TV FICTION PACKAGE: A media mogul considers cutting the cord on his life and career. 2,799 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
New York City – 1:37 AM… Charles “Ace” Spader, the fifty-six-year-old CEO of Dynamo Broadcasting Corp., stands on the upper level of the George Washington Bridge and stares at the briny swirling abyss below, his cheeks stung by biting winds, his features reflected in silvery moonbeams. “Which one do I use? Right or left?” He laughs and then mutters, “Always important to get off on the right foot.” He lifts his right leg and watches it tremble. “Or maybe the left?” he says, switching legs. Perhaps this isn’t the moment after all, he tells himself, settling back on both feet. Should he execute a precision dive? After all, he was a springboard champion back at Harvard. Or, maybe do a reverse? Perhaps an arm-stand followed by a dazzling triple twist? Of course, a simple swan dive would suffice. Or, maybe just cannonball off the steel span.
Taking a final glance at his cellphone to check for texts, he returns the device to his pocket and turns his back to the twinkling Gotham skyline. “And that’s the way it is…” he mumbles, spreading out his arms in crucifixion pose. He closes his eyelids, swallows hard, and falls backward, a descending human missile hurtling silently through the night toward the cement-hard surface of the Hudson.
But just as he is about to go splat, something catches him. Something with strong arms. Then Ace Spader blacks out.
When he awakens, he realizes that he’s on a bench in Manhattan and seated beside him is a wiry man with bristly hair combed to one side. The man’s lips are curled in a wry smile. Inserted between his index and middle fingers is a lit cigarette. He is wrapped in a trench coat, a woolen scarf circling his neck. He is hatless. And, at this moment, he is staring at his socks.
“Where am I?” a bewildered Spader asks. “Say, aren’t you Rod—?“
“—One black, one brown,” the man complains, now pointing at his feet. “I must have mixed them up in the rush to get here in time.” He shakes his head and looks over and extends a hand in greeting. “How are you, Mr. Spader?”
Spade is dumbfounded. “What am I doing here?”
“Oh, some folks were concerned about you,” Rod smiles. “Said you were standing on the bridge. I happened to be nearby and stepped through to catch you.”
“Stepped through? Step through what?”
“You say you caught me?” Spader feels his jaw, stretches out his arms, examines his fingers. “Am I alive?”
“In a sense, yes.”
“So you really saved me?”
Rod chuckles and takes a puff on his cigarette. “I notice you rode your bike out on the span. You apparently parked it, then climbed up the grating and looked down, prepared to kill yourself. Some passing motorist saw you and called the police. But you know how swamped the cops are. You’re lucky I arrived in time.”
“But why did you save me?”
“Well, that’s another story.” Rod replies, scratching his nose. “Why don’t you come with me? I have some things I want you to see.”
Dynamo Broadcasting Corporation – 3:02 AM…- Spader arches his back, raises his head and gazes up at the soaring Manhattan skyscraper. “Hey, this is where I work.”
“Yes, isn’t it,” Rod says. “Now let’s see how everyone is doing inside. Busy as bees, I’m sure.”
Spader glances down at his wristwatch. “But it’s nearly after three in the morning. Nobody but the cleaning crew and security guards are around at this hour.”
Rod lights another cigarette. “You think?”
They enter the gleaming marble lobby and walk to a bank of elevators, where a door automatically slides open for the two men. Rod pushes a button numbered 16 as the elevator purrs to life.
Rod reaches under his trench coat and pulls out a wrinkled piece of paper. “You know, I’ve been studying this Dynamo organizational chart and it has me stumped. It’s so complicated.” Rod unfolds the paper and points to the top of the page. “I understand having a CEO — that’s you. And a CFO. And over here is ad sales. But what are all of these other corporate positions for Strategic Integration, Cable Entertainment, Diversity, Human Resources. Here’s Worldwide Entertainment and then here’s an executive vice president in charge of International. Aren’t these one in the same? And can you tell me what Content Distribution is? And look at all the sub-categories under Legal.”
“Half of them deal with standards and practices.”
“As I understand it, Dynamo Broadcasting is owned by something called ALG-DDE Holdings LLC. And behind this is Dynamo Groundswell Inc. and Dynamo Cable Entities Inc. But at the top of the corporate chart is a man named Emerson Methschild-Fizzipaldi of Lichtenstein. But I don’t see him listed anywhere on the Dynamo Broadcasting chart. Under his name is something called Accelerated Equilibrium Limited Partnership, and beneath that is Whipping Boy Partnership Inc., followed by Whipping Boy 1, Whipping Boy 2, Whipping Boy 3, and then something entitled Gusher Holding Entities located in the Cayman Islands.”
“You don’t need to bother with all that, Rod. Even the FCC and U.S. Justice Department can’t figure us out.”
“Ah, here we are,” Rod says, patting Spader on the arm when the elevator stops. “After you. The 16th floor. This is where Mrs. Helene Swanson works. Her pod, I believe, is right over here.”
“Who is Mrs. Helene Swanson?”
