x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

My TV show's slow, controlled flight into terrain

Flying is convenient, but a plane crash by any other name is still a plance crash.

A few weeks ago, I was boarding a small airplane headed from Miami to the Florida Keys. It was one of those old-fashioned planes - small inside, with a propeller hanging from each wing - and it was the kind of aircraft that, if you're used to big jets with spacious cabins, can make you nervous. The size of the aircraft made sense - the flight from Miami to Key West is barely 45 minutes - but still: the plane was awfully tiny.

I wasn't the only one who thought that way. At the bottom of the stairs, on the tarmac, a female passenger suddenly got cold feet. We could see her, my seatmate and I, from our row. She was at the front of a long line of passengers and when she spotted the propellers and the rickety steps, the look on her face said it all: no way I'm getting on that tiny thing. Planes that small go down. She backed away from the stairs.

"I don't know why she's nervous," my seatmate said to me as we buckled in. "I'm a pilot. I can tell her. These small planes are a lot safer. I mean, it's pretty rare to pull a CFIT in one of these."

"What's a 'see-fit'?" I asked.

"It's a term we pilots use. It stands for Controlled Flight Into Terrain."

"You mean a crash?" I asked.

"Technically," the pilot said, "a CFIT is an event in which a perfectly operable aircraft is flown inadvertently into terrain - like a mountain side or a misjudged runway. It's not used when an engine fails or a plane is somehow disabled."

"Oh," I said, suddenly sympathising with the female passenger and her freakout.

"In other words," the pilot said, "all CFITs are crashes. But not all crashes are CFITs. Do you get it?"

"Call it what you like," I said, "but a crash is a crash."

The pilot shrugged. "CFIT just sounds a lot nicer."

Which may be true, though I'm not sure it would make much difference what anyone called it if it was happening to me.

Euphemisms are like that: perfectly acceptable in the abstract, totally irritating in the specific. When you're on a plane that's heading down, my guess is you're not going to have much patience for weasel-words.

That's a theory, of course, I'd prefer never to test: I'm extrapolating from my attitude towards euphemisms in general.

Last month, after spending a year working on a script for a television pilot - a "pilot" is a first, or test, episode of a proposed series - and a month casting, rewriting and filming the script, the network that paid for the entire production shrugged its shoulders and said, essentially, "thanks but no thanks".

Well, not exactly. What they said was, we love this project and we love this cast, but we're not quite ready to greenlight the project to series. Can we, they asked, "put a pin in it?"

"I don't know what that means," I said. "Put a pin in what? Put it in where?"

That's almost always a mistake, by the way. In Hollywood, if someone uses jargon you don't understand, it's best to let it slide. Nothing good comes with clarification.

"Let me clarify," the network president said. "As much as we love this project, we'd like to take a beat, assess our needs, digest some of the choices we've already made, and then regroup in July to I hope order the show."

Now, the problem with this is, I've been in show business for too long.

My first day in the business was early January, 1990. I've been here, in fact, longer than most studio and network executives.

So when I hear phrases like "put a pin in it" and "we love this project" it's hard not to assume that, a) they hate this project, and b) they want to stick that pin through its heart. They just don't want to be honest - yet - because they're not totally certain they might not need me later. So why alienate me? Instead, string me along with increasingly ineffective ways to dance around this: your pilot project is dead.

But that's the difference between rickety aeroplanes and the entertainment industry. When my seatmate assures me that in a plane of this size, there's very little chance of a fiery CFIT taking me down with it, I instinctively believe him. And while the euphemism is silly-sounding and probably unnecessary, I appreciate the gesture.

"Putting a pin" in a television project, on the other hand, isn't designed to make things smoother or more civilised - it's just supposed to keep me from making a scene on the tarmac at the foot of the stairs.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl