FANS REVERSE CANCELLATION - WLIW21 Keeps on EE for Another Year
After $34,500 Raised in Less Than Month
By Larry Jaffee
I thought, "Not in my backyard. No way."
That was my reaction to the anonymous phone call I received in the third week of December from someone who said she "had it on very good authority that WLIW was planning to cancel EastEnders, and perhaps maybe there's something you can do about it?" She hung up.
Still feeling a little guilty that not enough was done two years ago to save EastEnders on WHYY in Philadelphia, I figured the problem there was that no one stepped up to mobilise the community. It clearly needed a local person supported by other fans to spearhead any effort to save the show.
So I was thrilled to see that Debbie Gilbert and Dana Gordon were as determined as I was to take on this endeavour, and our various skills seem to complement each other.Debbie had a natural knack for organising events and some fund-raising experience. Dana, a lawyer by profession, also was eager to design a dedicated website. I have the relationship with EastEnders fans through the Gazette.
And still feeling a bit punchy over the BBC America cancellation in September 2003, I thought we had a better chance of saving WLIW because a public TV station would have to respond to money. A commercial TV network like BBC America is motivated by ratings and advertisers; there was little EastEnders fans could do to affect either of those things.
Despite the commercial vs. public TV differences, there was a parallel in the situations that led to the programming decisions at both WLIW and BBC America. In both cases, a relatively new programmer had arrived and had little interest in EastEnders. Obviously, killing the series was on "a to do" list, considered by others at the station/network, but until then no one ever got around to it.
I can't say I was entirely surprised by the WLIW news since they hadn't made any attempt to fund-raise around the show in any kind of meaningful way since the previous December  when Leonard Fenton (Dr. Legg) flew in from London into a blizzard and the live pledge was postponed for a taped, not-as-effective segment the next week.
WLIW has had other bad luck when it brought in EastEnders actors for live pitches, such as competing against Monica Lewinsky being interviewed by Barbara Walters, or Al Gore giving his concession speech. But that was in the past. We needed to deal with the here and now.
Complicating the matter at hand was the tsunami tragedy, which dominated the news the week before we launched the campaign. Given the South-east Asian catastrophe, saving EastEnders in New York seemed trivial in terms of philanthropic support. I realized that it wasn't the greatest time to be asking for money, but I was confident that most people could see that the one thing had nothing to with the other. But it was never an issue of either/or; fans could decide to support both causes if they were so inclined.
Fuelled with the knowledge that local fans in Minnesota, North Carolina, California and Colorado had managed to reverse EastEnders cancellations, I had little doubt we could win. Fortunately, WLIW programme manager Joe Campbell provided an opening by offering to allow the fans come up with the $29,000 to cover the BBC's annual license fee on our own. (See page 5 for Debbie's account of their surreal conversation, as well as the scene on 31 January when we turned over approximately $34,500 to WLIW executives.)
But we had one huge disadvantage: WLIW refused to alert viewers of the programmeís cancellation. We were literally on our own, bringing new meaning to the station's often-repeated promo station breaks as being "member-supported." I knew I had at my disposal the Walford Gazette database of approximately 1,200 names and addresses of fans in the New York area, including 621 who subscribed via WLIW.
At the same time, the Gazette was only one of probably 10 EastEnders thank-you gifts that WLIW had offered to contributors over the past eight years. It just seemed patently unfair that the station wasn't giving fans the benefit of the doubt, and one last chance to show how much this programme meant to them. That's how it was saved by KOCE in San Jose last spring. WLIW's obstinacy on this point made me even more determined to prove them wrong.
Pumped up by a soundtrack in my mind playing John Lennon's "Working Class Hero," Patti Smith's "People Have the Power" and "Bob Marley's "Get Up Stand Up," I knew we needed nothing less than a multi-tiered strategy: one or two direct-mail postcards to the Gazette list pleading for cheques to come in immediately; the local newspaper, trade press and national media, all of which I thought would recognise the story as a classic David vs. Goliath media story (see page 6 for clippings collage), and any publicity would tip the odds in our favour; possibly a celebrity benefit concert with someone of the stature of David Bowie or Whoopi Goldberg, both New Yorkers whom I had reason to believe were EastEnders fans; a "meet-and-greet" with an EastEnders actor; mobilising the online EastEnders community to help get out the word of our plight; an auction of rare EastEnders collectibles, including my Albert Square street sign autographed by the EastEnders cast; perhaps a major corporate contribution or two; and a benefit screening of rare episodes.
We had the good luck that Michelle Collins (Cindy Beale) was already in New York for a screening at the Museum of Modern Art of a film she starred in, The Illustrated Mum, which had won an International Emmy in November.
