On a recent Sunday morning, while most of their 20-something buddies were probably still on the futon sleeping off the previous night’s rail vodka, two pretty, fresh-faced young women—one donning nerdy-hot librarian glasses, the other dark-haired with a broad, warm smile—pinned NBC peacock pins to the lapels of their gray, plaid Brooks Brothers jackets and dragged themselves into the visitor’s center at 30 Rockefeller Plaza to lead a tour.
These were NBC’s famed pages—interns paid $10 an hour who work 50-hour weeks mostly packed with work like this. Smiles, please!
Just before 10 a.m., the one with the glasses and shoulder-length brown hair cheerfully warned a pack of middle-American moms and their teenage daughters (nursing not-so-secret dreams of one day working in television) that no weapons were allowed in the building. Check your nunchucks at the door!
The deadpan delivery scored some chuckles.
For the next hour, the two pages led the tour group through MSNBC’s newsroom, past Brian Williams’ desk and into the Saturday Night Live studio. All along the way, they gamely smiled, answered questions, held open doors and talked up their place of employment. At NBC, we believe in … At NBC, we love to … At NBC, we have a tradition of …
But for pages, this is not supposed to be all there is. After all, Michael Eisner, Steve Allen, Willard Scott, Kate Jackson and Eva Marie-Saint all got their start as NBC pages! No, what is supposed to happen is that the pages get snapped up for assignments at the network, or get snapped up by competitors, to begin to climb the corporate ladder to TV fame and fortune.
For the luckiest pages, the first step is temporary assignment to real shows; of those assignments, arguably the most prestigious and competitive one is the assignment to Saturday Night Live. But luck is not favoring the pages these days.
In recent days, The Observer spoke with a number of former pages who are trying to come to grips with the diminished opportunities in their chosen field.
The jobs aren’t there anymore.
“I understood getting into TV that it was going to break my heart over and over—whether it was pitching ideas that don’t work or working on a show that fails,” said one former page. “I went into it with open eyes. But now, I don’t know that I’m glad that I did it.”
“It’s extremely selective for a reason,” said one former page. “They’re picking the elites. If you can make it into the page program, that means something. You’re being groomed for a career in television. But almost everyone I know who just left the program doesn’t have a job. If they do, it’s not at NBC.”
“Obviously, no one could have anticipated what happened with the economy,” said another former page. “But essentially it has been a sort of negative experience. I no longer recommend the program to others.”
On Sunday morning, the two pretty young pages leading the tour group around 30 Rockefeller Plaza led the visitors into studio 8H, home to Saturday Night Live. Here and there, props lay scattered around the cluttered studio from the previous night’s performance. 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan had hosted.
In the opening skit the night before, Mr. Morgan, unrecognized by security, had stormed into 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Seeing one of the pages in his telltale jacket, Mr. Morgan punches the guy’s lights out.
On this Sunday morning, the pages made no mention of the “funny” page abuse. But as their group boarded an elevator, one asked what everyone thought of the SNL studio. Everyone agreed that the studio seemed smaller and more grimy in real life than they had expected.
The page nodded sympathetically. “It does look a lot more glamorous on TV,” she said.
IN 3O ROCK, writer and producer Tina Fey has created a darkly comical portrait of network television. It’s a world occupied by narcissists, slackers and those who couldn’t get into law school. A place where people work with dried vomit caked on their desks. It’s a shameful profession. Parents of TV writers lie to their friends about how their kids make a living. Calamities abound.
In her nine years at Saturday Night Live, Ms. Fey had ample opportunity to observe a long line of that breed of NBC person: the Alpha Page.
And so, into the moral hell-flames of 30 Rock, Ms. Fey flung a fictionalized version of this particularly eager specimen of the network ecosystem—a character named Kenneth the Page.
Surrounded by his jaded colleagues, Kenneth (played by comedian Jack McBrayer) is a slack-jawed, sweet-hearted yokel. He is also seemingly the last guy in the building who still believes that television is a noble calling.
For his trouble, Kenneth’s hope and optimism are continuously preyed upon by his colleagues. His coworkers lie to him. They call his tours boring. Through it all, Kenneth clings to his love for NBC.
In the 18th century, the French satirist Voltaire used the character Candide to explore just how much suffering “a young lad blessed by nature with the most agreeable manners” can endure before losing faith in a benevolent universe. Kenneth is Tina’s Candide.
It’s a particularly good joke in 2009 when the notion of unwavering hope in one’s professional life—banking! Manufacturing! Retail! Media! NBC!—seems particularly absurd. After three seasons, Kenneth the Page has yet to fully crack.
