In September, 1986, the announcement was made: NBC had done the deal. It had bought the rights to "Noble House" and would make a miniseries out of James Clavell's very thick novel (1,370 pages) about international power struggles in modern-day Hong Kong.
Eight weeks later, late one afternoon at the network offices in Burbank, the next phase of the project was started. A contingent representing the network's brass--in publicity, advertising and promotion--assembled in a conference room and began plotting their attack.
And make no mistake of it: Since those early days, the campaign to make the American TV audience aware of the "Noble House" series has been executed with the precision of a military strike, a planned invasion.
The goal: nothing less than a sweep of America.
Results of the mission will be known in the next few anxious days: The eight-hour "Noble House"--NBC's most ambitious programming of the year--begins airing tonight, commencing at 2100 (that's 9 p.m. THE SWEEPS
Another in a series of articles examining the TV industry's periodic ratings ritual.
civilian time). It will continue over the next three nights.
The stakes are high, not only because of the $20-million production cost of the series but also because this is the February Sweeps--another of those periods of the year in which the networks (as well as the independent stations) turn most frantic and put on their best programming, or at least those with the broadest appeal.
Ratings garnered during this period directly affect the number of dollars that can be charged for advertising time. So the ratings for "Noble House," will help determine future ad rates during those respective eight hours of the week.
It's little wonder that the gathering of the forces of hype, back in November of 1986, resembled a war room conference.
Will NBC will the war? Well, there's a "hoped for" 50% audience recognition factor for new shows and usually higher for mini-series, said John D. Miller, NBC's vice president for advertising and promotion. But for "Noble House," he boasted, about 70% of the American public "probably knows it's here."
Whether or not the American public cares enough to turn its channels to NBC, we'll know that as the week unfolds.
"Noble House," directed by Gary Nelson, seems to possess all the necessary ingredients for a miniseries. There are power players bent on corporate takeovers, low-lifes who commit nefarious deeds along the waterfront, and mystery and murder. And what miniseries would be complete without seductive gazes--and longings of the heart? "Noble House" has that, too. And attractive players to act it all out.
Like dashing Pierce Brosnan, who has the starring role of Ian Struan Dunross, the tai-pan (head) of Hong Kong's most important trading house (the Noble House of the title). And pretty Deborah Raffin, who plays Casey Tcholok, the ambitious vice president of an American corporation that just might be attempting a takeover of Noble House. (In the meantime, Dunross seems bent on a takeover of her . . . romantically speaking.)
And Ben Masters, as Raffin's scheming boss. He gets romantically involved with gorgeous Hong Kong TV reporter Julia Nickson. As it turns out, she's being forced into this liaison by her former lover John Rhys-Davies, who wants a spy in the Noble House camp. He happens to be Dunross' longtime nemesis.
As befits an eight-hour miniseries, there are many more entanglements. A couple of natural disasters make an appearance, too.
As we said, all the ingredients appear to be there.
But that's not enough in TV--especially during a sweeps month when winning isn't everything--it's the only thing.
("Noble House's" opening night competition: the Winter Olympics on ABC and the CBS-TV movie, "Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis.")
Which is why NBC went to work beating the drums about "Noble House."
There was a point, however, at which there was a glitch, when it looked as if Brosnan might not make it here to participate in the obligatory Blitzkreig interview process. (He was going to do a batch of things from London, his home away from Los Angeles.)
Common wisdom dictates that a star's participation can only boost a publicity campaign. And in fact, over at NBC, those folks featured in miniseries and TV movies are contractually bound to be "reasonably available for normal publicity activities."
(Those activities, per contract: a photo session, a minimum of five in-person interviews, two half-days of phone interviews and, when applicable, participation in press tours or satellite TV interviews. NBC picks up the costs for such endeavors, but the actors aren't paid for their time.)
Of course, it's a bonus for publicity people when actors go beyond being "reasonably available." Which is why the folks at NBC doubtless breathed many sighs of relief when Brosnan did show and began promoting with enthusiasm.
Speaking of which, the print ad touting the miniseries finds Brosnan, the central image, dressed in a tuxedo, looking, well . . . it brought to mind a James Bond image and might remind people that Brosnan was going to be the next Bond and then wasn't. (More on that later.)
At any rate, the Bond image isn't all that bad an image for your star.