With two days' notice, we managed to pull together an event for Michelle on 9 January (see Tim Wilson's report on pages 8-9), in which we raised $1,600 from a group of ecstatic fans.
But ultimately it was the postcard, and its follow-up, that was responsible for the lion's share of the cheques made out to WLIW that packed my P.O. box nearly every day for over three weeks. My job experience early in my career editing columns by fund-raising copywriting expert Herschell Gordon Lewis (also known as the maverick schlock filmmaker) came in handy when writing the postcard copy in which every word counted. Also it didn't hurt that we promised to give the money back if we fell short of the targe.
My guess was that if we convinced about 300 of the 1,200 postcard recipients to give us $100 apiece, we would easily hit $29,000. (Thanks to several large contributions ó-one for $2,500, two for $1,000 each and 31 cheques from $200 to $450 each ó the average donation did turn out to be about $100 when taking into account the number of cheques for $50 and under.)
Responses were coming in from people in all walks of life (see page 4 for donors' names). Retirees, lawyers, a professional fund-raiser whose firm ironically has several PBS affiliate clients (but not WLIW, unfortunately!), doctors, and a Queens-based real-estate landlord.
Luckily, The New York Times picked up the story, and we were able to receive additional financial support from EastEnders fans who weren't on my list. These included individuals like TV Guide writer Ileane Rudolph; Peter Bloch, the long-time editor-in-chief of Penthouse magazine, who was quoted in The New York Observer article about the campaign; and a high-powered Wall Street law-firm partner, who sent directly to WLIW's offices two certified letters each containing chequesof $500 earmarked for EastEnders.
As I went about trying to get celebrity and media support, I felt almost like a combination of Sir Bob Geldof and Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro's delusional character in Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy) in equal doses.
Convinced that David Bowie was an EastEnders fan who watched via WLIW (based on his quote in the autobiography of British DJ Goldie about how ecstatic he was that his friend Goldie had landed the part of Angel "but it'll be 19 years before" he;d getto see him because the States' episodes are so far behind the U.K.), I called a friend of mine who had given David Bowie's wife Iman yoga lessons years ago (he once participated). Hearing the urgency in my voice, she parted with the phone number and address.The only problem was that the Bowies moved four years ago, the concierge of the St. Regis on Central Park South informed me. I dropped off a package at his management company, and spoke to his assistant, who seemed sceptical about my motives. Other associates of the musician whom I knew through my real job dealing with the music business, told meI was going about it correctly, but cautioned that he was still recovering from his health problems of last September, and that in any casbe they had little influence over him regarding something like this.
Whoopi Goldberg apparently told talk show host Graham Norton last year when he taped his show in New York that she was an EastEnders fan, and I recall a TV Guide interview years ago when she said the same thing.
I left countless messages for a disc jockey on WBAI who I knew would know how to get to Whoopi's current Broadway show publicist, and even tried to get on the air. In the end, Debbie Gilbert dropped off a package at the theatre where Whoopi was performing, but we never heard back.
I called my friend Bob Tulipan, whose company Traffic Control Group counts among its immigration services clients the likes of Sir Elton John, to see if the musician would consider doing a benefit show, perhaps a warm-up gig to his long-term Las Vegas casino engagement. After all, in the Gazette the previous year Debbie had made a convincing case for Elton to be the missing Mitchell brother. Bob never did hear back from Elton's people.
But Bob was able to arrange a private screening at Soho House, the New York branch of his trendyBritish social club, at which I decided to show "The Return of Den Watts," which was broadcast in the U.K. soon after the aforementioned BBC America cancellation. Soho House New York graciously waived its $1,000 cinema rental fee.
Fellow fans in the online community immediately dashed off several DVD-Rs and tapes containing several requested holy grails. Luckily, one DVD-R and one VHS tape offered good enough quality even when blown up on the club's movie theatre screen. To see EastEnders on a big screen absolutely brought chills to all 35 of us who were at the screening, which put us over the top money-wise with a few days to spare.
After checking several legal opinions as to whether the BBC could consider the screening copyright infringement, I threw caution to the winds, believing that the benefit would safely fall under fair use, especially since the proceeds ultimately would pay off the BBC.
I had even more ideas that basically couldn't be tapped due to a lack of time. If David Bowie or Elton John weren't available, I'd enlist professional musician and bona-fide EastEndersí fan Lenny Kaye to headline a music benefit, and I'd fill up the bill with other Brit expat musicians, who still have some following among rock circles. I thought I'd make an appeal to some of the British fashion designers living in New York, like Stella McCartney and members of Soho House NY, in hopesthat they might be missing the goings-on in Albert Square and would like to see the return of Den Watts.
