two weeks' notice that same day.  Why stay there if I would not be moving up?

Billy Bush was getting network exposure on TODAY within six months of his debut on local WNBC. By the following year, he'd been elevated to Access Hollywood.  No journalism experience. No previous TV experience.  He got the kind of gig I hoped to get.  Here's some of the work I'd done on VH1 before I was hired by WNBC in 1992.

And, again, I quit in 1995 when I was told that I had no chance of moving up to network opportunities.  That's what I mean about the playing field not being level.

As a friend in Harlem says, "White people be lucky."  What a follow up to NETWORK Paddy Chayefsky could've written from all this.  Wow.

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