Dark rumors had already piled up by the time two dozen NBC pages were summoned 10 days ago to a meeting in Room 1202 at the network's Burbank studios. After all, their supervisors, who dressed especially formally for the morning event, didn't even seem to know what the session was about.
Soon enough, Betty Hudson, network senior vice president for corporate communications, was giving them the bad news from New York, via satellite. The faltering economy and loss of revenues from the canceled NBC studio tour had rendered the page program too costly, she said. The network had decided to "mothball the program" March 29 on the West Coast, eliminating the part-time positions that for 50 years gave young workers training and insight into the television industry.
The 45-minute meeting ended with Hudson answering questions from the pages, most of whom were dressed in their official NBC polyester blue blazers. And as they were leaving, Hudson's transmitted voice was overheard saying to some unseen person, "God, I'm glad that's over."
"I've had better assignments," Hudson said Wednesday. "We think the people who have gone through the program are just great and the people who ran the program were top-notch. It was literally a sad day, and there's nobody here who thinks the network will be better off without the pages. That's why we prefer to call this a suspension."
Two years ago, the program was expanded to lend pages to network departments, where they worked alongside professionals to learn the different facets of the industry firsthand.
Carl Meyer, a network vice president, said pages "have been a real asset within his department," adding that "a page was looked upon as someone who could be a future player in the TV network. It's a great training ground."
He said he hopes the program is reinstated when the economy improves.
News of the decision spread quickly around the studio. KNBC News weatherman-comedian Fritz Coleman was heard slamming his fist after a page informed him. And Phil Donahue, in Burbank taping his talk show, paused during a break to shake the hand of the nearest page and offer his condolences.
"The sad thing is that it's been an institution for 50 years," said Christopher Valeti, 26, who has been a page since last March. "It's a fraternity of sorts that's going out of business."
Dozens of former NBC pages have gone on to notable positions within the industry, including television journalist Ted Koppel, actress Kate Jackson and Willard Scott, the weatherman on the network's "Today" morning show.
Added page Pamela Viu, 23: "People at the studio that I haven't talked to before, if they see me in a page uniform, they'll tell me they feel bad about it. A lot of the good things that we do, as far as helping give a good image to NBC, it's hard to measure that in dollars."
As a result of news reports of the demise of the program, visitors waiting in line for "The Tonight Show" were recently handing out business cards and suggesting job prospects to the pages ushering them, Valeti said Wednesday.
Jan Wildman, who supervises the pages as director of guest relations, said the recently redesigned 10-month program not only uses pages to lead tours and usher but lends them to work in other departments and invites network executives to speak at group meetings and offer career guidance.
All week pages were sitting through network-sponsored resume workshops and career counseling, Wildman said. The attention focused on securing employment.
The NBC pages were part of a "management-training program that offered a lot of extra bells and whistles," said Wildman, whose own position was canceled along with the program.
Program applicants needed to be college graduates and demonstrate a genuine interest in television, Wildman said. "Most of them have been bitten by the television bug since they were 12," she added. "They just don't know the corporate game plan.
"It was an overall education program that we wanted to set up. We called it a working master's degree in television. It was really designed to fill that need."
Ushers for "The Tonight Show" will still be needed, and Wildman said it hadn't been decided yet who would take on those duties. She said current pages will be given first priority to any new positions. But one page suggested that NBC might simply hire an outside firm to provide ushers as needed.
Pages interviewed Wednesday said they had only good memories of their time in the program, including a recent group skiing trip and a bizarre encounter with a drunken Santa Claus who wandered into "The Tonight Show's" sound stage before Christmas, insisting he was a scheduled guest.
Page Orlando Reece, 23, whose current assignment has him working with the local news production staff, said people at the studio were always friendly, helpful and appreciative.
But a few of the pages had only recently been hired, or had traveled from as far as Virginia and Maryland to join the program. "A lot of people are shocked, and a little bit bitter because some of them gave up other things to come here," said Reece, who became a page in September after his graduation from William and Mary College in Virginia.
"We didn't really have any warning," said Liu, who became an NBC page Jan. 7. "So I was kind of disappointed. I was just getting used to this place, and I had already learned a lot. So now I think I'm going to be missing out. I have my resume ready again."
A few of the pages have already found other jobs and have left the studio lot. Others said they are confident they will be staying in the industry.
"I'm going to stay in Los Angeles, definitely," said Reece, who holds a degree in economics. "The jobs out here are what I'm looking for, in the creative end of the industry. I've decided I don't want to wear my gray suit anymore."