Comcast Sentinel Man Eats Shit for Three Years: Learns to Enjoy the Taste! By Mike White. Welcome to the last issue of The Comcast Sentinel the newsletter by and for all of Comcast’s Southeast Michigan’s Production Departments...

Welcome to the last issue of The Comcast Sentinel the newsletter by and for all of Comcast’s Southeast Michigan’s Production Departments. Actually, It was pretty much by me. I managed to sneak out three issues (being elected to the post due to my knowledge of Microsoft Publisher) when I was working at Comcast Cablevision in St. Clair Shores before I knew that I just couldn’t stomach it anymore.

I was what you might call a "Commercial Insertion Editor." It may sound interesting, and vaguely illegal, but, trust me, it’s strictly a bottom-rung position. What I did was take analog commercials and encode them into digital signal that will play during local breaks. In English; I stuck tapes in a machine and turned them into computer files which played on the quarter-hour on your local cable system.

Not every cable company is digital. In fact, most of them still use tape-based systems. Shed a tear for the men and women who work with these analog torture devices. I’ve been there, I’ve seen and experienced that life and it’s no picnic. Not that digital insertion’s any walk in the park, but at least I wasn’t working twenty-four hour shifts anymore.

The work of commercial insertion editors is immediately recognizable to people who watch cable television on a regular basis. The clean, crisp picture is suddenly replaced by a break-up of signal. The picture rolls and you witness a poorly written, shot, and edited commercial about a local business. Everyone’s skin looks green and the sound is either inaudible or causes your eardrums to bleed. Then the end of the commercial is cut-off and you’re returned to your regularly scheduled program, undoubtedly already in progress.

Not that any of that was my fault; I tried (oh, how I tried) to color correct the video and correctly modulate the audio but I could only do so much—there’s no "ability button" to push or "talent knob" to tweak to effect the men and women who churn out these crappy commercials.

Cable advertising thrives on local businesses. Who came to us the most? Bars and car dealerships. Dealership spots are almost all alike; a cheesy beginning and end with a donut of car running footage in the middle, featuring this month’s special buys. And bar commercials?

  1. Where do you go for good food and great entertainment? Come To (Insert Client Name Here)!!!
  2. We’ve got everything! From (Choose One: Darts, Pool, Karoke) to (see previous list) and our (Insert Menu Item) is sure to please! Come watch your favorite sports teams on our big screen TV’s!
  3. (Insert Client Name and address)!

That’s it—Commercial Writing by the numbers. For the video portion it'd be a gimmick shot followed by a pan of the interior and then a shot of the exterior with the address clumsily thrown in with a character generator—the coup de gras of a fine cable commercial!

Sometimes our writers would get a cheap gimmick in they’re heads which became the only way to distinguish one commercial from another. Grumpy’s had the guy who turns into a wolf, Cabbo Wabbo’s was the one with the stupid hand puppet, The Catch was the one with the lobster jumping off a plate (or being dragged across the floor —somebody call the ASPCA!), Skinny’s was the one with the animated lightning bolts, Shooters was the one where the guy’s dreaming of a better bar (part of the series of "dream" spots—our chief hack, Laura, wrote while in a rut), et cetera.

Out of five hundred spots a year, our producers churned out maybe ten that transcended the gimmick and were what I considered a genuine advertisement. Strangely enough, these were the commercials that the management harassed the producers about as they took more than an hour to write, shoot and edit. Later, these were the same spots that made it onto our demo reel, as if we made those kinds of spots all the time.

The lack of creativity can partially be attributed to the writers, shooters and editors. But, also, the salespeople who sell the commercial production and airtime to the clients want the commercials done yesterday. Creativity takes time and they didn’t want anything to impede their clients from getting on the air because the sooner the spot’s done, the sooner they could start billing. Thus, the slap-dash cookie-cutter no-brainers.

It was almost a no-win situation. Not that I should have given a shit since I wasn’t supposed to be involved in the production process even though I was infinitely more talented than the interns they hired to be full-time producers who would write "Tilt Across" and "Pan Down" in their scripts. I could only hope that these cheese-heads would have to suffer as I did, watching corn-ball commercials day after day.

As if the aforementioned wasn’t enough, I could list a myriad of more substantial reasons for quitting Comcast but I'll simply relate the most major incidents that lead to my departure.

Every year we had national sales conferences and the commercial production department got stuck making cheeseball "inspirational" videos (sounds right up our alley, Velveeta is our specialty!). If you want inspirational videos "inspired" the same way Tarantino was "inspired" by City on Fire, then you’ve come to the right place.

