Next up: 107 dogs, two cats – and other come-ons to keep you watching 

11 September 2017

From TV Guide for 8 August 1981

“Sex it up!” ordered Howard Doyle, executive producer of WABC-TV’s 6 P.M. Eyewitness News, the highest-rated TV news program in New York City. “Sell that story!”

He was giving me directions in writing “teases,” those three-, 10- or 30-second grabbers that you see on TV: “Coming up next on Eyewitness News … the amazing story of the 11-year-old girl who brought a dead man back to life!” Or a classic, fully “sexed-up” tease that unfortunately appears only on network “gag reels”: “I’m not wearing any pants! Film at 11!”

Like street signs and elevator instructions, teases have to be written by somebody. At smaller stations they may be done by the program producers or associate producers. But WABC decided teases are so important in attracting viewers it assigned an expensive writer — me — to do nothing but write them. As for myself, I have always been a writer of the “big bucks for small sentences” school, whether for magazines, books or TV; so the arrangement suited me just fine.

It all began last fall, just before the dreaded November “sweeps.” The sweeps are special month-long ratings wars, which, for some reason, the ratings companies have conned the networks into believing are necessary to continued prosperity. Nobody in television can tell you exactly why we have sweeps; it’s simply the way it is. Each network hauls out its heavy artillery during sweep periods, held in February, May and November, when audiences are measured and local stations set their advertising rates accordingly.

On WABC’s Mount Olympus, the god of News, Sports and Weather decided the key to winning the sweeps was “teaseology,” the art and science of grabbing them—you—in the first three seconds. WABC even decided to send me to school to team how to become the world’s first full-time “teaseologist.”

To be strictly accurate (which teaseologists must be), the school actually came to me. One Kris Hofacker, a talent consultant with a broadcasting research firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, flew to New York from the company’s Iowa headquarters to drop the following tidbits on titillation:

Courtesy of HulkieD on YouTube

“A tease,” she said with all the authority of her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, “must get them to put down their beer.” The best beer-droppers, she told me, were the ones that contained the word “you” and were immediately “relevant.” For instance: “Coming up next … warnings about a newly discovered poison, which you may have in your refrigerator right now!”

The idea is to tantalize and fascinate without giving away the story and without lying. You have to bait them, seduce them and entice them to keep watching. For instance, here’s a tease that nobody could resist: “Still ahead … 107 dogs, two cats and a monkey!”

What Doyle was telling me to :sex up” in the first paragraph was a tease just before a commercial break on the 6 o’clock edition of Eyewitness News with Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel. I had written: “Next on Eyewitness News the cost of living dips … plus a special report on designer jeans … including a profile of Calvin Klein.”

“It’s dull,” Doyle said, fixing me with his famous cold stare. With his gold-rimmed glasses, his eyes look exactly like two television sets. “Who gives a [bleep] about the cost of living or Calvin Klein?”

I returned to my typewriter. I thought over what Kris had taught me in Teaseology School: Be unpredictable! Use words that stick in the viewer’s mind! Personalize!

I wrote: “Coming up next … the holes in your pockets and the patches on your pants.”

I stared at it, trying to be as cold as Doyle. A desk assistant, the TV version of a copy boy, came up and read it over my shoulder.

“Hey, that’s clever,” he said.

A sucker for flattery, I said, “I believe you’re right.” I took it back to Doyle.

That’s when he told me to “sex it up.” He would not elaborate beyond saying, “Sell that story—it’s still too dull.”

“I believe you’re right,” I said obsequiously and returned to my module.

As I sat there sexing it up, another colleague came over. The newsroom is a fishbowl. “They can’t both be right,” he pointed out. I stared at him. “I believe you are right,” I said.

For the record, the tease that passed muster that night was: “Still ahead on Eyewitness News … some good news about your money. For once, you might even have enough left to buy a pair of those snappy new designer jeans. We’ll show you the man behind the behinds!”

The effect of this umpteenth rewrite was to make Doyle’s lip curl upward a 16th of an inch — for him, the equivalent of rolling on the floor with laughter.

In the art of teaseology you have two kinds of formats: the “bumper” tease and the “umbrella” tease.

The bumper, which “bumps” the viewer into the commercial break, goes like this: “A young woman who thought she’d never talk again … talks to Bob Lape …”

The umbrella is the very first thing you see, so it must carry the flavor of an eye-popping newspaper headline. It goes something like this: “Tonight we begin with the New Yorkers saved from that burning ship. They escape from the deep-blue sea … only to find the devil at home!”

Coming up last: my opinion of teaseology. Hey, it beats working on the night shift, driving that forklift! And there’s an intriguing element of danger: one always risks having the brains turn to liver pâté, just dishing out one-liners all day. But in television, as in life, when the ratings are good the teaseologist takes the credit; when they’re bad he has no trouble assigning the blame.

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