Thursday, May 10, 2007

"We Watch TV Better Than You Do"

Ever wonder who writes the TV listings you see in the newspaper? Well, from 1990-1994, it was me. During the winter of ’92-’93 — just before they decided to close the Atlanta office and kick me to the curb — I had the good fortune to be involved in a project to rewrite movie descriptions in a database of over 30,000 movies. The goal was to write two descriptions for each movie — one under 65 characters and another under 120 characters to ensure that the text would fit correctly in the little grid in your Local Listings. Here is how I described that project in a letter dated 10/22/1993.

I am working with TVData again, temporarily. I log on to the mainframe in New York via a local line where I am re-writing many of the movie descriptions we wrote last winter. (We were originally told to shorten them to something between 120 and 130 characters in length, and no one had seen fit to inform us that they were really supposed to be under 120.)

Most of what I do is take an existing description, which is usually starts something like:

“A young [occupation] ...” or “A young man unjustly accused of [crime] ...”

and follows up with

a) “... sets out to ...”

b) “... finds himself ...”
c) “... attempts to ...” or
d) “... seeks revenge against ...”

It then concludes

a) “... win the hand of a wealthy heiress.”

b) “... the target of mobsters who believe him to be [something he is not].”
c) “... prove himself innocent and unmask the real culprit.” or
d) “... the [noun]s that are responsible for his [relative]’s death.”

Ninety percent of the time it has

“... with the help of a beautiful young woman.” stuck on the end.

With that kind of input here’s the kind of stuff I cranked out at a rate of several hundred descriptions a day. (I apologize if I’ve posted these before, but I’ve been going through my archives this week.)

The Egg and I (1947): A woman scrambles to survive on her husband’s chicken ranch.

The Early Bird (1965): A lone milkman stands uncowed by a corporate takeover.

Clash of the Titans (1981): If Perseus is to win Andromeda’s hand, he must get Kraken.

Psycho (1960): A deranged mama’s boy takes a stab at running a motel.

Traveling Executioner (1970): The owner of an electric chair does the prison circuit.

Beer (1985): An ad executive with a head for business hires three average Joes for a campaign to pump up sales at a local brewery.

Bitter Rice (1949): A rice-field worker becomes involved with two men who go against her grain.

Chisum (1970): The owner of a vast cattle empire locks horns with a businessman determined to dominate the entire Pecos region.

Forever Emanuelle: An insatiable archaeologist jumps everybody’s bones.

Sweat Shop: A seamy garment tycoon falls in love with an illegal-alien employee.

Follow that Dream (1962): A family gets the cold shoulder when they try to homestead a piece of unclaimed land alongside a Florida highway.

Les Patterson Saves the World (1987): A diplomat lifts the lid on a plot to disease the world with infected toilet seats and extort billions for the cure.

Little Nuns (1963): An order of spunky nuns attempt to convince airline officials that jets make too much noise to suit their quiet habits.

North to Alaska (1960): A miner replaces his partner’s fiancée with a gold digger.