“We pages are accustomed to danger,” said Kenneth in a recent episode. A few moments later, New Yorkers spray-paint his back.
How much will Kenneth be willing to suffer at the hands of the craven, cynical, self-interested personalities in the television business, the show seems to be asking us.
To suffer this ambitious fate, however, may not even be an option for most of the Kenneths presently running around in the real “30 Rock.”
Brenda Anim was fresh out of college at SUNY Binghamton, and the Dow Jones was high, when she signed the forms and got her uniform in the fall of 2007 and began work as a page.
Most of the job, Ms. Anim soon learned, was to lead walking tours of NBC’s headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Visitors paid $19.25 a person for an hour and 10 minutes inside 30 Rock. For their part, pages got to ingest and recite endless amounts of trivia about the majesty and magic of broadcasting at NBC.
Over the course of the year, Ms. Anim completed two assignments. She worked at CNBC, paging for Suze Orman’s show; and she worked for the department that produces NBC’s promotions. Along the way, she networked with a bunch of good people and developed some solid production skills.
Like all NBC pages, Ms. Anim had high expectations about where the program would eventually land her. Applicants were told that a high percentage of graduates promptly scored jobs at NBC. The rest were scooped up by rival networks. During low moments, pages could console themselves by reciting the names of top TV veterans—Ted Koppel! Regis Philbin!—who had started as NBC pages.
By the winter of 2008, as she finished up her year as a page, she began to feel anxious. When she had first matriculated to NBC, the graduating pages all seemed to land jobs in television. But as the economy turned south and NBC began shedding employees at an alarming rate, more and more pages seemed to be piling up at the unemployment line. What would she do next?
Finally, some three months after leaving the program, Ms. Anim landed a monthlong job working for NBC’s in-house production unit. In a recent telephone interview with The Observer, Ms. Anim said she loved her experience as a page, and even though she was feeling anxious about the future of the business, she felt committed to sticking with television.
“I’m still determined to do what I want to do for a living,” said Ms. Anim.
THE RAGE OF a disillusioned page tends to burn quietly. They are, by training, a discreet and loyal group. But in recent months, a pack of fed-up ex-pages have banded together to make their suffering known to upper NBC management. At the same time, they have struggled to keep their unhappiness away from the public eye.
“I would rather not have any negative perspectives of the program made public,” wrote one former page in response to an email query. “We would prefer to deal with this situation internally.”
But as graduates of the program struggle to land plum jobs in this grim labor market, some have directed their angst toward the manager of the page program.
The current page manager took over the program in the fall of 2007 and has since presided over the pages during a difficult time for NBC Universal. In the fall of 2008, NBCU chief Jeff Zucker sent out an email to managers warning that they would have to cut $500 million from their 2009 budget. In December, Mr. Zucker sat in front of a room full of bankers in New York and acknowledged that the network “had not had a good fall.”
Neither did the page program, which according to numerous sources became rife with discontent and disillusion. Thanks to the budget cuts, overtime dried up. Pages who had been told they could expect to earn roughly $30,000 for the year found themselves making considerably less.
At the same time, some of the shows and divisions at NBC that historically sponsored assignments (and, in turn, had to pay the page program for the labor) were saving money by cutting back. According to former pages, MSNBC, Today, the sports division, and corporate all scaled back their opportunities for pages. Some pages struggled to find anything to do beyond chores and tours.
The combination of factors took a toll on morale. Some pages bristled at a series of disciplinary crackdowns. According to one source, pages were regularly asked to keep an eye on their colleagues for possible infractions. “It’s a culture of fear,” said the former page.
Those who gave voice to the grievances felt they risked being blacklisted. “You’ve devoted a year of your life to doing it,” said another former page. “You’re so expendable that you really can’t complain about anything. If you voice feedback that’s remotely negative, you don’t get recommended for jobs.”
That said, according to several sources, in recent months a number of pages have banded together and voiced their complaints about the page manager to an internal NBC ombudsman.
When asked for comment by The Observer, NBC Universal provided a prepared statement. “With over 54% of our pages placed in jobs during 2008, the program also continues to be extremely successful in terms of building careers, and is a source of great pride for NBC Universal overall,” it read in part.
In the meantime, former pages hold out hope of a renaissance.
“On the whole it’s still a great, great program to be a part of,” said Jason Shebiro, a recent page, who now works at Sirius XM Radio. “You get your foot in the door. You get that check on your résumé that says you were an NBC page. You’re still part of the club.”
Follow Felix Gillette via RSS.