MAKING “THE GAG GAG”

MEDIA One rejected sketch had TV newsman John cris-well attempting to claw his way out from under the anchor desk. Another had him mumbling his first words as Channel 4’s newest star muffled by a gag.

In the end, the campaign to sell Criswell’s switch from Channel 8 to 4 settled on photographs of the anchorman with his mouth taped and an appeal for ideas to “keep John busy” in the weeks he was forbidden to anchor the news by contractual squabbles with WFAA-TV, his employer of 17 years. By most accounts, the relatively low-budget campaign (more than half a million dollars) was a solid hit. Suggestions poured in from viewers eager to fill Criswell’s idle hours. Criswell’s favorite was from a college student at UTA who wanted the anchor to take her journalism exam for her. “She offered to bring the blond wig and the lipstick,” he says.

Coming up with the ad campaign was a challenge, say its originators, freelance copywriter poppy sundeen and ben vergati of Vergati Stevenson advertising. Time schedules were tight, and the creative team feared that “stodgy” journalists would look askance at the boldness and the humor of the campaign.

Sources say that Channel 8, fuming over the campaign, went so for as to consult its consultants on how to respond-though MICHAEL GRANT, Vice president and general manager of Channel 8, denies any gagging at the ads. As for Criswell, who felt badly burned by his treatment at Channel 8, Vergati says “I think he was kind of ready to take a potshot or two.”

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