Saturday Night Grindhouse Chapter 8: Where It All Went Wrong

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

-First Amendment to the United States Constitution

Here’s a fun lesson in defamation:

Frequently the terms defamation, libel and slander are thrown around as synonyms. Their interchangeability is understandable – libel and slander are both forms of defamation, or false statements intended to hurt someone’s reputation. Sometimes defamation occurs when an entity, whether it’s a blogger, a book author or a journalist, writes something fictitious about a person – this is the definition of libel. Slander, on the other hand, is when the defamation comes from someone’s spoken words. A good example is America’s 45th president Donald Trump calling Hispanic immigrants rapists. It was demonstrably false and was intended to hurt the reputation of an entire ethnicity, qualifying it as slander and therefore defamation.

Defamation of an entire race of people. Real role model, that orange guy. I digress.

In the state of Tennessee, in order for a statement to be considered either libelous or slanderous, it must first be proven false, have caused harm to the victim’s or victims’ reputation, must be about the plaintiff presenting the charges and must have been either published or broadcast with a certain level of negligence or malice.

Our Constitution’s First Amendment gives American citizens the right to openly and freely criticize the government. It does not, however, protect us from the potential consequences of the statements we may make or actions we may take while petitioning said government. It’s important to note that libel and slander are off the table with regard to personal opinions. However, as a gentleman in South Carolina learned the hard way via a $50-million lawsuit sought by then-mayor Lisa Sulka, this “opinion privilege” is no longer valid once that opinion involves accusations of criminal or illegal activity. Saying “Governor Hoo-Hah is a grade-A dork and is probably a virgin” is protected free speech but saying “Governor Wizardsleeve is a rapist” is a legal gaffe. 

Keep these things in mind when you’re spouting hateful rhetoric about people or entities who have the time and finances readily available to shut you up – or shut you down. 

Unless you’re slandering Donald Trump. Fuck that guy.

Anyway, this information will be useful later in this chapter.

After the Episode One debacle, I’ll admit it took me quite a while to pick myself up and move on. Yes, this show was my baby and yes it had been a restaurant-quality fuck up, but I was literally the only person that was upset about it. My host was still positive and so were our fans, so I was determined to suck it up and move on. Episode Two had already been scheduled — the double feature started with This is Not a Test from 1962; written, directed and produced by Fredric Gadette, starring Seamon Glass that would later go on to play First Griner in the 1972 film Deliverance. The main feature of the night was the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth, starring the legendary Vincent Price. 

The episode was already in the can, as was the promo for the episode, sans-Shannon, of course. Things weren’t great but we were moving on and staying positive. At this point, I was optimistic about our future. We were starting to get quite a bit of attention from the surrounding area and public access channels in Johnson City, Bristol, Mount Carmel, Knoxville and Atlanta were all showing interest in airing our content once we had enough to syndicate.

Syndication is a cool concept where studios can lease a show’s broadcast rights to another network, usually in full-season batches or even entire series batches. Growing up, I got to watch a lot of classic television shows from the 60s, 70s and 80s including Mister Ed, My Three Sons, Green Acres, I Dream of Genie, The Brady Bunch, Good Times, Welcome Back Kotter, All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Happy Days, Bewitched, Different Strokes and Mama’s Family. I knew these were “old shows” and knew they were referred to as reruns but what was really going on is these shows’ original networks were syndicating their content to other networks through a process called Off-Network Syndication. It’s a great way to fill in programming slots that have low viewership or a good way to air great shows when you simply don’t have enough content otherwise.

In our minds, local broadcast already made us television royalty. Syndicating in larger markets would make us television deities.

One of the most exciting opportunities we had on our plate was getting to be a part of the first (and apparently last) horror convention in Kingsport. The show’s promoter messaged us on MySpace to see if we were interested in getting a booth at the con and if so, if we could help promote the event. It was an exciting opportunity that ultimately fizzled out, unfortunately. The promoter got upset with me for refusing to volunteer to pick up the celebrity guests from the airport. It was a drag to lose that opportunity but it opened us up to new possibilities and methods for promotion. We still attended the show as guests to support the local scene but after the show, the promoter was never heard from again and Kingsport never got another horror convention.

Back at the job, I had been given an assignment to go cover some of the self-defense training hosted by the Kingsport Police Department for its officers. We had a good relationship with those guys so I was excited to go check out the scene. En route to the shoot in the Colonial Heights borough of Kingsport, I received a phone call from Johnson City-based news station WJHL asking if I was Justin Simpson, the creator of Saturday Night Grindhouse

I was incredibly excited because I had a good idea where this was going. WJHL-TV is licensed in Johnson City and is an affiliate of both CBS and ABC. We chatted a little bit about the concept of the show and about my history in the Tri-Cities. They told me they wanted to get Shannon and I into the studio to do a piece on our show and said they were excited that something so unique had come to the area. We scheduled a time to be live in the studio later that week and I told them I’d get back to them if that day and time was good with my host. I called Shannon, overjoyed by the news, and got clearance from him for the date in question. 

Before I could call WJHL back, however, my boss called. “

Did WJHL call you about doing an interview about your show?

Yes?

DON’T DO IT!

***

***

I was blown away by his exclamation. This was the biggest thing to happen to our show yet — maybe the biggest thing to happen to any of our original shows … So why was he so against us getting this coverage? I know that news stations are owned and operated by conservative conglomerates, even at the local level, and I know that more exposure for the show meant the potential to eventually sell out but this was not the time to be punk rock!

“They don’t want to do an interview with you because of how cool the show is…” my boss started, “they want to do an interview with you guys because of that story you put in ETSU’s paper! Don’t do the interview or we’re fucked — we may already be!” 

What the hell was he talking about? 

I immediately called Shannon and told him that we were being instructed to not talk to WJHL and to not accept their calls if they tried to reach out to him. I resolved to not call them back, myself, and went on to the self-defense project. I had no idea what kind of roller coaster was going on meanwhile.

Over the previous weekend, Kingsport’s Times News had picked up Big Jon’s story and posted it on their website. They didn’t draw attention to it, didn’t promote it and never put it in print but it did show up on their website as a brief blog post with a link to the story in the East Tennessean. I tried to find it myself and actually had to dig pretty hard to see it. And dig is exactly what WJHL had done.

After learning of our censorship at the hands of Kingsport’s government, WJHL was determined to do their own story about it and started with a call to Kingsport City Manager Tim Whaley, a weasel of a man that looks like what would happen if Billy Madison’s nemesis Eric had a baby with Anthony Fauci. 

They asked him questions about the censorship, about our show, about our company — everything. I don’t know how their conversation went but to my knowledge, Tim’s response was “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Let me get back to you.” 

WJHL had cited the story in the Times News that had linked to the East Tennessean write-up, so Tim started by reading it. He, rightfully, thought it was imperative to bring it to the mayor’s attention, who was furious about it. At this point, they called my boss to tell him that the show was being canceled immediately.

While my boss was telling me to not do the interview, Tim and company went to work creeping on my social media. There, they found my MySpace blog post where I ripped the mayor and his cronies to shreds and made Mayor Phillips’ racism and alcoholism a public spectacle. Predictably, the powers that be were even angrier and decided to take even more extreme action. 

My office received a second call after my blog had been discovered and was told that not only was the show canceled, but so was our contract with the city. They said my statements were enough to warrant a defamation of character lawsuit. My boss went into panic mode and my heart sank lower than it ever had before. Because of my words, because of my selfish attitude, I not only tanked our show but I also tanked the biggest contract my employer had; a golden egg contract that was keeping us in business.

When I got back to the office, we talked about everything. My boss tried to tell the city that my comments were taken out of context, I was misquoted and what had been printed should have remained off the record in some desperate, yet futile, attempt to kiss and make-up. There was no conversation to be had, however – they weren’t hearing it and our contract was gone. 

And that contract?

It was my paycheck. 

Without that contract, we didn’t have enough regular work to keep me employed, so I was let go. My show was gone, our contract was gone and now my job was gone — all in one day. I was disappointed, confused, sad, angry and embarrassed. While I felt like I had stuck to my guns attempting to stay true to my art and my punk-rock ethos, I felt like all I was able to accomplish was letting down my friends, family and fans. I had also shaken my employer’s small business to its core. 

Saturday Night Grindhouse was officially over.

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