As it was put by Miller: "The photo has a little bit of a James Bond feel." But, he added, "if a reader picks that up, that's only in their imagination. We aren't going to state (in the ads) anything about Bond."
On the Covers
The results of the NBC assault look impressive:
According to a rep at NBC, an early phone survey shows that "Noble House" will dominate the covers of the hundreds and hundreds of newspaper supplements across the country this weekend. (Had the series run a week earlier, it would have gotten stiff cover competition from the Winter Olympics, now in its second week.)
Other covers: TV Guide, probably the sweepstakes reward in the TV hype business. And the face of leading lady Raffin adorns the cover of the newest Redbook.
A burst of syndicated articles on Brosnan. And syndicated pieces on Raffin and author Clavell, as well as some supporting players. (Copley Syndicate veteran personality reporter Nancy Anderson talked with John Rhys-Davies and co-star Nancy Kwan, as well as Raffin.)
A splashy piece on Julia Nickson in US magazine (she was also just spotlighted as a "New Face" in Elle). Plus a piece on supporting actress Tia Carrere in People. (She plays a TV starlet who also happens to be the mistress to two Hong Kong bigwigs--who also happen to be foes! Clavell reviewed her performance with a broad smile and said: "Oh, she's an absolute scene-stealer!")
A barrage of radio interviews with Brosnan, Clavell. Raffin, Davies and more.
An inundation of TV segments. Brosnan was slated for "Today" last week (of course, it's on NBC; the network isn't likely to get much precious air-time on other networks), as well as a string of shows for the NBC affiliates via satellite. Raffin, who guested on "The Tonight Show," will do her satellite interviews on Monday, beginning at 6 a.m. "Oh my gosh, that means I'll have to get up a couple of hours earlier to be at the studio," Raffin said. "And I'll have to look bright and alert!"
"Study guides" created by NBC's community affairs division have been sent to 17,000 public and private high schools across the country, just in case educators want to assign some homework on Hong Kong's history, its capitalist present and communist future (in 1997, Hong Kong will be reclaimed by China).
A 22-minute, NBC-produced documentary, "Hong Kong Before China." It's been sent to 211 affiliates, who are invited to run it at their convenience. (It makes sense to time it to "Noble House's" airing--since it includes a brief clip from the miniseries.) Or, they can make clips from the documentary available to their local news stations, just in case they're planning "Noble House"/Hong Kong-related stories.
News segments this week on KNBC, about the "real" Noble House of Hong Kong. Reporter David Garcia and producer David Linder were in Tokyo, doing a report on earthquakes (and how this country can learn from Japan) when they got a phone query from general manager John Rohrbeck and news director Tom Capra asking if they thought there was news value in exploring the real Noble House and its tai-pan ?
A four-part series begins on today's 4-5:30 p.m. newscast, with a four-minute Hong Kong overview. (An abbreviated two-minute segment airs on the 11 p.m news, after part one of "Noble House.") Two-and-a-half-minute segments follow, Monday through Wednesday, during the 11 p.m. newscast.
The real Noble House is the Jardine-Matheson company; its tai-pan is Simon Keswick (reporter Garcia says he's "affable, tall, elegant, with this perfect British accent--straight out of central casting").
Those NBC plugs have helped too. They've been running since the beginning of the football bowl games, "so we can say we've plugged it, on the air, since Jan. 1," Miller said.
They got particularly heavy ("a major blitz," is how Miller dubbed it) during last week's Thursday and Saturday night lineup. That's when NBC rules the roost--with programs like the "Cosby Show." "It's going to be tough to not know that 'Noble House' is here," Miller said.
"Your article is going to help, too," he added.
It was too early to tell, at press time, whether the critics' accolades/barbs would have any effect on viewership. The Washington Post's Tom Shales called it "a lavish and satisfying success." (He added: "Memo to travel agents: Expect a boom in trips to the Far East").
It also found a supporter in People's Jeff Jarvis, who graded it an "A" and declared, "This is what every miniseries should be." Of Brosnan's work: "This is his coming-out party as an official debonair sex symbol. It is absolute proof that he should have been James Bond."
Ah! But TV Guide's Don Merrill, who deemed the series "big and lavish," added, "It's also, unless you're into corporate raiding, pretty dull." He also declared Brosnan's work to be "stiffer than a week-old bagel."
