The media movers and shakers are starting to trickle back into the dining room at Michael’s for another year of power lunches, but the place isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders quite yet. Maybe it’s because the Golden Globes are this weekend (we are so rooting for Downton Abbey to sweep!), but the famous faces and TV titans we’ve become used to seeing were largely absent this week. Luckily, a sighting of Oscar winner and master of the Hollywood universe, George Lucas, more than made up for the dearth of divas. Practically every head in the dining room swiveled in that general direction when he walked to Table One. The force was definitely with him.
I was joined today by Tom Yellin, co-founder and executive producer of The Documentary Group, and Lisa Kovitz, executive vice president and media strategist for consumer marketing at Edelman. Tom, who previously worked at ABC News with Peter Jennings and still consults for the network, has produced a fascinating four-part documentary series, America in Primetime, which aired on PBS late last year and is just out on DVD.
Each one-hour episode, explained Tom, focused on one character archetype that has remained a prime time staple throughout the decades and has evolved over time. They are ‘The Independent Woman,’ ‘The Man of the House,’ ‘The Misfit’ and ‘The Crusader.’ The idea first came to Tom after he and Jennings had finished the much lauded The Century for ABC, and he became intrigued by the idea of “telling the story of television: the creative process from the perspective of the people who make it.” Tom soon discovered that the problems that arose from trying to produce such a series for ABC and getting the necessary clips from the other networks proved insurmountable.
He then took the idea to Sony Television’s Steve Mosko, who was then president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation, in hopes of getting help with access to clips that were critical to the series. At that point, it was decided that getting the support of public television through a station in a key market, WETA-TV in Washington, D.C. in this case, was critical. After penning a proposal for PBS, America in Primetime got the green light and Tom was in business. “I give Steve full credit for the idea!” he says.
With funding to complete the entire project still an issue, Tom forged ahead and jumped head first into interviewing over 100 writers, directors and actors. Tom decided to focus on “modern shows with extreme characters” because, he says, “that’s what pops on television today.” He made some bold selections for each hour including Edie Falco‘s Nurse Jackie in The Independent Woman, Bryan Cranston‘s character on Breaking Bad as a modern example of The Man of the House, the kids of Glee for The Misfit and murderous Dexter for The Crusader hour.
The real task was wrangling the talent to do sit-downs for the show. “I operated under the assumption we could get everyone except Bill Cosby who never does these things,” Tom told me. Sopranos creator David Chase ranks as one of Tom’s favorite interviews — but it almost didn’t happen. Publicist Leslee Dart connected the two men over the phone with no guarantees that Chase would participate. When Tom explained that he wanted to feature the character of Tony Soprano in ‘The Man of The House’ hour because “there is a direct line from Ralph Cramden to Tony Soprano,” Chase suspiciously asked “Who told you to say that?” Once Tom convinced the notoriously prickly writer/director no one had, Chase revealed that he had always considered The Sopranos a comedy and Jackie Gleason‘s Ralph Cramden was, in fact, his inspiration for Tony.
When Yellin did turn his attention to securing the all-important funding needed to complete the series, he had his work cut out for him. “I was surprised by how much PBS relies on producers to find funding,” says Tom. Luckily, he found success right out of the box when he went to see Rob Master, North America media director for Unilever, and showed him some footage from the series. “He got it right away,” says Tom.
Master believed that Dove, a division of Unilever, was the perfect fit for America in Primetime, recognizing its alignment with Dove’s messages of empowerment. (Remember Dove’s inspired Campaign for Real Beauty?) Yellin’s production company produced four 30-second ‘underwriting messages’ that ran at the beginning and end of each hour-long episode. Each was shot in a style similar in format to the broadcast, with Dove executives discussing how the brand relates to changing consumers needs and mirroring the style used by Yellin to interview his documentary subjects. “Associative branding” is the wave of the future, says Tom, when it comes to finding new ways to attract sponsors/advertising to programs. “For all the talk these days about who can produce it faster, cheaper, I’ve discovered that quality matters,” he says. “This is a new way to connect the underwriter to the content. It’s an exciting time to be doing work like this, and I’m very optimistic about the future.” Not surprisingly, Yellin is currently in discussion with Unilever about future projects.
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. The force was with us: Legendary director George Lucas, sporting his signature jeans and white Jack Purcells. Come on, do you really think this guy gives a rat’s ass about dressing to impress? No one seemed to know who the casually clad folks were that came in with the Oscar winner. Family or fellow millionaires — we couldn’t decide.
2. Lynne White, Rosanna Scotto and Penny Crone. These fun-loving gals became BFFs during their days together on Fox 5 News and do the ‘girls’ lunch’ thing pretty regularly. Looks like they were having plenty of laughs today.
3. Carol Cooper and NBC’s Joe Witte
4. Hearst publicity princess Deb Shriver and a bespectacled fellow whose face looked familiar, but we couldn’t quite place
5. Producer Francine LeFrak
6. Most of ‘The Imber Gang:” Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina and Andy Bergman. How were the brussel sprouts, guys?
7. Tom Yellin, Lisa Kovitz and yours truly
8. New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia and an elegant blonde lady we didn’t get to meet
9. Conde Nast’s Maurie Perl and Dawn Bridges
11. Accessory maven Mickey Ateyeh
12. Freddie Hancock
14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew
15. UBS’s Aryeh Bourkoff
16. Lucky publisher Michelle Myers
18. Random House EVP Jon Meacham with Christopher Jennings, son of the late Peter Jennings. A little birdie told us that Christopher, who once toiled as a fact checker for The New Yorker, is writing a book on religious sects popular in the 19th century.
20. Cindy Lewis (last week’s lunch date) and Dan Scheffey
21. Quest‘s Chris Meigher
23. Allen & Co.’s Michael Christensen
24. Visible World’s chairman Bill Katz
25. Producer Beverly Cahme
27. Loretta Ucelli of the Pete Peterson Foundation
29. First up: The Wall Street Journal‘s David Sanford with Lewis Stein. Second seating: Judy Cox and Sharon Bush, mother of Lauren Bush, which makes her an in-law to Ralph Lauren. I wonder what kind of ‘friends and family’ shopping discount she gets?!?
Faces in the crowd: The Bar-ettes are back! Kira Semler and Vi Huse were at the bar sipping champagne poured by Michael’s new mixologist, Michael Flannery. Rumor has it that Michael has livened up the restaurant’s cocktail offerings (and evening bar crowd) with over 100 new liquors and condiments. If you feel like having a hot pepper gin martini after a hard day at the office, Michael’s the guy to see. Cheers!
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