Author Archive

The Benefits of Balconies

September 23, 2009

CTV – Canadian Television (aka “Crazy Television” experience for Zazzle)

August 25, 2009

Ever find yourself wondering what it’s like in the studio when you’re watching live TV, like the news? How are they censoring stuff, who runs the show, do the anchors drink scotch during commercials (ala The Anchorman)?

I found myself pondering some of these questions while riding in a taxicab in Toronto a couple of weeks ago. Probably the biggest one on my mind – what happens when you screw up on live TV? Is it possible to avoid becoming part of a blooper reel? Even so, you’ve still got good ‘ole YouTube? Hmm.

Anyway, it was about 4pm and I was off to the headquarters of CTV, the largest privately owned network in Canada (basically our northern neighbors’ version of CNN, I was told). I was invited to be a guest on the national 5 o’clock news (5 – 6pm) as we recently launched our localized Zazzle Canada website. My segment was scheduled for 5:45pm.

I had just left an interview with The Globe and Mail, which I thought went really well (very sharp interviewer, picked up all aspects of Zazzle quickly) and was feeling good about making it to the studio on time for prep at 4:30pm. It’s apparently imperative to be there at least an hour before you’re supposed to go on air. Stuff like makeup (hey it’s not like there’s a choice), preparing computers for demos, reviewing the Q&A script, etc.

I looked outside and took some pics with my new 3GS of all the plush greenery, as we headed out of the city (so relieved with the speed of the new camera, the old 3G drove me absolutely batty). Sure is beautiful up there…

MASSIVE TRAFFIC JAM. Out of nowhere the freeway became a parking lot. We were going about as fast as a drive-thru at In-N-Out Burger. But instead of getting upset and impatient from hunger and animal-style burger depravation, the stakes were a bit higher here. What if I miss the prep? Will they still let me on? …When the hell am I actually going to get there? Checking Google Maps, it wasn’t anytime soon. I called the studio and got connected to the Associate Producer of the news, Leila. I explained the situation… she clearly wasn’t pleased but was relatively calm about it and explained that as long as I arrived before by 5pm, we should be Ok.

It’s now 5pm. I’ve checked Google Maps so many times that they shut me off due to being flagged as a potential DoS attack. Nah, but you get my point. It’s way hotter outside of downtown (maybe because it’s further from Lake Ontario? I digress). I’m sweating. A lot. The cab driver is now beyond irritated at how many times I’ve asked if there are side roads to take. I considered getting out and running. Bad idea, no running shoes and really humid outside… there’s a certain amount of sweat seepage that probably isn’t acceptable for television.

I finally arrive at 5:10pm. I run through the security gate, charge into the lobby, skip to the front of the receptionist desk and ask for Leila, while panting. The receptionist is freaked out. I immediately dial Leila myself, but the news is rolling and she can’t actually talk because she’s on the set. She texts me back that an assistant is coming to get me. Phew. A few minutes pass by… nothing! I text then call back and she finally answers because it’s a commercial break.

Leila: “Jeff, where are you right now?!”
Me: “In the front of the lobby, you can’t miss me!”
Leila: “But where? What location?”
Me: “9 Channel Nine Court. Where else?!”
Leila: “You’re kidding me. That’s not where we are… Jeff, this is a big company, we have many different locations across Toronto”
Me: (….speechless…)
Leila: “Well, I’m sorry Jeff. I don’t know who gave you that address, but there’s no way you’ll make it down here in time now”
Me: (…shock turns to anger… our agency gave me the wrong address)
Leila: “Jeff, I’ve got to get back to things here… I’m sorry it didn’t work out”
Me: “Leila, I don’t know how… but, I’ll figure out how to get there. I would be a complete clown back at Zazzle if I missed this opportunity, after flying all the way from San Francisco”
Leila: “Jeff, I understand, but it’s physically impossible. There’s no way you can make it in time”
Me: “Just tell me the address, Leila, please…”
Leila: “299 Queen Street, downtown”
Me: “I’ll call you when I’m a few minutes away. I don’t know how, but I’ll figure out how to get there. LEILA – I WILL BE THERE (channeling Ron Burgundy!)”

I run outside. The ridiculous factor had now kicked in: the actual location was only a few blocks from where I was before the taxi ride – right in the heart of downtown. And there I stood beside the freeway in the middle of nowhere.

It’s now 5:15pm. There are no taxis in sight… I immediately dial Mike Karns, the head of PR at Zazzle. After a 10 second briefing (which went something like “!@#*& our agency gave me the wrong address, I’m in the middle of nowhere, can you get me a cab?!!”). I immediately realized this was an ineffective tactic…

Right then, a car came passing by – I jumped into the middle of the road and threw both hands up into the air like a lunatic, one hand still holding the phone with Mike on the line. Literally. Straight from the movies.