It was Michael O'Hara, NBC director of media relations and special programs, who chaired the pow-wow, officially known as a producer's meeting, in November, 1986. Such gatherings kick-off each NBC miniseries/TV movie/special project. "We listen with one set of ears, and then talk with one voice," O'Hara said.
A key attendee was the project's writer/producer, Eric Bercovici, who'd earlier teamed with Clavell to produce the "Shogun" miniseries.
So right away, stressed NBC vice-president of miniseries Susan Barewald, they had the selling point:
"From the team that brought you 'Shogun.' "
"Shogun" aired in 1980 and remains the highest-rated miniseries in the network's history. From the beginning, "Noble House's" best-seller status and Clavell's superstar literary status were boons to the publicity campaign. After all, more than 5 million copies of Clavell's 1981 tome have been sold. It is the fourth book in Clavell's Asian saga (preceded by "King Rat," "Tai-Pan," "Shogun" and followed by the recent "Whirlwind").
The battle plan called for a reprint of the book, utilizing production art from the miniseries, plus the use of a single, readily identifiable logo in all promotional materials--and what could be more recognizable than the broken gold coin so pertinent to the "Noble House" story-line (as well as the cover of the original book)?
(The logo would even adorn chocolate coins and "Noble House" teacups at a special "Noble House" banquet.)
There was also talk of a contest based on a series of true/false questions that could be answered only by viewing the program. That is, the answers couldn't be found in the novel. Questions would have appeared in ads in publications like TV Guide and USA Today. Winners would receive trips to Hong Kong.
As it happened, American Express, which had indicated interest in sponsoring the event, had to pull out of the contest plans since it's a sponsor of the Winter Olympics, which are running directly opposite "Noble House." American Express would have been competing against itself.
The Bond Brouhaha
Also in attendance at that producer's meeting was Brosnan's personal publicist, who recalls thinking it odd that, just a month earlier, the Burbank lot had been picketed by angry Brosnan fans who felt their idol had been cheated out of the role of a lifetime, James Bond.
What happened to Brosnan put him in a kind of no-man's land. There's a lot of curiosity about the role that got away. At the same time, it doesn't make for particularly happy conversation for Brosnan. ("He especially feels uncomfortable because Timothy Dalton is a friend of his," stressed his publicist.)
In retrospect it all seems a bit silly. But two years ago, when the producers of the James Bond films went in search of someone to replace the aging Roger Moore, there was a storm of headlines and debate.
Who should inherit the 007 tuxedo?
Those in the running were said to be Mel Gibson, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and just about every other leading man who happened to be tall, dark and handsome.
That meant Brosnan, too, then starring as the charming mystery man of the "Remington Steele" detective series on television. (As Steele, Brosnan took on the name and identity concocted by ambitious femme detective Stephanie Zimbalist, who became his romantic foil.)
When Brosnan was offered the role of Bond, it seemed that the timing couldn't have been better: NBC was dropping "Steele" after four seasons.
Then the blow. Fueled by climbing ratings, doubtless related to the possible Bonding of Brosnan, the series' producers decided to order additional episodes. And Brosnan was still under contract.
The Bond producers didn't have time to dally: The role of Bond went to Timothy Dalton. Brosnan was left with notoriety.
There he was, looking miffed, on the cover of People. The headline: "TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT."
Flash forward to Jan. 6 of this year.
Members of the press, representing some 70 out-of-town newspapers, were attending a press conference at the Century Plaza. Part of NBC's semi-annual media relations press tour (to promote the network's programming), the conference involved "Noble House."
Almost everybody was there but Brosnan. He phoned in via a long distance hook-up from London. (He told those assembled that his wife's illness kept him at home in London.)
The very first question for Brosnan: Could he please relate the Bond story?
The actor was polite but unenthusiastic as he began, "To probably go over it for the umpteenth time. . . ."
The Chinese Banquet
Later that night, NBC Media Relations hosted a fancy Chinese banquet in honor of "Noble House" at Chinatown's ornate Miriwa Restaurant.
The 220 persons who mixed and mingled included out-of-town press, local news media and NBC chiefs, including NBC president Brandon Tartikoff.
The cast was there too, sans Brosnan.