“She works for Dynamo. Don’t you know her? She’s worked here twenty-seven years. Handles public complaints. Look, she’s on the telephone.”
A heavy-breasted middle-aged woman with a curtain of dark bangs and oversize eyeglasses peels a banana at her desk while trying to reason with an angry caller barking through her headset.
“Yes, I hear you, ma’am. We shouldn’t have allowed her to show her nipple on live TV. Our I-Team is on the case. Dynamo takes these things very seriously. We have a whole staff that deals with FCC compliance. I’m sorry your Bible study group wasn’t expecting The Electronic V’s. Who are they? They’re an all-girl rap group that’s very popular right now. I think the ‘V’ stands for vagina, ma’am.”
Ace Spader turns to Rod. “Just one of many things that reach my desk. Sexual harassment lawsuits. Black Lives Matter protests. Faith groups up in arms over swear words on sitcoms. A little nipple is the least of my worries. Wy did you bring me here?”
Rod blows cigarette smoke toward the ceiling. “Do you recognize her?”
“I don’t know anyone below the 40th floor.”
“She finds out today she’s being laid off per your instructions.”
“Look, I have to cut positions. We’re not doing great, okay?”
“It might interest you to know that Helene Swanson is a grandmother living in Queens who is raising three grandkids. Her daughter died a few years back. Cervical cancer. It fell to Helene to raise the children. Their father abandoned them long ago for another woman. Oh, and the other in-laws don’t care about the kids. They have their own money troubles. So, it has been Helene who gets them up each morning, cooks them breakfast, makes sure they have clean clothes and sends them off to school on time. Evenings, she helps them with their homework. Two boys and a girl. It might interest you to know that the girl is a senior in high school. She’s hoping to get into interior design school but doesn’t have the tuition. She’s applying for jobs so she can save up for classes. The older is a pretty good baseball player but will join the Marines.”
“She’ll land another job. She’s a steady employee.”
“I’m not too sure, Mr. Spader. Helene Swanson is over fifty. No employer wants to hire someone her age. She’s developed a heart arrhythmia. Now she won’t have company-paid health insurance.”
Spader stares for a few moments at Helene as she takes another complaint call. Rod takes hime back to the elevator and up fourteen floors. Two wide oak doors with polished brass handles provide a gateway to a warren of inner offices.
“Legal?” Spader asks. “I’ve been here. Many times. Too many times.” A man can be heard cursing up a storm. Rod approaches and Spader pokes his head inside. A corporate counsel in shirt sleeves is seated behind a desk ranting at three associates.
“We’ve been hacked!” the lawyer grouses. “And from what the FBI tells us, they aren’t sure if it’s Julian Assange or Kim Jon Un or Anonymous or … hell, maybe it’s Sheldon Cooper! Now, all of our private emails are out there for the damn world to read!”
“Mr. Samuels,” says one of the interns, “they’ve hired the best cyber security firm in the business. But these things take time.”
“And, meanwhile, Ace Spader’s email calling our Dynamo Nightly News anchor a ‘fucking moron’ stayed out there. Let me read the exact words of our esteemed leader: ‘Anchor Phil Cranston. Total moron. Takes bribes. Lies his head off. Has everyone conned.’”
Spader whispers to Rod. “I don’t know why I sent those emails. They were all lies. Can we leave? Where to now?”
“To Casey Wellborne’s office.”
They go six floors up and find Casey Wellborne, the executive vice president of broadcast, sitting at his desk stone-faced as he listens to Michelle Lambert, Dynamo’s vice president of broadcast entertainment, listing potential pilots.
“Lip Smack. Two zoologists in charge of the monkey exhibit at the Bronx Zoo fall in love and monkey around. Galactic Hotel—“
“You mean like The Bachelor? It will never pass muster with standards and practices.”
“Okay, here’s the one I like the best: Madam Blood & Master Blade, a dark fantasy crime thriller with a difference. He’s a reformed slasher with a good heart. She’s a survivor of a vicious serial killer attack who seeks justice. The twist is that they’re husband and wife living in the burbs.”
Wellborne roars with laughter. “I like it! Can we get a witchy element tossed in?”
“You’ve read my mind, Casey. They’re both magicians.”
“And they use black magic to hunt down serial killers?”
“Exactly. But get this. With the help of a trusted Doberman, a wisecracking black cat who speaks directly to the viewers and might be of ancient Egyptian ancestry, and a coven of robed judges who are actually warlocks and witches who advise Madam Blood and Master Blade at the beginning of each episode and give them instructions. We never see their faces.”
Wellborne rubs his hands together. “Can we make her a vampiress? And a sexy twenty-something who loves to use her long tongue to tickle her hubby’s earlobe and it gradually descends down his neck and—“
“—You just are so brilliant at parentheticals, Casey!”
“Let’s set it in Miami Beach. Lots of skin, neon and night shots. We’ve haven’t had a hit this season. This is your Hail Mary pass, Michelle. Make it work.”
Spader looks uncomfortable. “Can we go somewhere else? I’ve heard enough.”
