Unlike little Mike TeeVee, I never wanted to be on television, or even Wonkavision. I’ve always been content to be on the other end of the camera—which, in my opinion, is the creative end. “The hand that cradles the camera is the hand that rocks the world!” That’s how I explained it to my old boss Rick Spratling at KUTV in the fall of 1975, moments before he fired me.
Honestly, I wasn’t sad to go. I had become miserable at KUTV and disappointed in local news generally, which in the Seventies was transitioning from an FCC mandated public service to a highly competitive form of show business. Scruffy beat reporters were being replaced by telegenic talking heads—what is known in the industry as “talent.” Meantime, cameramen were being looked down upon as mere pack animals.
The talking head upon whose radiant countenance I was ordered to train my viewfinder was fairly typical. He had a good voice and a handsome face and no matter how hard the wind might blow, never was a hair out of place. He’d come up from the sports department, or was it down? I could never decide. It’s not that I have anything against jocks; it’s just that I don’t happen to worship the holy trinity of news, weather, and sports. There are so many things in this world that don’t fit into those three categories. Why spend ten minutes talking about the weather when it’s already been established that the jet stream flows from west to east? And who the hell cares how much money a pituitary giant gets paid for putting a ball through a hoop?
And, finally, what is NEWS? Nowadays, the stuff that makes the local nightly news is painfully predictable. An attractive young reporter is seen standing in a darkened neighborhood where something happened earlier in the day. No matter that the cops and firemen and squabbling neighbors have called it a day, the picture is coming to us LIVE! The talking head concludes her dramatic recitation by reminding us once again what her name is and then it’s “Back to you, Ken and Barbie.”
Ken and Barbie exchange frowny faces, then introduce the next story. We cut live to an attractive young man who is standing in front a darkened building where something or other transpired earlier in the day. “Well, Ken and Barbie…” he begins.
Twelve minutes in, following a commercial break, Ken and Barbie introduce a report that has something to do with animals or the weather—preferably both. Let’s say a newly acquired Chilean condor at the aviary gets a new home, to replace the one that was blown away by a wind gust measuring 75 knots per hour.
Ken and Barbie exchange smiley faces, then turn to the slightly goofy weatherman. “Was it the jet stream?” they ask.
Slightly goofy weatherman points to a blank green panel. “It WAS the jet stream,” he announces. “As you can see, it blows from west to east!”
But I digress. After being banished from television I continued doing the same thing I had been doing, which was roaming he American West in search of something interesting to take a picture of or write about. I submitted stories to magazines, which occasionally paid me. Some of those stories later coalesced into a book. And now the book has inspired a PBS documentary, LIVING IN THE BIG EMPTY, which will air in selected viewing areas nationwide through August.
The documentary was produced at station KNPB in Reno by some very capable people who didn’t even let me touch their fancy new eighty-thousand-dollar high definition camera. Instead, I was forced to stand in front of it and talk. And all I could think of the entire time was, does it HAVE to be in high definition?
Here’s the deal. Human skin isn’t nearly as lovely as some people like to think it is. Oh, maybe when we are babies our skin is lovely to look at; however, as the years wear on and we are subjected to the ravages of ultraviolet rays from the sun and our hair is blown and tossed hither and yon by that pesky jet stream, we begin to resemble the picture of Dorian Gray. It’s also a well-known fact that the camera adds weight—in my case approximately a hundred pounds, all of it concentrated in my neck.
It didn’t help that prior to my close-up, I had spent the day under the desert sun without a hat. When I awoke the following morning, my face was blotched and swollen and beet red. Of course there was no makeup artist or hair stylist on the set. We were out in the middle of nowhere!
I slapped on a hat, hoping to shade my bloated features. Ben Asnis countered by placing a reflector underneath my multiple chins. I began to sweat. “Start talking,” said associate producer Tyler McPherron.
Here’s what I worry about. That some old girlfriend will see the video and think to herself, “Boy, I dodged a bullet!” Or that when it’s over, those overpaid talking heads back in the studio—whose craft I have denigrated lo these many years—will look at one another, sigh, and exchange frowny faces. Or that some critical viewer’s attention will shift from my cratered visage to what I am saying. Did I actually declare that “most suicides take place near the end of one’s life?” Well, it’s true!
The poet John Keats once wrote that truth and beauty are the same. However, when it comes to high definition television, one sometimes has to choose between one or the other.