There was Raffin, looking blonder and taller than she does in the series. And Ben Masters. And his on-screen romantic interest, Julia Nickson (she was the girl who befriended the lonesome Rambo while he was trying to rescue his pals in Vietnam). She was at the festivities with her real-life romantic interest, husband David Soul.
Nancy Kwan, the once-Suzie Wong, was there. So was John Rhys-Davies, Indiana Jones' nemesis in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." So was Lisa Lu, who was made up to look decades older than she really is for "Noble House." (She was the Empress Dowager in "The Last Emperor.")
Also in attendance--and looking every bit the worldly literary giant--was Clavell. Table-hopping ("Can you imagine the impression he makes, when he begins spinning one of his war stories?" said media relations executive O'Hara), he also took to the head of the room when president Tartikoff delivered a "Noble House" toast. Clavell, who went on to express his praise for the production ("It's not the book, but then neither was 'Shogun' "), warned the crowd to be wary of the sake . "It could melt the paint off a battleship."
If the occasion was impressive--from the endless trays of exotic hors d'oeuvres to the specially fortuned fortune cookies (spreading sayings like, "It's a noble man who watches NBC," and "Ian Dunross says buy low, sell high")--there was also talk about Brosnan's non-appearance.
Some of the out-of-town press people weren't happy that they had to go back to their papers without having seen him. Still others didn't like the thought of merging his phoned-in quotes with the direct quotes of his colleagues.
There was a lot of speculation about why he had stayed in London. ("It's simple. He's desperately in love with his wife. If she's ill, he's not going to leave her--not even if she's just a little bit sick," said one reporter who's a Brosnan watcher.)
One reporter for a national magazine, who'd interviewed Brosnan years ago ("when he wasn't a star"), motioned around the room, saying, "Pierce isn't ready for all this. He may be a product of publicity, but, that doesn't mean he knows how to deal with it." She'd come to the banquet hoping to chat with Brosnan about an interview she'd thought was arranged. She hadn't attended the press session earlier that day, so she was surprised that he wasn't there.
But if the press didn't get to check out the picture-perfect Brosnan, there were other banquet mementos. Like cute little Chinese teacups, bearing the "Noble House" logo. (With tea bags, too.) And little red "silk" purses filled with chocolate "coins" that also bore the "Noble House" logo. And pretty lacquered chopsticks. And more fortune cookies.
O'Hara later said: "The optimum thing to do would have been to take everyone to Hong Kong. Of course, that's impossible. So you do what you can. That banquet got across the 'Noble House' mood."
Brosnan has a reputation for being a shy guy with the press.
He's not the sort whose career and personal life has generated screaming headlines, aside from the Bond thing. In fact, he's known as a private man who leads a quiet family life with his actress-wife, Cassandra Harris (a former Bond girl, she was the contessa with a secret Liverpudlian past in "For Your Eyes Only") and their three children.
He says he believes in promoting the work he's done. "You can't just go away and bury your head and say I'm not doing the thing."
He had returned a reporter's call. (The opening words to a reporter were, "Pierce, here." Who? He had to repeat himself, then went on to say, "you are very difficult to get hold of . . . but, I hear you need to talk with me.")
What a reporter wanted to talk to him about was what he'd been talking about, as of late. That is, his dealings with the press.
He had a ready, staccato answer: "I'm talking 'Noble House.' Eight-hour miniseries. Clavell. Blockbuster. Merchant-Ivory."
The latter is in reference to the prestigious Merchant-Ivory Films, producers of "The Deceivers," the action-adventure feature in which he stars. It's due this summer.
He disputed any intrigue about his no-show at the Century City press conference. "Personal things kept me in London. I would have been there if I could. There's nothing darker than that."
Not that he relishes the interview experience. "I used to think I was great at them," Brosnan said. "I was very confessional in those days (the early days of 'Remington Steele'). I kind of spewed everything out.
"Time kind of changes things. You put a censorship on yourself."
In particular, Brosnan prefers to "censor" questions having to do with Bond, as well as those Diet Coke commercials in which he portrays a dashing Bond-like character.
"There's not much to say about those things, anyway."
When a reporter pressed, he declared, "You want me blood-splattered, right?
Some questions can be seriously silly, as he related, and he's quick with examples. One such question: "How does it feel to be sexy?"
