The Molehill Which MNN Turned Into A Mountain

As you may or may not know, our episode scheduled for broadcast on 12/21/98 never got on the air that day. What follows is a reprint of a letter I composed (but haven't mailed--I planned on it and then wanted to wait and see what happened after a while) to Manhattan Neighborhood Network outlining the events that followed. Try not to laugh . . . too hard, that is.

January 8, 1999

Donna Woody
Programming Coordinator
Manhattan Neighborhood Network
537 West 59th St.
New York, NY 10019

Dear Ms. Woody,

Iím writing in regards to an incident involving a single episode of my program, Free New York, which was not broadcast as scheduled on Channel 16 at 2:00 AM on Monday, December 21, 1998. However, due to what appears to be a sudden eruption of confusion and miscommunication at Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the incident has grown to encompass not just that one episode, but the entire series since its inception. Not only do I think this generalization is unwarranted, but I think the episode which initiated this entire debacle is fit for broadcast--despite your co-workersí opinions to the contrary.

As I said, the episode myself and my co-producer, Kim Pratt, submitted to be broadcast during our timeslot on 12/21/98 (Episode #103, a Christmas-themed episode) was not shown when it should have been. Our episode was submitted at 3:40 PM on December 19, 1998, and it has been shown twice before on MNN since 1996. However, when I tuned in at 2:00 AM that Monday to view the broadcast, I saw another program ("Filmmakers") being shown instead. I checked the 3 other public access channels to see if my program was being shown on one of them instead (it wasnít), and I waited a few minutes to see if the problem would be corrected (it wasnít). I then called MNN at 2:10 AM and dialed the extension for "playback" (extension 306). A man answered and I told him I was the producer of Free New York and that the episode I submitted on Saturday was not being broadcast as scheduled. I then asked him what the problem was. His only response was: "I canít go into that right now." He said this at least 3 times and when I asked him why he couldnít "go into it," he answered: "Because Iím about to leave and I have a lot of work to do in the morning." (I have a day-job too, but I suppose thatís beside the point.) I asked him for his name, which he said was "Vivaldi," and I asked him if he could transfer me to the voicemail of someone who could go into the problem. He then transferred me to your extension, where I heard your message that you would be on vacation until the beginning of January. Not wanting to wait until January to resolve the problem, I called MNNís main number again, got no answer at the number where Vivaldi had picked up before, and I ended up leaving a message in "Master Controlís" mailbox, asking for someone to call me back later. As of 3:30 PM Monday, no one had returned my call.

At 3:30 on Monday afternoon, I called MNN and dialed extension 306, where I spoke to "James" at Master Control and described the problem to him. He told me that the engineer on duty wrote "Dirty Tape," on their log sheet. He gave a brief explanation of the problems dirty tape can cause and mentioned "these machines run 24 hours a day and that could make the heads very dirty." So, I asked a natural question: "Is it really the tape or the heads that are dirty?" He didnít know and said he didnít have access to the tape right then and there. He asked me to call him back in an hour and said by then he would have had a chance to examine the tape for himself and check whether it was the tape or the heads. I called back extension 306 at 4:40 PM and--after no live person answered--reached Master Controlís voicemail. I tried to switch to Scheduling at extension 320 but I got disconnected instead. I called MNN again and dialed extension 320 where I heard Paul Berraraís voice message, part of which said "Dial 0 to talk to someone immediately," which I did. No one picked up that line either. Instead, I reached yet another voice mailbox where I left another message describing all that I knew about the problem with my broadcast and my problems reaching people at MNN, asking someone to call me back as soon as they could to straighten this out. I stamped the message "priority." No one returned my call that Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday.

On Thursday, December 24th--the day before Christmas--my co-producer, Kim, called up MNN to find out what was going on and if we could somehow get our episode broadcast before Christmas, since it was a Christmas-themed show after all. She dialed extension 306 around 11 AM and spoke to James, the same person I spoke to on Monday afternoon. She described the problem to him and he also told her that a message had been written in the engineering log--only this time James said it was "Dirty Heads" written in the log, instead of the "Dirty Tape" which he told me. So Kim asked him the same question: Which is it? The heads or the tape? James couldnít answer her right away, but said she could call back around 12 noon and he would have an answer for her then. At 12 noon Kim called back and spoke to "Paul" in Programming. Paul told her that our episode was "upstairs," where "problem" tapes are kept to be "verified." He also told her that:

What exactly was the problem? Paul said there was "dust on the outside." Whether he meant the outside of the tapeís jacket or its shell, Kim wasnít sure.