Our water-treading video theme for two years in a row was "Mission: Possible," one of the most over-used sales themes in the country, I imagine. The first time we made a video with a Mission: Possible theme it won an in-house award and it was thus decided that we would use the same idea again for the next conference.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here. I forgot to mention that when Mission: Possible 1 won the award that it was accepted by one producer. It wasn’t made by one person—a few people shot it, a few people acted in it, a few people edited it. But ONE person got up, correction: ran up to the podium to accept the award. No "thanks to all the little people" just a big fat, "Woo hoo! I did it!"

Well, you know how I feel about giving credit where credit is due... Let’s just say that I wasn’t too pleased.

When it came to making Mission: Possible 2, the aforementioned producer, Tim, decided that it was by divine right that he be in charge of the new project since he had done all the work on the first one and knew the material best. No, I’m not kidding.

He was pretty upset when he discovered that other people would be brought in on the project so he tried controlling every aspect of it. He had the strange notion that by storyboarding every shot that he would be given credit for directing this fiasco. He was elected to storyboard because, I have to hand it to him, Tim is a pretty fair artist—no concept of the purpose or function of storyboards, or how to set up shots but they were well drawn. He was also miffed when he discovered that after (horribly) shooting the raw footage that he wouldn’t be able to edit it. Instead, that task was given over to me and my co-worker Eric.

It was pretty daunting. We had all agreed at one of the many pre-production meetings (the epitome of a clusterfuck) that the video should be edited in that same breakneck pace that the opening credits to Brian DePalma’s film Mission: Impossible were done. Hats off to the guy who did those!

As it turns out, we actually managed to outdo that guy. We picked a version of the Mission Impossible theme that was faster-paced and three times as long. In two minutes we made five hundred and sixty seven edits. You'll remember from your video production class that there are thirty frames a second so that works out to an average of roughly one edit every six frames. It was intense!

Two paragraphs ago I said that "we all agreed...that the video should be edited in that same [style] as Mission: Impossible." Do you remember that? If you do then you’ve got a better memory than Tim because two nights into editing this monster (one edit every six frames!) he got it in his head that we never agreed to edit it that way. We were being reckless! Eric and I were stealing his thunder! How could people tell what a great job Tim had done shooting (I'll tell you, it was difficult sometimes to find six good frames of that crappy raw footage!) and acting (did I mention that Tim is in everything he shoots?)? So he ran to my boss to complain about me.

Yes, me. Not us (though it was Eric and I editing) but me. So, my boss, Steve, pulled Eric and Tim into a few meetings. Wait—you didn’t read that wrong. Steve, Eric and Tim met to discuss me and what I was doing to Tim’s vision. At no time was I invited to the meetings and at no time was I not a subject of the meetings. Eric prevailed and the video was completed in the style we all agreed on (unless we were experiencing some sort of mass hysteria). From then on out, the animosity between Tim and I was palatable, especially after I learned how afraid Tim was that I might some day move into a position of equal stature. That’s right, Tim was higher on the scrotum pole, making more money and able to do more (like really bad Jim Carrey impersonations and "X-Files" rip-offs—one such "inspired" piece, "The Sanity Quest"—oft called, "The Vanity Quest" which featured Tim’s catchphrase, "I did it, I did it, I did it"—became required viewing for new interns as Tim was bound and determined to impress fresh meat with his immense abilities).

The "Mission: Possible" incident was not even close to being a "final straw." Hell, I put up with Tim’s enormous ego for years. It was a constant annoyance but not enough to push me over the edge.

Comcast isn’t the kind of company to shower you with riches or rewards to let you know they care. That’s probably because they don’t. In fact, the top brass at Comcast feel that our jobs were all temporary—to spend more than a few months working for them, was to be considered a fool.

I got the sinking feeling that if I died suddenly that no one at work would even have noticed. Well, I didn’t go so far as suicide to prove my point but I was informed by Eric that he was asked by one of the salespeople if I had the day off...two months after I quit!

This was the same salesperson who gave out X-mas cards laden with cash to everyone on the production team except me. As far as I know, I was on his good side, always helping him out and making sure the right commercials ran for him. Well, after he skimped on the card two years in a row don’t think that a few problems with his spots slipped by me! Woops!

Hard work and aptitude just weren’t considered when dealing with employees at Comcast.

When I was asked, "Mike, what can I do to get you to go out to the Head End to fix the E! Channel’s encoder board?" by Linda, the Traffic supervisor, dryly I responded, "Thirty five miles in rush hour traffic on a Friday night... How about you give me Monday off and we call it even?"