The car stops. It was a good thing, too, because there was no chance I was going to jump out of the way. The driver slowly rolls down his window, but only halfway, and looks at me in horror. I loop around and lean down to the window…

Me: “Hey – I’m so sorry to stop you like this, but I have a huge emergency. I’m supposed to be on the news in 30 minutes. I’ll give you 100 bucks to take me downtown, as fast as you possibly can”
Driver: “Uhh…”
Me: “I know you don’t know me, but this is extremely important… I can’t tell you how much I would appreciate your help”
Driver: (With the most reluctance I’ve ever heard in anybody’s voice) “…Ok”

And the race begins. I hand over $100 and jump in. This guy starts driving, FAST. Really fast. Dangerously fast. Turns out he was headed to the airport to send his family off, as they had been visiting him for a couple of weeks. But now he was going to miss that entirely by driving the opposite direction – back downtown – to help me out. Wow. Now we both have something on the line…

Also turns out that this guy, Aamil, actually worked at CTV and at the 9 Channel Nine location. As he’s weaving through traffic like a total madman, he tells me that there’s a faster way to get into the building than the Queen Street entrance… on Richmond Street, where there’s a parking lot and a back entrance. In the meantime, I’ve been constantly texting both Mike and Leila, telling them that I’m “almost there” and urging both of them to hold the segment for me…

It’s now 5:39pm. I call Leila…

Me: “Hey, I’m almost there!”
Leila: “Where are you, exactly?”
Me: “Queen Street and Parliament”
Leila: “Oh my god, are you serious?… that’s actually only about 5 minutes away”
Me: “YES, I know. Ok, apparently it will be faster if I come through the back on Richmond, ya?”
Leila: “Jeff – I have to hang up – we have a 3 minute segment, then a 3 minute commercial… and then you’re on. I’ll run down the back during commercial break and if you’re there in 5 minutes, I might be able to get you on”

What originally took 1 hour and 20 minutes in the cab to 9 Channel Nine Court was ~28 minutes on the return trip. And this was during rush hour. Aamil should be a stock car racer. At the very least, he should get new brakes… we barely escaped death on a couple of critical turns.

It’s 5:44pm. Aamil pulls up to the security entrance on the Richmond side, there’s no security guard, so he just slams the brakes in front of the gate and we both jump out of the car and start sprinting toward the back entrance, through the parking lot. There’s Leila, standing outside of the door…

Leila: “Jeff – is that you?!”
Me: “YES!!”
Leila: “Follow me – RIGHT NOW”

We start running up the stairs to the third floor…

Me: “Hey!” (Panting) “I need to use the restroom, just real quick”

(Forgot to mention that I had taken down an entire 1.5 liters of water during this whole extravaganza and, well… it was pretty much a necessity, let’s leave it at that.)

Leila stops in the middle of the stairs and points down at me:

Leila: “NO!”

After all of the antics leading up to this point, she wasn’t pleased at the suggestion. There was no equivocation in her voice and I was almost instinctively in compliance, like a child scolded by his mother. This was definitely one of those times where you just can’t push your luck too much… I resigned to hoping for the best.

We run onto the set. A few people are “handling” me at the point… they throw me into a chair, somebody puts a mic on me and runs a cord through my shirt, somebody else drops a laptop right on the table, and all of a sudden it’s “5 – 4 – 3…”

I’m in total shock. And I’m still breathless from sprinting through the parking lot and upstairs. Is this for real? They’re seriously just going to let me go on air in front of millions of people in this condition? They didn’t even verify my identity, I could be a total stranger. What the hell do I do? I don’t have the laptop ready with any pages loaded… I’m supposed to be doing a LIVE demo of the site and I haven’t even checked to see if it’s going to work.
“…3 – 2 – 1 and… ACTION.”

I use my sleeve to wipe as much sweat as possible from my face, chuckle for a quick second at how ridiculous this whole thing is… and then feel momentarily relieved that, if nothing else, I’ll get a couple of plugs in there, if I can catch my breath.

Right off the bat, I had to correct the interviewer about instead of – she had no preparation either! You can also see in the beginning that I have no idea which camera to look into… and half of the interview I’m completely focused on the browser, trying to pull up tabs and load pages while the interviewer asked questions.

Toward the end, after the site was working and everything seemed to be Ok, I couldn’t help but start smiling ear-to-ear from disbelief of the whole thing. About 2 seconds after the segment ended, I bolted to the bathroom (actually, after the first few steps, I realized I still had the mic on and tore it off… avoiding a potential Naked Gun bathroom scene catastrophe. Oh, thank goodness.)

I returned to the set when the news was wrapping up and was able to hang with Leila’s crew for a bit. We all had a good laugh about the whole thing. Nobody could believe that I actually made it there in time… and nearly all of them seemed interested in learning more about Zazzle after the segment. Score!

So, there ya go. Moral of the story: commandeering vehicles is awesome, and you don’t even need a badge to do it.

Aamil – you da man.


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