Getting Burned In The TV Biz

Forget Vladimir Putin, forget Canada’s Gold Medal winning hockey team, forget the controversy surrounding the use of Sochi as a venue for a Winter Olympics.  The biggest issue to come from last month’s Olympics? A horribly timed inflammation of the cunjunctiva.

Conjunctivitis.

Pink eye.

It’s a painless – and otherwise benign – condition that affected not one of the top athletes or judges or coaches.  No, this case of pink eye brought down the face of NBC’s Olympic Coverage, Bob Costas.  The longtime host of the Olympics was forced to step aside for a week as he battled the viral infection that –most of the time- causes slight discomfort and clears up after a few weeks.  For most workers, pink eye means a day or two off from work, antiviral medicine to reduce the risk of passing it along to co-workers…

…and that’s it.

In television?

Not so much.

It’s unseemly to have the talent hosting the program with eyes as red as Lucifer’s.

bob-costas-pink-eye-1

So, NBC did the only thing it could – network execs decided to bench Costas for a week during the network’s signature event.  Can you blame them?

It’s one of the drawbacks to working in an appearance-based medium.

Costas, for whom the only long term effects of the virus may be to his reputation (there are allegations, shot down by NBC, that the conjunctivitis came as a result of botox treatments received before the Olympics) will be just fine.

A colleague of his at NBC suffered another appearance-based injury that was a bit more serious, and reminded me of the dangers posed by….

…television lights.

Kerry Sanders, an NBC correspondent based in the southeast, spent all day in the Jacksonville sun last month delivering live shots for NBC’s various shows during the Michael Dunn trial. Starting with his early morning appearance for the Today Show, Sanders then provided periodic hits for MSNBC, which led to the NBC Nightly News hours later.  All the while, Sanders was being bombarded by an invisible assailant. UV rays from a malfunctioning HMI light scorched Sanders skin –and corneas- so severely, he was blinded and burned for 36 hours.  Sanders described the incident on Twitter

and the response has been interesting.  Most interesting? Other TV reporters who dealt with the same issues.

I’m one of them.

Although – I have to admit – I’ve long used my story as cocktail party fodder to describe just how foolish the biz can be.

On June 5th, 2004, Ronald Reagan died at his home in California.  Over the next few days, millions watched as he was honored with a state funeral in Washington.  A DC based correspondent, it was my responsibility to anchor coverage of his funeral for our dozen or so stations across the country.  The DC bureau was in an ideal location – situated just steps from the Capitol, our live spot was the rooftop of our office.  NBC, FOX, C-Span were all located in the same building – their shots with the Capitol Dome in the background were almost as good as ours.  We, however, toughed the elements and provided live shots from the roof; they enjoyed the comforts of an enclosed studio.

I’d have given anything for an enclosed studio that June.

The live shots started early: pre-dawn hits for our stations on the east coast, sunrise with our midwest stations, midday Q and A for our west coast station morning shows.  All was going just fine: we’d produced enough video for the stations to run as I offered live commentary on the funeral.  An apt metaphor for the always optimistic Reagan, the sun shone brightly on DC as millions offered their good-byes.

The sun.

Yes, that was a problem.

In order to provide the beautiful shot of the Capitol, we had to position ourselves with the sun behind me….which meant I was going to be in shadow.  This wasn’t a film noire production, I couldn’t appear in shadow.  So, my photographer turned on our HMI light, placed it about fifteen feet away from my face, and hoped for the best.

We got the best: the live shots looked fantastic…

…at least until late in the day.

First, a word about those HMI lights: they’re designed to provide the same light as the sun.  They’re also firing off UV rays which are supposed to be blocked by a filter on the light’s lens.  In the case of Kerry Sanders –and the reporters who suffered the same fate- the lens apparently malfunctioned.

It happened to me, as well.

Remember your first sunburn? You didn’t realize it was happening until you arrived home from the beach late in the day, right?

That’s exactly what happened with me.

By late afternoon that day, I noticed a slight warming sensation on my face – nothing major, just a bit of a flush.

Or so I thought.

One of my final live shots came just after six o’clock for our Connecticut station.  As I introduced my story, the producer in Hartford left his mic open, which allowed me to hear everything in the Hartford control room.

“What the hell’s wrong with Andy?”  I heard the unmistakable voice of Hartford’s news director ask.

I felt fine.

I thought the story was fine.

The live toss to the package was fine.

What, I thought, is she talking about?

I listened in: “He looks awful,” she continued.

My thoughts? How nice of her – she realizes I’ve been out here for thirteen hours and she’s concerned for my well-being.

Not exactly.

“Andy!” She had now taken over the producer’s mic and was talking directly to me.

I held up my hand and nodded, letting her know I could hear her.

“Did you put any sunscreen on today?”

I nodded no.

“You look like a lobster.”

I smiled, shrugged, and gave her a sheepish “what-can-you-do?” look. By now I was a bit worried that my story was coming to an end and I had to come back to my live tag out.  I couldn’t hear the story because she was talking, and her producer couldn’t cue me because…

…she was now shouting.

“You look like shit! What the hell were you thinking?! We’re done with you tonight!”

At that, my story ended.

“Cue him,” her producer said, nonplussed at the intrusion in his show.

I tagged out, produced one final live shot (I think it was for Nashville) and headed home an hour later.

Thankfully, it was a Friday.  The burned skin and corneas I dealt with (and assumed came from the sun, and not the HMI lights) cleared up by the following Monday.

…and my relationship with the news director in Hartford never improved.