"How do you answer something like that?" Brosnan mused. "It's one of those questions I tried to answer, sincerely, in the past. And it doesn't work. I come out looking like an absolute wally. So now, I try to just side-step it."
Then again, pointed out Brosnan, "When you're doing a TV series, talking with the press can all be very straightforward. But after you leave the comfort of a series, the ground is changing all the time. You don't always have ready answers.
"Right now, I'm not sure where I'm going. . . ."
Career-wise, he's in a kind of Twilight Zone.
More than a recognizable TV star, he's not quite a TV superstar. Nor has he yet made a successful leap to the big screen: his reviews were mixed and the box office minimal for "Nomads" and "The Fourth Protocol."
Now it looks as if "Taffin," a drama filmed in Ireland in which he stars, may elude some moviegoers. (MGM/UA will distribute the film in nine parts of the country (excluding the West Coast) beginning Friday. Its performance in places like Dallas, Oklahoma City and New Orleans will determine its theatrical future.)
Word is much higher, to date, on "The Deceivers." Director Nicholas Meyer has likened Brosnan to an "Errol Flynn--with talent." And, reports Brosnan, he recently received a phone call from producer Ismail Merchant and Meyer, "and they were popping open some champagne, which was a good sign."
NBC wasn't subtle about telling the press about "Noble House."
An extravagant press kit in a red Leatherette binder, which weighed in at about 2 1/2 pounds, had press information broken down into six segments like "Storyline" and a "Player's Guide." These were sent to 500 members of the press as well as 250 promotional managers at NBC owned-and-operated stations.
There were also weekly "Noble House" releases bearing the special "Noble House" letterhead and logo in the press packets that the network sends to more than 1,700 outlets four times a week.
One example: A recent three-page release included "facts and figures" on Hong Kong. That's for those who were curious to discover that the population is 5.7 million (almost 98% Chinese), that land prices are among the highest in the world (investors paid $475 million for two acres of land in Kowloon in the early 1980s), that Hong Kong has the world's highest traffic density (with 316 vehicles per square mile) and that U.S. investment in the territory is estimated at $6 billion.
The release also included the odd-ball fact that Bing Crosby's grandfather, a China clipper captain, is buried in Hong Kong!
As for lining up all those interviews: First-off, the publicity department attempts to snare the interest of "priority" press.
O'Hara showed a reporter that list. Sort of. He was seated behind his desk. From that distance (about three or four feet), you couldn't read the small type.
Could the reporter have a closer look?
"No, you can see it from there."
After putting the list away, O'Hara said, "That's worth a lot of money to somebody."
He didn't want to give away strategy that could be employed by ABC and CBS.
At any rate, some of those priority press people made it out to the Hong Kong locale. Make no mistake of it: Location stories are very important for a miniseries. Without them, it's nearly impossible to get that most lusted-after cover of the TV Guide.
Then there were those press people who came to L.A. for the network's press tour. They were sent home with piles of "Noble House" promotional materials as well as a complete transcript of the press conference, which means reporters don't even have to bring notebooks.
But not every paper can send a reporter off to Los Angeles for interviews and fun in the sun. Nor is every paper invited to such goings-on.
That doesn't mean that small papers didn't get the attention of the "Noble House" campaign.
Indeed, a publicist worked from a 60-page national editor's list, contacting each publication and syndicate about interview/photo needs. The task required the help of three assistants.
Pro forma of Hollywood, lesser-known stars are "offered" (as interview subjects) to smaller newspapers. And big stars talk to big (i.e., "important") writers/publications/syndicates.
An NBC publicist felt uneasy talking about setting up the interviews. "I'd hate to hurt the feelings of any of the actors who didn't get interviewed by the really big newspapers." But, she was also realistic about the situation: "That's life."
The Christian Science Monitor's Arthur Ungar had to juggle some previously scheduled interviews in order to talk with Clavell when he was in New York. But Clavell had a scheduling problem, too. He was just wrapping up his promo work in Los Angeles (he'd done interviews with Calendar, as well as Jerry Buck of Associated Press, Vernon Scott of United Press International and a number of radio shows) and New York (for instance, he called the New York Daily News' Kay Gardella at home, over a weekend) and was slated to head for home. So Ungar interviewed him during the 45-minute limousine ride from Clavell's Manhattan hotel to Kennedy Airport.
