The Day I Almost Died in Front of Computer

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Ok, I’ve given a lot of sales advice lately, but I think its about time for just a great story.
Before I stepped on camera, I was a worked behind the camera at one of the largest TV shopping networks on Earth. I was a supervisor, director, robotic cameraman, jib and handheld camera operator, stage manager, graphics tech, audio tech…in all, I wore 12 different hats at that network over the years. I even worked as a freelance carpenter in the network wood shop building furniture, walls and props for the studios.
Over the years, I accumulated a few classic errors that became favorites among the crews to tell over and over, laughing heartily at my expense each time. One such incident was my first day as a solo graphics operator.
It was fairly early in my retail TV career. I was a new Dad, concerned about providing for my family and doing my best to work my way up through the ranks of the production staff. I’d always been hungry to learn and challenge myself, so I used my breaks and hours before I punched the clock to sit with the online graphics operators and learn the ropes of their job. I was already working as a stage manager and audio tech. Graphics was a logical next step as I aspired to the director’s chair some day. (Graphics are all the on-screen information used by the customer to understand the item description, ordering number, price, etc…)
When a network is live 24 hours a day, the switch out from one person to another when shifts end and others begin can be a bit harrowing. Some networks have systems in place to make this more fool proof. But at that time and at that network, it went as follows: One person would stand up and unplug their headset, unhitching themselves from the freight train that is the live show, while the incoming crew would sit down and plug in, immediately hustling to keep the show seamless. In the case of a graphics operator at that time, as soon as you plugged in, you had to “load your show.” This was essentially a process of dumping all the used graphics out of the computer and loading in the new graphics you prepared in advance for your show. Unlike many other control room positions, a graphics operator had the most to do within the short time frame of a shift change.
On this particular day, I was still training as a graphics operator and not fully comfortable in that seat. The regular graphics operator had called in sick and no one could be found to fill the role. Someone in the pre-show meeting called out “Cory knows graphics!” Being the team player that I am, I hitched my shorts and said “Sure, I can do it!” In hindsight, I may have needed another day or two of training…
I prepared my graphics, had my notes in hand and was standing in place to switch out with the online graphics operator when the time came. Ready, set, go!
I will pause here to set the scene: The producer, sitting right behind, me was a fiery young woman who ran a tight ship and was trusted with some of the networks most high-profile shows. She was kind, but unforgiving and if you messed up, you felt the sting of her whip quickly. More than one crew member had walked out of that control room looking like a beaten Labrador, ears down, tail between the legs. On this particular day, not only was she the producer, but it was prime time with more eyes on the screen and higher stakes than any other time slot. Every person on the crew was the best at what they do and the upcoming show was featuring some of the networks most profitable items. The command from the director to put the next graphic on screen is “Animate,” and I was standing by with hand on button waiting for that command. One issue…just before this show, the graphics system been updated and the great minds that constructed the custom software had changed some things….without my knowledge. Back to the story:

Everyone is in place, the plan is ready for execution, the fright train is running at full speed. The producer calls for the first item. The director says “animate,” and my hand clicks… The graphics spin on screen, up comes the my first item, I am smiling and starting to feel empowered, and then….”DING DING DING” a distinct 3-tone sequence of notes goes blaring out over the airwaves indicating that an item is sold out. A red “Sold Out” stamps itself over the graphics, telling a hundred million people that product is now unavailable.
My producer shrieks. “Ahhhhh! what is that??!!!!” My mind is whizzing. I’m supposed to have the answers! I have no idea what just happened. “Forget it! Cory send the next graphic!” “Animate” comes from the director. I click. The graphics spin on-screen. “DING DING DING”…Sold Out! The producer leaps up from her chair throwing it back against the wall and glares over her computer at me yelling “What the hell!” I am trembling. The sky is falling. I just sold out the first two items in the show and I hadn’t been on air for 30 seconds yet. The on-camera host is stumbling, having no idea why our meticulous plan is deteriorating by the second. The producer yells “Next item!” I don’t even wait for the director to give the “animate” command. My eyes close, my shaking hand clicks……….”DING DING DING!” “Cory, YOU ARE KILLING ME” screams the producer over my right shoulder as she rips off her headset and throws it into her desk. At this point, she looks like a velociraptor. She is practically crawling over her computer station, eyes bloodshot, saliva dripping, teeth bared, starving for my blood.
Compete chaos erupts. The stage manager leaves the studio floor and runs to the door of the control room just to watch the action. The audio operator, not knowing how to help, but feeling as though he needs to participate somehow, stands up and starts doing the robot. Crew members everywhere turn off their microphones to keep their laughter from exploding on headset while listening to the cacophony. The show host is talking to the entire US and explaining in uncertain, somewhat shaky verbiage that we seem to be having technical difficulties and the last 3 items are actually still available. And me………….well, there isn’t a hole deep enough for me to crawl into. I melt, hoping to make myself look enough like a chair that the producer doesn’t notice that I am still there.

In the end, I became a rock-solid graphics operator and eventually, a prime time director and crew supervisor. That same producer who was ready to end my life would request me for her shows because I rarely made mistakes. But that first day, well…lets just say it was a character-building experience. It was not my first such experience in live TV, nor even close to my last. If you get me at a table to share a beer, I could tell you a thousand such stories. In the end, it is those moments that lay the foundation for who you will become. That experience was just one more moment in life when I shored up my foundation to build a stronger future.
By the way, when the graphics designers rebuilt the software and updated it right before my show without telling me, the tiny print on the “send” button to put the next graphic online had been altered. Same button, same color, same position on my screen. It just now read “Sold Out.” It is sometimes the things in plain sight that elude us best!

by Cory Bergeron
more at PitchVideo.com

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