It’s 8 AM. I approach the picturesque security booth at CBS Studio Center’s only entrance with hair neatly curled, makeup set and cardinal and gold shoelaces frivolously tangled on the Converse beneath my new work pants (which I had recklessly scorched that morning. Hint: heat and polyester don’t go well together). I give my name to the guards, they lower the drawbridge and I trek, lot map in hand, to Studio 9 to meet with the executive director and producer of Entertainment Tonight/The Insider.
Kevin Gershan greets me warmly, swatting away my formal offer of a handshake in favor of a friendly hug. I instantly feel welcomed by the UCLA alum, despite my scorch stain and USC shoelaces. “You’re taking her to get food when she’s done with the tour,” the receptionist reminds him.
“Am I buying?” he asks ruefully, with the unmistakeable hint of a smile. He instantly turns to me. “What, are you hungry? Would you like food?”
His unexpected sarcasm shocks me into a stammer, as it always does. “Yes, I c-could, uh, go for like some coffee, uh, or a snack. That would be amazing, thank you.” Thankfully, his fatherly, friendly vibe overrides his brazen, Hollywood-groomed banter: He gestures toward the door and we “Go Inside!”, ducking into a small office with sliding glass doors.
He introduces me to John Kornarens, the stage manager, a tall man who is hunched over a desk in the corner. John shakes my hand, smiling and after explaining that I’ll be stuck with him all day, shows me around the various facades and offices. Crews hoist authentic set pieces to their rightful places while electric carts tote employees around. Tiny actresses teeter on their heels, headed to casting calls. Each set is a neat little microcosm. Inexplicably, though, photoshopped images of Kevin Frasier (i.e. with a Mike Tyson tattoo, his smiling face on a baby’s body) are taped to the cubicles and walls of every ET/Insider office. I laugh aloud at each one before returning to the Insider set to get the 9:30 show started.
John Kornarens has worked for CBS’ for about a decade, but has managed stages for 20-something more. His mother taught him how to be goal-oriented, ambitious, shoot for the stars, what have you. His father taught him something else: “How to get a vibe from people. How to read ’em. That’s what my father taught me.” he shares, leaning out of his chair to meet me at eye level. Growing up, his mother imparted upon him the importance of receiving a college degree, so he did just that, refusing an offer to join his friends in Metallica as their guitarist.
“What!?” I sputter. “Did you say Metallica?” Another story for another time, perhaps.
The Insider and Entertainment Tonight are shot in the same studio, on back-to-back stages. John says he oversees everything physical onset, ensuring that the talent, the props, the cameras (the works) are all ready. “Yes, this is my baby,” he confirms.
Oscar, the key grip, kindly hands me a headset so that I can follow along with the anchors, the producer’s directions, the teleprompter, camera angles and John’s rundown list at the same time. No big. Louis, Keltie, Thea and Michael flash me quick smiles as they go through hair and makeup, preparing to anchor and deliver rapid-fire tabloid headlines. Ali, the insightful jib operator, shows me how to handle the dinosaur-esque piece of machinery so I pan, zoom and focus under his watchful eye. I’m a quick learner, but my attention is captured by the other goings-on around me. “How do you make magic happen here? What do you do?” I ask of Peedan, a nearby crew member with silver hair who looks like he belongs in a Harley jacket on a motorcycle.
I settle back into the folding chair onset, a little disheartened. If it’s not magic, what is it? What’s television? In a very you’re-about-to-find-out-in-a-minute way, Peedan retreats into the shadows of the set. I hear the count, and suddenly, the organized chaos kicks into gear. In my ear, the producer calls for camera angles and graphics to appear on the screens behind the anchors. Retakes. Zooms. Push. Housewives. Starlet’s troubled past. Squeeze. Vocal warmups. KRON 4. Apple 11. Charlie 2. XO. I have no idea how, but I manage to follow along with the production and I’m impressed by everyone’s seamless ability to multitask.
I venture into a kitchen most cozy between shows and find myself among a treasure trove of the crew’s coveted snacks, including powdered donuts, bagels and fresh smoothies. “Are you guys a family? Or do you drive each other nuts?” I inquire generally. The crew decides to label themselves a “dysfunctional, functioning family,” and Peedan hilariously chimes in that all set dressers are chronic liars and not to be trusted.
John and I grab Brooke Anderson from voiceovers and Kevin Frazier from the dressing room, and we get right into the OG tabloid show: Entertainment Tonight. I feel like a pro on the headset by now, and relatively at home on set, though it’s only been an afternoon.
I won’t give away their trade secrets, but I’m floored by Brooke and Kevin’s chemistry and professionalism: they don’t err once in delivery and almost never need clarification. This is their element; it comes to them like breathing. They’re gone as quickly as they had arrived, as is Kevin Gershan, who let me in. He and Michael, a Marketing honcho from Upstairs, had been muttering big business in the office during my visit but I have the comforting feeling that my visit to CBS is unfinished. I know that I’ll see Kevin before long.
Finally, with the departure of Scandal’s president comes my own, impending flight from the scene. I reluctantly remove my headset, much to the disappointment of the headset itself; it had wrapped its wires comfortably around my curls. I’m back at the security booth before I know it, waiting on a car to take me back to reality. John of the Two Stages leaves me with some parting words of career advice: “Find a niche but don’t box yourself in. Learn how to be inquisitive without being pushy and say “Got it” without embellishing. Gain an understanding of how stuff works but, remember, it really is about who you know. Make your connections and look out for yourself.”
I plan to do just that.
I came to CBS expecting TV magic and found something else entirely: Precision. Quick, sound judgment. Impeccable attention to detail and mastery of each craft. The team I met has makeup and lighting to enhance, lingo to simplify, a crew to support, an international audience to inform and a reputation to uphold. They do this day-in, day-out at the intersection of fierce dedication and sheer talent. It’s not magic. It’s the realest thing I’ve ever seen.