Clavell's "Noble House" duty didn't end with the limo interview. Later, from his home in Switzerland, he did a phone interview with a reporter from the Sacramento Bee. And he was scheduled to return to Los Angeles to talk still more "Noble House" for this week's promotional activities.
Ben Masters was in special demand throughout his home state, Oregon. He even did a phone interview with the Corvallis Gazette Times, circ. 12,318--his mom lives there.
Hawaii-born Julia Nickson was hot in the islands (she talked to the Honolulu Advertiser). Syndicated columnist Marilyn Beck also opted to talk with Nickson; Beck wanted someone who hadn't participated in the press tour. "She wanted fresh material," an NBC publicist said.
Nancy Kwan did her share of talking too, especially to Midwestern newspapers, like the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal and Omaha World-Herald, where editors remembered her in "Suzie Wong." (Kwan fit the phone interviews around teaching Tai-Chi and doing job interviews at studios.)
Rhys-Davies did more than a dozen newspaper interviews, talked with several syndicates and did a lot of radio (which would seem perfect for his familiar, booming voice). And he was scheduled to make an appearance on the Tonight Show.
To give you an idea of how much trouble NBC put into all this promotion: one little newspaper in Florida, the Clearwater Sun (circ. 40,000), was worried that the network-supplied art of Brosnan--who was wearing a dark suit--wasn't going to reproduce properly.
"Our equipment isn't very sophisticated," an editor explained.
NBC promptly sent new art--in which Brosnan wore white.
"I think I'm a bit exhausted. It just caught up with me."
Deborah Raffin was speaking from her room at the Regency in New York City.
She was in the midst of an eight-city tour in 10 days.
"I'm lying on my bed, looking over at my suitcase. I know I should get up and unpack my clothes--so they're not all wrinkled. But I just can't . I arrived here and collapsed."
A believer in promoting film and TV work ("There's so much out there, it's confusing unless you tell the audience what it is you've done and how they can get to it"), Raffin started this tour in Cleveland.
Where'd she stay?
"Oh my gosh, do you really want to know? Just a minute, I can get it. . . ."
She returned with the itinerary. It was the Bond Court Hotel in Cleveland. From there she'd gone to Ft. Worth/Dallas, then Atlanta, then Philadelphia. From New York, where she'd attend a special party at Regine's, given for her--and "Noble House"--she'd go on to Boston, then Chicago.
Her most-asked questions had to do with her trips to China--where she and her husband are known as goodwill ambassadors (without portfolios) for introducing representatives of the entertainment industry to the country, and for helping to pave the way for the distribution of American films there (including "On Golden Pond" and "My Fair Lady").
And of course, there were a myriad of questions about her "Noble House" leading man ("I'd never seen him in 'Remington Steele' ") and "what it was like to work in Hong Kong."
She seemed relieved that a one-time scheduling conflict had been changed. It would have put CBS' miniseries, "The Windmills of the Gods" up against "Noble House." "So I didn't have to deal with that in any way." The reason for her concern: her husband was producer and she was co-producer on "Windmills."
As to what it's like doing a cross-country promo tour:
Raffin was scheduled to arrive in the designated cities in early evening, which meant she'd get to her hotel between 6 to 9 p.m. ("And usually just go to bed right away"), the better to get up very early, to be ready by 7:30 or 8 the next morning, with her suitcases in tow (so she can go straight to the airport after the day's interviews).
Picked up by a car and a publicist, she then began a whirlwind of interviews.
She's good-natured about the process, which includes "meeting the local Rona Barretts." "There's at least one in each town," Raffin said. "And they take their work very seriously. You can tell that they also love hob-nobbing in the industry. They tell me about their latest trips to L.A. and the various stars they're best friends with. . . ."
As for squeezing in meals: "If they're nice affiliates, they've arranged for a lunch." Sometimes, work goes with lunch, and she finds herself lunching with a reporter. In Philadelphia, she tried to eat a pasta salad ("I think that's what I ate") while fielding questions from eight reporters sitting around a boardroom table.
She was in the midst of relating all this when her husband (who had flown to New York to meet her, in mid-trip), broadcast the news that she'd been asked to go to Australia to promote "Noble House" when it airs there.
"Oh my God!" she gasped. "First I have to get through this."