In hindsight, maybe I should have called in sick that day. That day occurred May, 1999, near the end of the TV ratings period when then-NBC4 News Director Bob Long summoned what I like to think of as “Team Liz” to his office.
“Team Liz” consists of NBC4 Consumer Reporter Liz Crenshaw, Producer/Researcher Erin Van der Bellen, Videotape Editor Tom Hamerski, and me, Producer Murray Schweitzer. On the day Bob called he said he needed help. News4 at 4:00 was just a few tenths of a ratings point away from winning its time period, and Bob needed one more thing to toss into the newscast to maybe attract a few more viewers and a ratings period win. Could “Team Liz” come up with any ideas?
Now it wasn’t as if “Team Liz” wasn’t pretty busy to begin with. A ratings period brings a ton of work with it. Besides producing the most interesting and intricate stories we can for the 5:00, we must produce a few extra stories so Liz can occasionally be on the 11:00. But Bob still needed something, and it didn’t seem wise to tell him we were “already up-to-here and, oh yeah, tired.” Besides, we had been kicking around an idea for a long time that could be Bob’s answer.
Within NBC4, whenever anyone has a question they come by our office to ask Liz. I can’t tell you how many folks stop by to find out how to buy a car, decipher a phone bill, figure out a credit card account, or find out if that great deal they were just offered by a telemarketer is on the up-and-up. Since Liz seemed to be in the informal business of answering numerous questions anyway, how hard could it be to turn that knowledge into a news segment? Maybe that’s why I spilled that germ of an idea to Bob Long. The problem is he liked it. Start it Monday.
I don’t know if the other “Team Lizers” went back to the office congratulating themselves or kicking themselves for helping Bob. All I could think of was how were we going to pull this one off. Erin was always up to her ears researching stories, maintaining the shooting schedule, and basically keeping Liz’s life and my life organized and running. Tom was editing non-stop, I was producing and writing like a fiend, and Liz was barely in the office, tied up with shooting stories, recording narrations, making radio appearances, and doing the hundred other things featured TV reporters must do. Whatever we did needed to be simple.
It wasn’t. We needed to get a dedicated Ask Liz phone line from telephone engineer Don Wingo. We needed to get the nbc4.com homepage altered so there could be an Ask Liz button for questions. We needed to create an e-mail form for viewer questions. We needed to tell the Promotion Department of our plan and get some on-air promotions going. We needed to find additional editing time so Ask Liz phone calls could be downloaded for playback on air. We needed to free our three interns so they could log the questions and begin the initial research on answers. We needed to tag current stories with Ask Liz teases so viewers would know what we were trying to do and get them to begin calling us. And we needed to start Monday. Somehow we did it, and the calls and e-mails started pouring in.
Herein lies an important TV lesson. If you ask people to Ask Liz, they will, by the boatload. Interesting questions, stupid questions, fun questions, obscene questions. I now realize soliciting questions truly opens Pandora’s box. The viewers love it – the worker bees answering the questions go nuts.
Not that we didn’t have fun. In the beginning we’d gleefully gather around the phone and computer each morning to screen the calls and look at the e-mails. One of our first calls was: “How do you report a homicide?” How do you report a homicide – ever heard of 911? But our voicemail and e-mail were usually filled with wonderful and interesting questions:
• Store signs that say “You break it-You bought it,” can they really do that? (No, but they can sue you for negligence if they want to go that far).
• How do you tell how old spices are? (McCormick spices deciphered the code for us – the CIA should use such coding).
• What’s the difference between regular Excedrin and Excedrin Migraine? (The box – Excedrin Migraine has additional information on the box).
• In the HOV lanes, does a baby count as another person? (Yes).
• Does shaving your legs make the hair grow back thicker and quicker? (No).
• I invented a word – how do I get it into the dictionary? (Common usage).
• My husband lost his wedding ring in the backyard – how do we find it? (Metal detector).
• Why is packaged ground beef pink on the outside and brown on the inside? (Effects of oxygen).
• Does Crispix cereal really stay crisp to the last bite? (Depends).
• When you pull that little slip of paper out of new pants that says “inspected by #7,” is there really a #7? (Yes).
And hundreds more. Then, of course, we received daily questions that just made us go “huh?”:
• I bought new shoes and can’t decide whether to return them or exchange them for a different style. Please help me decide.
• If you scratch a mole off will you bleed to death?
• My neighbor keeps taking my cat in and feeding it – what should I do?
• Why is it that 85-90% of the people don’t use turn signals?
• How do I get my boyfriend more involved with my friends?
• What is the main reason for sibling rivalry?
• How can I cross the border from Mexico into the United States illegally?
And hundreds more.
What also amazes us is the people who send in really mean-spirited questions or comments. (Fortunately not that many, but some). I mean there are people who will purposefully take the trouble of phoning or emailing their cheap shots about looks, weight, and clothing to a person they only know from TV. What’s baffling is that their target is our wonderful Liz, mother of three, Georgetown and Syracuse grad, smart and hard-working as anyone you’ve ever known, the best of best-friends.
Plus, if you’ve seen her on TV you know Liz – there’s not a phony thing about her. Plus, what these idiots don’t know is that unless the question is absurdly funny, “Team Liz” intercepts the calls before Reporter Liz ever hears them anyway. And guess what? WE HAVE CALLER ID – WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE!
And what have we learned from Ask Liz? Well, if you want an idea for a monster TV show forget quizzes such as “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” Instead, focus on two subjects: stains and bugs.
Early on we answered a question about getting rid of bugs – specifically the Tent Caterpillars (usually mistaken for Gypsy Moths) that were gathering on viewers’ decks and siding. That led to our biggest question of all time: How do you get rid of crickets in the house? The phones rang off the hook for us to answer that one again and again. (Glue traps). And that answer led to questions about everything from weevils to cabinet ants to fruit flies to any pest, creepy-crawly or four-legged.
Early on we also answered a question about stain removal. Let me tell you, based on Ask Liz there is no subject in America as compelling as stain removal. So let me give you the answer to those two most pressing of subjects:
For all your questions ASK LIZ can be reached at 202-885-4422 or www.nbc4.com. I promise we’ll get to your question as soon as we can. But first we have to research this one: “What is going on in Tibet right now?”