Friday, August 10, 2012

Broadcast 101

Twenty years ago I wrote BROADCAST 101 after an evening of watching nothing but VHS recorded public access programming. I don't remember why my life had come to such a screeching halt for me to sit on the floor playing around with dozens of half inch tapes; whatever the reason is now lost in time like my hair and eyesight. I thought that perhaps what was missing at that moment in kids programming was a show that went from all singing and dancing and squealing to all screaming, all crying and all tripping--the sort of action found in wartime films featuring Abbott and Costello.

For all but one hour a week, public access programming in Squires Corners is not too dissimilar to what can be found anywhere else in the country: an interminable stream of harshly lit and poorly shot cheap as spit programming. This is a great country where hapless individuals can pontificate on topics as far ranging as secret government surveillance, conspiracy theories, men in black sightings, women’s water polo, rhythmic gymnastics, alien abduction stories, comic book valuations, and wine tasting, and all done within the same show.

Yet once a week for 60 minutes, public access television in Squires Corners morphs from bug eyed lecturers musing about anal probes into a high school gong show. Broadcast 101 is broadcast from the sweaty confines of the JOSEPH CONRAD HIGH SCHOOL gym and the driving force behind each program is the ever lovely Miss Ilene Fendrich, first year teacher extraordinaire. 

With the gusto that only teens can muster, the program is all talking and singing and dancing and crying and bitching and moaning and wheezing and carping and mulling. It's about dating and homework and parents. It's about peer pressure, life in the not so fast lane of Squires Corners, and how to survive being totally disappointed in your closest friends. There are cooking segments, garage band tryouts, hot waxing car demonstrations, and the best way to pickle pickles.

The overall production is a total mess. Students stumble over floor cables and into cameras. Klieg lights crash down. Scofflaws race through camera shots one step ahead of stern detention hall monitors. Backgrounds topple. Audience members spill sodas on hot electrical equipment. Babies cry. The on camera guests yell insults at each other. Food fights break out among the crew, temper tantrums spill over from lunch time arguments. Cheer leading practice and basketball drills take place along the far wall. Murphy's Law would hide itself in shame.

Attempting to keep cast and crew from spinning off into worlds only Rod Serling would be familiar with are  16 year old OSCAR CLOVIS and fifteen year old SYDNEY KANVIK, dual hosts of Broadcast 101. Smart, funny, quick on the up take, Oscar and Sydney would be the perfect leads in any Disney movie were it not for the fact they are first cousins.

Skulking around the edges are the nefarious Iagoesque twins, MARKHAM AND FIONA BISSELL, top jerks from a competing school, who get air time on just about whatever subject they want because their father supplies the necessary food and electrical equipment to keep the show afloat. There is SPIT RICHARDSON and his gang of multi cultural delinquents who supply the on key musical interludes. His entire band get their weekly hall pass to leave their permanent seats in the principle’s office?

We can't forget MIRANDA CORTEZ, investigative reporter, weather girl, and all around cheerleader who has yet to achieve accuracy either in news, weather forecasts, or in spinning and jumping. She doesn’t have the brains to come in out of the rain because a youngster with an  I.Q. of 160 plus looks at getting wet a little different than everyone else. Her father is also the mayor but that has nothing to do with her on camera time.

 Broadcast live before a bleacher crowd full of adoring parents and worried teachers and from the spacious but run down school gymnasium (where the Badgers play their home basketball games every Friday and Saturday nights), the show is a weekly must see. The idea was so simple and naive at first. Ilene would take her class in broadcasting and turn it into the real thing. Instead of the usual classroom lectures and broken down visual aids handcrafted from the fifties, she would use the public access channel and produce a hands on experience. Her students could create their their own version of a morning program in the late afternoon: rotating hosts, local school reporting, cooking and fashion segments, and an occasional song and dance number from the theater department. In the process of putting together a weekly show, the students would learn something about themselves as well.

However, Ilene should have heeded the wise words of Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” What started out as a class assignment for her students soon devolves into an entire school project where everyone wants in. By 3:50PM on the Thursday of the broadcast, the gym looks like a major staging area gearing up for a ground assault and in the middle of it all is 24 year old Ilene Fendrich.

Hired straight out of a Los Angeles graduate program in education, Ilene immediately takes the school and its teacher hierarchy by storm...again. She was a student once herself at Joseph Conrad High, the school’s head cheer leader, its valedictorian, and bemused editor of the school paper. Now back at her old stomping grounds, her idea of broadcasting from the new gym is now almost back in full bloom.

