The Men Behind the Screens
These TV Executives Show that Not All Cigar-Smoking media Moguls Are in Film
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98
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It started in Miami's Little Havana. In a jam-packed club filled with Cuban exiles, CBS News executive vice president Jonathan Klein and his wife, Jennifer Snell, an investigative reporter for Miami's WPLG-TV, began their love affair with cigars.
"We took to it very quickly. We'd go there every Friday. It was a release at the end of the week and fit with the conviviality and the brotherhood," says Klein, who oversees such shows as "60 Minutes," "48 Hours" and "Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel" from his Manhattan office.
"My wife and I smoke the same brand--Cohiba Lanceros," he adds. "Probably in Little Havana you can't smoke Cubans, so down there we'd smoke cigars called La Gloria [Cubanas], which kind of get passed around. I equate it with escape, plus I look good with a cigar. I'm a short guy. My wife looks like a complete knockout with a cigar. I almost feel fluent in Spanish with a cigar in my hand. It makes my merengue dancing even better."
Such cigar-enhanced bursts of escape balance the pressure from mounting competition among news organizations and prime-time newsmagazine shows.
"It's a fierce battleground," says Klein. "More people are watching what we do than ever before. There was a feeling among some West Coast programmers a few years ago that the newsmagazines' time had passed. But we're seeing quite the opposite. It's an evergreen format that's used anytime on the schedule and is a cost-effective counter-programming or ratings draw. It's a busier time than ever as information has become more regularly available to people. The burden is increasing to be first off the dime with the best information."
As competition intensifies, the pressure to adopt a tabloid format increases. "News executives and producers have to make a choice--to succumb to the lure or stake out a path that is truer to their own particular tastes," he says. "At CBS, we're trying to stand out from the rest in the tradition of Charles Kuralt and Mike Wallace. It's tougher and tougher to live up to that.
"The onus is on the network news organizations to provide context and analysis," he adds. "As information rises, comprehension falls, because you're constantly interpreting and digesting data. There's more raw data available, so it's more important that people in the audience
can trust and respect that we are helping viewers understand that information."
Klein isn't the only one at CBS News with a taste for cigars. He occasionally shares a smoke with Dan Rather and Bryant Gumbel, to whom he gave a Cohiba humidor to celebrate the launch of "Public Eye."
"Michael Rubin, the [former] executive producer of 'Public Eye,' usually smokes in the late afternoon when the sun is setting," says Klein. "Just smelling his office is enough. It's a nice club to be in. Wine drinkers have this, too. They appreciate a good bottle between friends. This business is driven by friendships, and it's nice to be able to share something like that."
DAN STALEY, ROB LONG AND TOM ANDERSON
Dan Staley, Rob Long and Tom Anderson are the closest thing to a vaudeville comedy act this side of the Friars Club and a one-company ode to one-liners and cigars. The corporate logo for their Los Angeles-based Staley/Long Productions is two cigars in an ashtray, and an interview with them is an aural amphetamine.
Producers of CBS's "George & Leo" with Paramount Television, the three recall the countless times they've been reprimanded by Paramount security for complaints about their smoking, proudly showing off their cigar box totem pole rising to the ceiling in a corner of their office. "Our cigar logo is basically turning an annoying habit into a trademark," Anderson says.
"Our neighbors have called the Paramount security on us a few times," Long jumps in. "He comes in and says, 'There's been a report of cigar smoke.' We say, 'We're shocked.' "
"He ignores it, because he doesn't want to do the paperwork," says Anderson.
"We used to have another office on the lot and we'd smoke there in the afternoons," says Long. "When we'd have casting sessions, the casting women would come in and complain about the smoke, so that was all the more reason to turn it into a thing. You can't ask us not to smoke if it's our logo. The logo sequence actually has a cough in it, but you can't hear it, because the network music comes over it." (The cough was added to placate an irate letter from the American Lung Association.)
"For our first program, 'Pig Sty,' on UPN, we worked with a guy who hated our cigar smoking," says Staley. "When we lit up, he would sit there and cough ostentatiously. So that's his cough."
"In his defense, he has rather serious asthma," says Long.
Staley takes offense. "So do I."
The trio developed a taste for expensive smokes while working as writers and producers on NBC's "Cheers," which lavished its Emmy Award parties and final episode with Cuban cigars.
"The show's creators, Glen and Les Charles, smoked Romeo y Julieta Churchills," says Long. "They asked us if we minded cigar smoke. We said, 'No. In fact, we like cigars.' They'd say, 'Oh,' and keep smoking. They never offered us any."
The three also developed a taste for good comedy, a more difficult achievement in today's sitcom market. "There are 59 half-hour shows on the air," says Long. "You can't have that many shows and have them all be good. I think it's more competitive to get a show on the air and keep it. 'Cheers' was number 74 for the first year. The network stuck with it, it built slowly and it took off. 'Seinfeld' was a fluke. NBC gave it the lowest episode order and tried to bury it."
"The stakes are higher now," adds Staley. "Networks don't have that kind of time."
"I also think the writing staffs on some of these shows are too large," says Anderson. "I don't know what all those people do. It's easy to find a handful of quality writers. It's not easy to find a big staff of quality writers."
"George & Leo" came about in a manner that's rare today in television comedy. The script was written first, which CBS then used to draw Bob Newhart and Judd Hirsch to the cast. Contrast that to most shows, which are essentially deal memos. The networks make separate agreements with talent and writers, then pit them together, often with little regard to complementary creative sensibilities.
"Most shows are deals in place before the creative part of the show is even talked about and that's why they suffer," says Staley. "Our philosophy is to do a show that's good and hope it will fit into someone's schedule."
Or, more importantly, their smoking schedule. Although favorites include Dunhills, Cohibas and Hamiltons, "anything that's in Rob's humidor is the cigar of the day," says Anderson.
"It's really more the size. I'm a size queen," says Long. "Two hours before a run-through you can smoke a Churchill. Forty-five minutes before, you can smoke a robusto."
"The point is to finish your cigar before you go to a run-through," adds Staley.
"Otherwise the run-through has to wait," says Long.
Despite their preoccupation with smoking, the guys draw the line at nuance fanatics who memorize things like ring gauges and Cigar Aficionado rankings. "I love the magazine," says Long, "but I've never in my 15 years of smoking detected a toasty flavor in a cigar."
Carrying the Torch
If anyone was born to smoke cigars, it's Ken Solomon. His grandfather, Charlie Berns, founded New York's famed "21" Club. The nightspot carried the best cigars and liquor, and drew such celebrity royalty as Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Howard Hughes and Ernest Hemingway.
"It's hard to name a star that didn't call '21' their second home," says Solomon, who works in Los Angeles. "My grandparents threw the wedding party for George Burns and Gracie Allen. I grew up with my grandfather and his friends smoking cigars and have these three humidors that he left me. They're among my most prized possessions.
"Growing up in that environment, I had a true appreciation at an early age for the finer things in life," he adds. "I developed a taste for caviar, fine wine and Champagne. And cigars were part of that. I had puffs when I was a kid, but I didn't ramp up until my late 20s."
Today, Solomon is president of Studios, USA Television, which produces NBC's "Law & Order" and ABC's "Something So Right."
"The good news is that there are more options than ever for selling shows," says Solomon. "The bad news is that the economics of a fractionalized TV universe dictates lower license fees for everything but the most successful series. Compound that by escalating costs, not just in production, but also for writers, producers and stars," he says. "It's exponential, especially in the last few years. The problem is, the economics of TV production and distribution don't really support the business in an ongoing basis unless you have a major hit show to make up for all of the deficit."
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