Midtown diner – moments later… “Have something to eat, Mr. Spader.” Rod lights a cigarette as a waitress delivers a steaming cup of java. “They say the burgers are good here.”
“Not hungry. Look, I earn a base salary of three and a half million dollars with an annual bonus of thirty-six million, which I’ve received every year for the past ten years. Plus stock options. Plus use of a Gulfstream. Plus corporate-paid residences in New York and Los Angeles and Telluride and Maui and Martha’s Vineyard. But Dynamo stock is cratering right now. Down 70 percent year-to-date which is about what ad revenue will be. Our teen cable channels are bleeding viewers. Our broadcast network is sixth in market share. And everybody’s cord cutting and signing up for streaming services. Everybody wants Netflix. Or Amazon. Or Dish. For twenty bucks a month, Sling TV offers all these different programs on the net. No long-term contracts. No set-up fees. Easy online cancellation”
Spader pulls out his smartphone and holds it up to Rod. “And people would rather be entertained by social media on this Chinese-manufactured crap that I’m holding in my hand that’s smaller than my dick but more addictive than heroin. TV as we used to think of it, not so much. Even sports. Now Twitter is livestreaming football.
“You are in a jam, aren’t you?” Rod comments.
“I don’t want to be relegated to second-rate status. Hell, Bill Paley was a god, David Sarnoff was a god. You knew them, Rod. You yourself were a television pioneer. What happened to everything?”
Rod shrugs. “Television went in another direction. Appealing to the low-brow … always going for the frivolous, superficial and trite … never challenging the viewer.” He shakes his head. “TV once held such great promise. There’s no creativity anymore. No going with the gut. No Sid Caesar. No Paddy Chayefsky. Everything today is a focus group. Everybody adopts a follow-the-pack mentality. But you’re the ultimate decision maker, right?”
“My hands are tied. I’m CEO, so it falls on my shoulders when ratings plunge. Investors scream because a bunch of Wall Street analysts are dismissive. Everywhere I look, it’s doom and gloom.”
“How would you turn it around, if you could?”
“Develop the next M*A*S*H or Mary Tyler Moore Show or the final episode of Seinfeld. I don’t mean those shows exactly. Times have changed. Tastes are different. People today want sci-fi and fantasy and plenty of violence. Nobody knows how to make a sitcom anymore. The only hour-longs that work are twelve versions of procedurals CSI and NCIS.”
“What about your personal life?”
“I left my wife and I’m having trouble satisfying my new young girlfriend who’s Ukrainian and bat shit crazy and spending all my money.”
After an awkward silence, Rod asks, “About your board of directors—“
“—Those assholes? I can’t stand looking at another suit telling me that his grandkid showed him some dumb-ass YouTube video that just went viral and why aren’t we making shows based on that. It’s gotten so bad that I even fantasize at times. I try to think up content that would boost our ratings like Michael Eisner claims her did. I dabbled in TV writing at NYU. And I think I’m pretty darn good at it. At least, my girlfriend’s Ukrainian parents like what I write.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll think of something. Why don’t we go? We don’t want to miss our flight.”
West Hollywood – 1 AM a few days later… “Hey, isn’t this Sunset Strip?” Spader, who hasn’t felt any time pass, looks up and down the gridlocked street. “Say, isn’t that the—“
“—The Viper Room. Yes, and from the looks of the crowd standing outside, it seems nobody wants to go home," Rod notes. "Your person is here: Michelle Lambert, your network’s head of entertainment. I believe she’s meeting with a literary agent by the name of Ashor Tallen. Let’s step inside, shall we?”
They walk to the head of the line without the bouncers noticing and enter a dimly lit corridor. “Not exactly my taste in entertainment,” Rod says, “but then I’m feeling my best whenever I’m hunched over my antique portable typewriter.” The Viper Room is gyrating with leather-clad young women and men. Celebrities abound. “Don’t be alarmed. Nobody can see us or hear us, but we can hear them.”
Lambert is gushing to the agent. “Ashor, I’m here to tell you of my network’s keen interest in your client’s script. It’s fabulous! Hey, tell me about this writer. He isn’t a Satanist, is he?”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never met him in person. He discovered me. I received a cryptic note one day that read, ‘If you want to make a fortune, drive over to the Satanic Temple. There will be a black package in the trash bin next door. Leave promptly.’ ”
“And the script for Madam Blood & Master Blade was inside?”
“Yes. A week later, I called the phone number on the script and a man who identified himself as Crowley answered. We talked for about twenty minutes. He wanted me to represent him and suggested that I deliver the script to you at Dynamo Broadcasting.”
“To me? But it was routed to one of my assistants who held onto it for months. It was sheer luck that I even saw it.”
“Not luck. Fate.”
“Do you still have that phone number?”
The agent reaches into his wallet and removes a slip of paper.
“A 917 area code. New York,” Lambert says. She takes out her cellphone and punches in the number.
Spader looks at Rod. “What is that noise?”
“Just my ringtone,” Rod replies. “Pay it no mind.”
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season