The Things You Want, And The Things You Have To Do
I’m beginning to think I’m schizophrenic.
I’m sitting in seat 19C of US Airways Flight #61 en route from Las Vegas to New York City. My seatmate is the one guy on the plane who hasn’t lowered his blind, so not only is my enjoyment of the Cedric The Entertainer Nicollet Sheridan comedy vehicle, The Cleaner, diminished by the glare, but sleep is out of the question.
So I’ll tell you what brought me to Sin City for a whopping sixteen hours.
The Video Music Awards are the channel’s tent pole event. They’re Sony’s Spider-Man. They’re NASCAR’s Daytona 500. They’re NFL’s Super Bowl. But lemme’ back up.
Much as I like to think otherwise, all programming (or content, or art) exists to serve advertisers. Joseph Pulitzer’s Post-Dispatch was nothing without Sears Roebuck. “Your Show Of Shows” wouldn’t have existed without Kent Cigarettes. And “American Idol” would be a bare stage save for Coca-Cola.
Most media companies, then, have their workhorses, or, more aptly, their cash cows. For years, MTV’s has been the Video Music Awards. Historically, the star-studded show pulls huge ratings, aggregates a huge audience to which to sell Mountain Dew, Starburst, and Neutrogena, while affording the network an opportunity to bring its biggest sponsors (Pepsi, P&G) together with its biggest stars (this year, I’m betting on Amy Whinehouse and Fall Out Boy alongside staples like Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Ludacris).
It’s a huge, impressive event. I liken it (with all respect to our men and women in the armed forces) to going to war. Hundreds and hundreds of people spend hundreds of hours and millions of dollars putting the spectacle together. There are almost unlimited considerations. Red carpet arrivals: cars, boats, or helicopters? Talent flow. Press credentials. Step-and-repeat (industry speak for all those paparazzi poses). Interviews. Performances. Security. Fan casting (you didn’t think all those people in the background just showed up, did you?). And the show hasn’t even started yet.
Oh, And every year has to be bigger than the year prior.
My role (and Dot Com’s in general) has grown exponentially. At first, we weren’t even invited to the party. We watched it on TV like everyone else, reporting on it like any other event. Eventually, we got a reporter in the big house. Then backstage. And then a camera. And then a few small crews. And then a production trailer. This year, I’m one of a handful executives scouting the location some three months in advance.
This year, it’s my job to Executive Produce MTV News’ VMA Weekend coverage online (text, photos, and video), augmented by a small army of bloggers, plus a whole bunch of user submitted material. I’ve taken to calling it a “swarm” or “Matrix bullet-time” approach to news coverage (well, infotainment anyway). That is, we’ll be covering the event (and the events around the event) from a multitude of angles. Taken together, they’ll provide a richer tapestry of meaning.
On the face of it (and applied an event that actually means something), the concept that everyone is empowered to broadcast (or “personacast,” as Motorola CTO Padmasree Warrior calls it) their perspective is pretty darned democratic. And that’s exciting to me. But we’re talking Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera here. The world will not be changing axis even a little bit.
Which brings me to my schizophrenia.
For months now (years, really), I’ve been wrestling with the whole deep and simple vs. shallow and complex dilemma. Where meeting Mister Rogers put a
face and a name and a simple binary to my internal conflict, the truth is it’s been with me all along.
I met my former supervisor, Michael Alex, at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. A fresh-faced 24-year-old producer for Lifetime Television Online (yes, that Lifetime), I had just arrived at Chicago’s United Airline Arena (acing the secret service gauntlet despite a few skinny joints in my brief case) with a laptop and digital camera when I brushed past a bunch of cool kids with bad-ass Macs, walked up to a guy with longish hair and said, “Do you know where the ISDN lines are?”
Two weeks later he offered me a job at MTV News.
Even then, in the days after being offered a job doing one of my three dream jobs (in order of preference: 1) rock star 2) Rolling Stone contributing editor 3) MTV News producer), I was torn. I loved MTV’s anti-institutional irreverence, but worried about it’s existential import. Even then, when Choose Or Lose was galvanizing a generation, the network’s primary cultural contributions didn’t seem to be elevating dialogue. They were churning out quick cuts, pithy sound bites, and scantily clad models gyrating on the hoods of cars.
Not that I’m not into models and cars, or gyration for that matter. But I wanted to be Michael Stipe, not David Coverdale. I wanted to be Walter Cronkite, not Kevin Seal. I wanted to be Tobias Wolff, or at least Tom Wolfe.
So I was torn. So torn, in fact, that I spent a week weighing the pros and cons of what I knew even then would be a life-altering decision. I spent three days fasting and meditating at 15,000 feet, there just below the ridgeline of southwestern Colorado’s Sneffels Range. Then-MTV News correspondent Allison Stewart (who I’d met through my brother’s work on MTV News Unfiltered) came to me in a dream and said, “You can always do something else later.”
Fast forward some twelve years later. Location: The Palms, Las Vegas, Nevada. Its midnight on a Tuesday. I’ve been upgraded to a suite located just two floors below one of the casino’s newest clubs, Ghost Bar. I step into an elevator packed with twentysomethings straight out of an Axe Deodorant Spray commercial. They’re carrying drinks and smoking in the elevator. One guy turns to a brunette reject from The Hills and says, “I have to warn you, I’m ticklish.” And even as I step into my suite, a one thousand square foot, two-bedroom, two bathroom, oak and leather appointed absurdity fifty floors above the sprawling lights below, I think, “I just wasn’t made for these times.” I pop a six-dollar can of Heineken, an eight-dollar tin of cashews, and crawl under the covers just as Sin City is getting started…
This morning, though, touring the facilities with Palms staff, I began to get excited. The place — from the 2200 seat Pearl auditorium, to the notorious Rain nightclub, to it’s numerous Fantasy Suites with outdoor hot tubs five-hundred feet in the air — is spectacular, albeit in a way only Las Vegas can be spectacular. Standing on the terrace of Moon, the casino’s newest nightclub complete with retractable roof, looking out over city whose massive construction projects are second only to Dubai’s, I think, “This is what The End of Days looks like: a desert full of hundred story, gold-tinted, glass buildings.” And despite myself, I am excited — voyeuristically, pruriently — at the prospect of taking a front row seat on it all.
This afternoon, on the way to the airport, I spotted an African American woman in short shorts, sequin a spaghetti-strap top, and silver high heals sitting on a cement barrier between six lanes of interstate. I shook my head, turned to a colleague and said, “I’m just a kid from Iowa. I really dunno’ what to say to that.”
An hour later, speeding into the dark, eastern sky some 33,000 feet over North Texas, I’m speechless still.