Since running our Christmas-themed episode before Christmas was no longer an option, Kim submitted another tape (Episode #106) later on Thursday afternoon to be broadcast on 12/28/98. It aired on schedule without incident.

On Monday, December 28, 1998, I received a letter dated "10/23/98" (I assume that was a typo) from Randy Redroad of "Policy Compliance." In it, he wrote:

Tapes that have multiple control track breaks, noticeable video drop out, extremely low audio and/or are dirty do not meet these standards and will not be aired.

Your tapes for Free New York, are too dirty to air on our network. Unless the quality of your tapes improves immediately, your program will be pre-empted until such time as you have discussed the matter with our Programming Department.

I couldnít then, and still cannot understand why I received this letter, because up to that point (Week #260 of our showís run):

So, I was upset. The next day, December 29, 1998, I called the extension which Mr. Redroad left in his letter (326), and I reached his voicemail. I left a message basically asking how all our tapes could be so dirty if theyíve been airing all this time for 5 years. Later that day, Mr. Redroad returned my call and left a message on my answering machine in which he said the following:

Once more, I was mystified. The man whoís reviewing the tape which didnít air, and who then sent me a letter telling me all my tapes were too dirty to air, was now telling me the show did air, the show was not his problem, it wasnít a big deal, and that I should speak to someone else because it wasnít his department! Around 3 oíclock that afternoon, I called your voicemail and received the same message I received before: that you were on vacation until January. I left another message at extension 320 (Paul Berraraís voicemail) trying to summarize the whole problem.

The next day, December 30, 1998, Mr. Redroad called me around 11 AM and told me the following:

That last one was the kicker. If a new episode is aired, then ipso facto itís good enough to be on the air. Now, if I need to repeat an episode someday, and if I take an episode which has already aired (ipso facto a repeat and an episode which has been judged to be good enough to be on the air), and I submit it to be repeated, and it airs--then what is the problem? I went in circles with Mr. Redroad about this until he told me he would contact the engineer (Vivaldi) who originally rejected Episode 103, and he (Mr. Redroad) would review Episode #106 as well--the program (which is also a repeat) which aired on 12/28/98 without incident. As of today, I have not received any further word from either Mr. Redroad or Vivaldi, nor have I received the results of this latest "review."

The next day, on December 31, 1998, Kim collected Episode #103 from MNN (apparently Episode #106 was still being "reviewed") and I examined it firsthand. Despite the post-it attached to the case which read "PLEASE SEND THE PRODUCER A LETTER FOR CLEANINESS" [sic], that tape is not "filthy." Yes, the shell has the remains of a torn label on its top side, but that is hardly "filth," and--as I said above--it certainly is not enough to interfere with the proper playing-back of the program. In fact, if you lift up the flap and look at the tape itself, it looks fine; it looks the way videotape should look in a Umatic cassette: no tape creases and no dirt on the tape within sight.

On January 4, 1999, I watched the entire episode (and despite the assertion that it did not play in "3 different machines,' I was able to play it from start to finish) and I gave it a Quality Control check. This is my evaluation:

Overall, this isnít the most pristine Umatic recording in the world, but it certainly can be played without it doing any harm to anyoneís equipment.

As for the larger matter of MNN saying Free New York has had "a lot of dirty tapes" which could threaten future broadcasts of the program, I say this:

In short, if an episode has aired once, I will assume it is fit to air again in the future unless I have reason to think otherwise, which is what Iíve been doing for five (going on six) years without any problems.

I believe that is the maximum extent of this particular problem, which is centered around just one episode as far as Iím concerned. I donít believe the problem is nearly as big as some people at MNN have made it out to be, and that it is a molehill which MNN has transformed into a mountain. I hope that this synopsis has reduced it back to molehill status.


Christopher Flaherty
Producer, Free New York

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