But things have changed since the old days of six years ago when Ilene could run roughshod over everyone.
Life was so much easier when Ilene was in high school. She was the ultimate Big Girl on Campus and the leader of the most exclusive clique in school. She was the school’s ultimate mover and shaker; she made every social event happen at Joseph Conrad regardless of odds. She finagled major rock groups to come and play for their proms; for three years running she enticed or blackmailed the best chefs in a five state area to send their best desserts for Grad Night free of charge. She was also student council president, editor of the newspaper, and straight A student.

 Most of her old teachers have migrated to the competing and newer school, FRANKLYN PIERCE HIGH. The new principle, MR. COLIC, is a no nonsense disciplinarian who doesn't care about Ilene's student time at Conrad High. He is focused on the present. His biggest worry other than the idiots on the school board are the liability concerns facing the school now that Conrad High is back using its once condemned old gym. Used as a large storage room during the years that Ilene attended Joseph Conrad, it has been somewhat refurbished. It is now the main location for all after school activity whether it is gym practice, the Latin club, cheer leading, or drama practice. An unfortunate chemistry experiment totaled the new gym but construction should be completed within the next 18 months once the school bond issue is settled.

But Irene has stumbled into a few changes since her days in high school. A new capitalist reality has set in where strings are attached to just about everything. For example, the owner of her favorite campus hang out, Big Gus of BIG GUS’S ELECTRONIC EMPORIUM AND PIZZA JOINT has turned from being a wild and wacky guy to a steel cold businessman in six short years. Big Gus loves that Ilene has returned home and is more than happy to supply food and equipment free of charge for her broadcasting class but with two provisos: free advertisement several times during the program and more importantly, screen time for his two bratty twins. Big Gus’s kids go the evil Franklin Pierce High where a rabid competition exists on every level with Joseph Conrad High. Ilene is very familiar with these two little creeps as she baby sat them in high school. MARKHAM and FIONA were twin monsters before they became teenagers. Now Lady Macbeth and Iago have simply grown worse.

Disciplinarian Principle Colic has attached a few strings of his own. He now has one day a week where he can dump all of his troublemakers outside of his office. Rather than have them sit in detention class and take up his time, these reprobates can work floor crew with Ilene’s students.Principal Colic enjoys walking across the set during broadcast to personally inspect whether his wayward students are crewing and not actually studying for the next day's police line up exams. Ilene discovers a number of them can sing and dance better than they can spell.

Broadcasting sixty minutes a week takes seven days to complete. The lead up to the broadcast makes for marvelous tear jerker programming as well. Writing copy and gags, blocking skits, booking guests, whitening teeth is 24/7 work. So is backstage stabbing, power grabs, forgotten commitments and broken promises. The lowly Badgers continue to practice their lay ups and free throws at the other end of the gym while the show broadcasts live. COACH HARRIS, the 6’9” gym teacher who is there at the ready with his electric guitar just in case anyone wants to hear him sing power ballads from the 1970’s.  Did I mention the cheer leaders practicing in the background as well?

Pity poor Oscar and Sydney in their new found role of celebrity hosts! Every student, teacher, stranger, and tourist now desires the coveted air time that they apparently control. It’s a real slow day when someone isn’t auditioning in front of them with their latest juggling routines, projectile vomiting tricks, impossible yoga positions, original songs, Oprah like tales of woe, ancient cooking recipes, wacky home movies, and human pet tricks. How Oscar and Sydney handle the chaos of broadcasting live and still keep their sense of humor becomes the backbone of each episode? They realize that viewers tune in for the flubbed lines, the idiotic guests, the tech problems galore, the continuing soap opera that is Big Gus’s twins, audience rudeness, and everything else which has nothing whatsoever to do with the show itself?

They walk the halls accosted by students ready to perform for them. Notes aren’t so much passed to them as flung at them. They receive mysterious phone calls late at night and e mails from schools all over the country begging for a chance to be on their show. Principle Colic has even noticed an up tick in the number of students showing up for detention whether they have been assigned to it or not. It has recently been noted that students from other schools have sneaked in to detention classes as well for a shot at working crew. For a program about life in a high school, little if any time is actually spent in a classroom. Action takes place in the Big Old Gym, Principle’s Colic’s office, bathrooms, or the backstage of the auditorium where many of our key players end up cooking up evil plans or combating power grabs. While it is not quite Shakespeare in the round, BROADCAST 101 offers that first stepping stone to American Idol, network news, or Washington politics.

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