Advocating for The Advocates … and more

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From Susan Kubany

I came to WGBH in 1972 to save Roger Fischer’s The Advocates series.  I was in love: Alan Dershowitz was the liberal advocate, William Rusher the conservative, and Michael Dukakis, the moderator. The debated topics were important, engaging and the drama, unique. (No liberal bias here. This was television at its finest.) I fought tenaciously for critic previews of upcoming shows to increase the audience.

Station manager Michael Rice mused nonchalantly in a meeting that we needed some good promos. “Get Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, and Howard Cosell to do promos. You know, like, well, “The PBS Fight of the Week…”   No one believed I could do it.

Howard Cosell wouldn’t budge (do it for free), so John Havlicek was his replacement. Russ Morash produced three spots. Havlicek was a gentleman; Namath a tobacco-spitting, uncooperative ass, and Ali wonderful…. His was the best.  Russ Morash wrote it:

Ali: “When I’m training for a fight I….  (cuts of Ali jogging, punching the speed bag, jumping rope, etc.)

(Face to camera) “And I also watch one hour of television a week.

“The Advocates: The PBS Fight of the Week.

“It’s good training for your mind, baby!”

Sadly, the efforts were not enough. The Advocates died, more a tribute to the lack of intellectual energy of the American public than anything else,  and I was assigned a new project. Launch a science series, NOVA.  Hmmmmmm …

I watched the first couple of productions and liked them, and I was not a scientist.  But, I was troubled. Boston, Harvard, MIT, science, talking heads … boring!  How could I convince television critics to see the programs, to give the series a chance, to build an audience?

I went to Michael Ambrosino and asked him to “lighten” the series, to adopt a subhead for the series:  NOVA: Science Adventures for Curious Grown-Ups. He almost vomited on his desk, and tried to have me taken off the project, fired.

Convinced I was right — and not working directly for Michael — all publicity material was powerful, compelling  and light: Science Adventures for Curious Grown-Ups. Young production assistant Paula Apsell was helpful, supportive.  The previews and the reviews came in. Critics were responsive.

The next executive producer, John Angier, was ambivalent, wanting to control my work, liking some of it.  Once he sent me a dozen roses by way of admitting the publicity I had garnered for one of his show was impressive, indeed. The press releases built audience. However, when I left the station in 1976, NOVA abandoned its sub-head tagline, Science Adventures for Curious Grown-Ups …

Did it make a difference, in those formative years?  Who knows?

I handled publicity for Evening at Pops and Evening at Symphony as well.  Evening at Pops was a bitch:  taping in May and June, with beginning of season in  early July.  One year, I fought to get a schedule that Bill Cosell could not finalize … they were deciding, cutting, focusing …  shit! I could do nothing but wait for production to determine the schedule, but I was worried about the series promotion.  Finally, it came.

Off to the printer.  Press releases, schedule, complete package.

Doug Scott raced into my office four days later.  The printer worked overtime.  All the press packages were ready. He waved one in his hand, ripped it open in glee, froze, cringed: “Made possible by a grunt from Martin-Marrietta Corporation…?”

“A grunt from Martin-Marietta Corporation…?” I collapsed, a failure. Three thousand press packages — and a grunt  had been delivered. Doug laughed. He was kidding me. Life was good. No typos that year. (I was not responsible for the press kit which, one year  included a song, “What Kind of Food Am I?” Ah, the pressure.)

And the Michael Roemer masterpiece, Dying, the most moving and difficult work I did at WGBH.  I commend it to all ‘GBHers.  Look in the archives. It is brilliant.  The New York Times called it PBS’s finest hour… but, of course, that was decades ago.  It is good, the most brilliant television I have ever seen. To this day.

While planning a Raytheon/WGBH/Boston Symphony gala hosted by Governor Michael Dukakis, I “lifted” three pieces of embossed stationary before I had the invitations printed. Years later, I used one piece to write a letter to my-soon-to-be-husband, Bob, telling him what an awesome woman I was, and how he’d better pay close attention to taking good care of me. The letter was signed “Mike.”

Poor Bob! He was flabbergasted, amazed, that Michael Dukakis would write to him about me. Sadly, I couldn’t maintain the joke longer than ten minutes.

In 1980, my husband and I co-founded Omnet, Inc. and built a pre-Internet computer communications network for the international earth science community.  At its zenith in the mid-1990’s, our network served about 15,000 scientists in 70 countries around the world.  Written up in two National Academy of Sciences publications, many have said that we made possible early, large scale international ocean research possible.

My brilliant Bob and I spent 24 hours a day together for almost thirty years.  We were married three times in two states  with no intervening divorces, just new marriage licenses.  “Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess…”  “Marrying the same woman eliminates the learning curve.” We each wore three rings. He died two years ago this April and now I must look for new escutcheons to stain … smile.

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