In mid-2000 I get a phone call at my desk at Forrester. “This is Jay Kernis from ’60 Minutes,'” the caller says, and that’s the beginning of an experience that will teach me a lot more about how television actually works.
I’m a pretty prominent TV analyst at this point. I’ve predicted the future of WebTV and HDTV and have started in on new devices: personal video recorders, like TiVo. I’m convinced they will take over our TV viewing and destroy the ad model for television.
Kernis talks to me over a series of phone calls and asks a whole lot of questions about PVRs (what we now call DVRs). He’s a producer for Mike Wallace, the “60 Minutes” correspondent legendary for his aggressive no-bullshit takedowns of wrongdoers. Kernis is the best-prepared, most intelligent, and most thoughtful journalist I’ve ever spoken with, putting print journalists to shame. (In my few previous TV appearances on the likes of CNN, the prep calls had never exceeded 3 minutes.) “60 Minutes” is one of the highest rated programs on television. This is a big deal.
On one call, Kernis quotes a lot of other experts’ opinions at me. “Is it me that you want me on the program?” I ask. “You’re the one,” he says. And about a month later, I’m in New York, scheduled to go on camera at CBS.
The night before my appearance is terrible, thanks to hotel screwups. I’ve changed rooms, the new room smells awful, room service was late and messed up, and I’ve had an argument about the bill. Now I’m walking five blocks to the CBS location and I’m in a foul mood. I realize that I’d better get my head on straight or I’ll look nasty on camera. I psych myself up. By the time I get there, I’m rarin’ to go.
Kernis meets me at reception and escorts me to a CBS Sports control room, which they’re using as a set for this piece. A makeup person goes to work on me; I end up looking great. (If they can make Mike Wallace look great in his late 70s, I’m not much of a challenge.) Kernis is in the back of the small room. Mike Wallace saunters in, shakes my hand, and sits down a few feet from me. And the on-camera questioning begins. Wallace is talking and Kernis is saying nothing, but it’s very clear that Kernis wrote the questions on Wallace’s clipboard.
It’s pretty friendly and I easily shift into the role of expert explainer. At some point I say “we,” referring to the television industry. A familiar look crosses Mike Wallace’s face, a look I’ve seen on TV just before he rips some poor schmo to shreds.
“You said ‘we,'” he barks. “Do you work for TiVo? Do they pay you?”
I’m terrified, but I’ve rehearsed this question with Forrester’s PR folks back at the office. “We have thousands of clients . . .” I begin, but Wallace cuts me off.
“Answer the question,” Mike Wallace insists. I can see my career going up in flames.
“Yes, TiVo is a client,” I say. “So are most of the ad agencies, all of the networks, and most of the cable companies. They pay to hear our unbiased prediction on the future of television. I can’t be carrying water for any one company, nobody would pay for that.”
The temperature in the room appears to drop a few degrees. Mike Wallace smiles, turns to Jay Kernis, and says “This guy’s good.” I relax a bit. I know this exchange won’t get on the air, and I’ve survived my Mike Wallace moment. We complete the interview.
But what’s really revealing is what happens at the end of the interview. Wallace, Kernis, and I get up and head for a tiny elevator. “Did you get him a car?” Wallace asks, meaning a driver to take me to the airport. “No,” Kernis says. Wallace frowns. We exit and head for the street. At Wallace’s urging, Kernis runs out and flags me a cab. The cabbie notices the famous TV guy on the sidewalk and must think Kernis is his assistant, even though I know he’s the brains of the operation.
Jay Kernis goes on to run programming for NPR and become a managing editor at CNN — he’s that good. Mike Wallace keeps ripping into wrongdoers, because he’s the famous one. And I get my 2 minutes of fame.
If you’re curious how it came out, here’s the “60 Minutes” segment on PVRs on YouTube. (Ignore the preview frame, it’s not an episode of ‘Law and Order.’)