Completely maddening was the inexplicable sheer indifference regarding the campaign on the part of BBC Worldwide, whose responsibility is purportedlyto sell BBC programmes to the U.S. public TV stations, but obviously they gave up long ago trying to make EastEnders a success in this country. Since they would be the beneficiaries of such an effort, one would think they'd take a bit more interest in seeing us succeed.
Also somewhat disheartening has been WLIW not being able or willing to admit that perhaps it has been going about EastEnders the wrong way all these years. At the 18 January WLIW Community Advisory Committee meeting in Plainview, Long Island, at which Debbie, Dana and I were the only non-board or non-station staff members present, WLIW management explained that the cancellation decision had been made "to best serve the audience and station goals."
In 2003, EastEnders generated $12,468 for WLIW after six days of on-air fund-raising, and in 2004, $11,805 after ten days.
I asked rhetorically, "Then how is it possible we were able to collect more than $18,000 in less than two weeks without any on-air promotion whatsoever?"
When I suggested we could work together to maximise the EastEnders audience for WLIW's gain, we were told by an advisory board member in no uncertain terms that we should just worry about the 31 January deadline.
Similarly, when I tried to get Dr. William Baker, who heads WLIW parent public station WNET/Thirteen, to listen to my view that perhaps Thirteen (the nation's largest PBS affiliate) might be a better home for EastEnders, I was told this was solely a matter for WLIW to handle.
Looming on the horizon was what effect the potential loss of a New York outlet would have on EastEnders for the rest of the country. When the series was in danger of being dropped nationally in 1995 (when WLIW saved the day by picking up the show from the defunct WNYC ó a true lifesaver, and all credit to them), the BBC talked about the need for a New York-area station to make EastEnders viable elsewhere on public television in the U.S., especially since the New York market paid a heftier license fee than other markets. A BBC source tells me that some stations are safe for the rest of 2005, but obviously the loss of WLIW would not have been a good omen for EastEnders' future. In addition, public TV stations next year must abide by FCC rules requiring close-captioning of all programmes. EastEnders' weekly doses might be cost-prohibitive, the source surmised.
Perhaps it was EastEnders' uncertain future for all U.S. residents that was partly responsible for the 18 contributions (of a total of 307) from outside the New York area, including an extremely generous $1,000 gift from the Minnesota EastEnders Fan Club. Jean Brooks, who empathised with our plight and saw it as foreshadowing what the Twin Cities could soon face, thank you!
My heartfelt appreciation also goes to:
* Carolyn Weinstein, EastEnders' company manager, who gave us for auction autographed cast member cards, as well as two copies of the Radio Times, one signed by Leslie Grantham (Dirty Den) and another by Nigel Harman (Dennis Rickman). Carolyn also provided a letter certifying the authenticity of my Albert Square street sign autographed by the EastEnders cast, which I was prepared to auction via eBay. As it turned out, the highest bid was way below the minimum, and I am therefore able to hold onto it. As one interested bidder noted, "You never know when youíre going to need it againî [for fundraising purposes].
* Jan Austin, the biggest EastEnders fan I know on the West Coast, who was invaluable in tapping her network of EastEnders collectors.
* Soho House New York's Jo Addy and Carrie Snitcher, who both showedgreat hospitality at our benefit screening. Carrie, by the way I learned, once was thegirlfriend of Paul Nichols (Joe Wicks).
* Nathaniel Roberts, the proprietor of Fiddlesticks, who hosted several of our events.
* The following companies provided complimentary DVD boxed sets that were auctioned off: New Video (Monty Python Megabox); First Run Features (The Up Series); Blue Underground (The Allan Clarke Collection); BBC Video (Coupling: Season 3); and Sony Legacy (The Clash: London Calling 25th Anniversary Edition).
As publicity mounted on both sides of the Atlantic (including an online endorsement from Vanity Fair's James Wolcott), I realised that this campaign could turn into my "15 minutes of fame," epitomised by a NY1 Time Warner Cable news report on 28 January about all of Google's new features when I caught a glimpse of my name being Googled on the screen.
I look at myself as sort of an EastEnders advocate, representing a constituency of thousands of U.S.-based disenfranchised fans, not taken seriously by the BBC's powers-that-be, who for the most part are faintly amused by our enthusiasm for their creation. They wonder why we're not rather watching Desperate Housewives or the latest Hollywood reality TV fad.
Rest assured, I will continue to lead that mission, and hopefully wake up Auntie's honchos at Broadcasting House in London to the attractions of this would-be lucrative export.
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