Not understanding my humor or my obtuse Protestant work ethic (strangely present in an atheist) she stormed out of the room. I finished encoding commercials for the weekend, grabbed my coat and left.

When I arrived at the Head End at 6 PM I was greeted by an out-of-place technician. I discovered that Linda had called him in a panic to replace the encoder board. Why she did this I'll never understand.

In an effort to make sure that every spot that was supposed to run ran on time I would work some insane shifts. Hell, on the day I got married I came in after the ceremony and worked a sixteen hour day. Do you think anyone knew about this? Perhaps. Do you think anyone cared? No. Not at all.

So do you think that a little thing like my Friday night plans would get in the way of fixing a problem with a channel (a problem, I learned later, that had been going on all week but that Linda had just made me cognizant of at 5 PM on Friday)? Of course not!

I told the tech he could hit the road since he had more important things to do and no idea how to replace the encoder board and force a break. Was I trained to do this engineering work? Nope. Was I expected to do it anyway? Yup. Did I get paid as much as the technicians? You’ve got to be joking.

I was doing such a bang-up job in Commercial Insertion, taking the system from analog to digital, rallying to improve the Prevue Guide system, implementing a tape recycling program that netted the company big tax breaks, writing The Comcast Sentinel, and still finding time to help out with commercial production that my boss took me aside and asked me if I'd like to move to the production end of the biz full time.

When a position for a new writer became available I consulted Steve and asked him if I should apply. He often liked to pretend that he had some sort of "Master Plan" and I wanted to appease his paranoia and see if this was the right move to make.

With a nod and a wink he told me to fill out the necessary papers and get my demo reel together. At least that’s what I think he said. Steve had the ability to jaw on for long periods and never say anything vaguely close to a relevant thought.

When he and Laura interviewed me (somewhere Laura got the idea that she was management material even though she’d run around like the proverbial headless chicken when left "in charge" for the day, going so far as to take out an industrial size bottle of Tums to display on her desk as a sign of her high stress level—is this the kind of person you'd want as a manager?) they told me outright that I had answered their questions the best (bullshit can go a long way) and that they were totally blown away by my demo tape.

Two months later Steve announced that Shay (the female Tim who talked like a bad Jerry Lewis impersonator—"it’s the thing with the tube and the button that, you know, when it’s in the thing with the light goes on, you know what I’m saying?" Uh, Shay, it’s called a monitor) was our new writer.

Not only did I not get the job but I didn’t even make the second interview. Steve told me that he had bigger things in mind for me.

He told me that I could basically write my own ticket. At least that’s what I think he said. There had been a lot of discussion about the need for a new position within the Production Department—someone who would bridge the division between writing, shooting, and editing. A single person who would walk a project through these phases, making sure that the artistic integrity of the piece wasn’t compromised by miscommunication (like Mission: Possible had supposedly been). This person would be a Producer/Director.

Oh, by the way, Shay crashed and burned on her second interview. She met with four other producers and couldn’t answer a single question in an intelligible manner. The producers recommended that Steve start looking outside the company for a new writer. He never did. Instead he sent Shay to the Human Resources department for her orientation. Maybe it was part of his "Master Plan" to hire a complete nincompoop as someone who has direct interface with the clients.

So, here I was, geared up to be a Producer/Director. A month later when I had my six-month review Steve brought up the subject of a new position being created for the Production Department.

".Here it comes," I thought. If only Steve knew that I had been interviewing for the last three months—I almost felt guilty for taking this new position. But, hey, I could stand being a Producer/Director until I found something that paid a decent wage.

This is the part of the story where I give you the jaw-dropping revelation that not only was I not made Producer/Director but that I was asked to be the new Production Assistant—a position subordinate to everyone else on staff. I was told that I was too inexperienced to be a full-fledged producer and that this would give me an opportunity to get some projects under my belt.

Somewhere Steve had gotten the idea that I hadn’t done enough commercials. Perhaps it was that I didn’t take credit for things I hadn’t done and that I hadn’t tooted my horn for all the little, critically important work I had managed to do over the last few years. I wasn’t one to shout, "I did it" from the tallest tree.

That was Wednesday. On Thursday I interviewed at three places and got two jobs and Friday I met with Steve and put in my two weeks notice. Oh, it was a glorious feeling to finally be gone from Comcast Cablevision!

Say good-bye to The Comcast Sentinel! I’m sure the venom and thinly-veiled barbs are missed already!

Back to Issue 8