David Zurawik

Mike Rowe talks Speedos, CNN and a better Baltimore TV image

When last we spoke with Mike Rowe, he was talking about how he planned to use his new CNN show "Somebody's Gotta Do It" to try and improve Baltimore's TV image.

Rowe, who finished a solid second in his time period as part of a CNN move toward more non-news, original programming last year, returns for Season 2 at 9 tomorrow night.


I talked to Rowe this week about his upcoming shows and his plans for including Baltimore in them.

Q. The last time we spoke, you were talking about doing a show this season featuring Baltimore. You asked on Facebook for suggestions from folks in Baltimore as to what kinds of stories you should do. Did anything come of that?


A. Everything that I thought was going to happen did. We just got more of it than I knew what to do with. What happened was I could either put it into an entire episode as planned and cut everything to fit, or keep the individual stories that we got and spread them out over the next two seasons.

Q. And you chose the latter?

Yeah ... The city's official and traditional effort to garner some PR involved me and Julie Bowen and Josh Charles and a bunch of native sons and daughters. So, I went to Baltimore as planned to participate in that, and I brought my crew. And we wound up shooting the making of a PR campaign. We profiled a guy named Allan Charles, runs TBC.

Q. Josh Charles' dad, the chairman of the TBC ad and PR agency, right?

A. Yeah, he put me in the first commercial I ever did 30 years ago, a PR campaign for Crystal City ... And so now, Allan Charles is in charge of Baltimore's reputation, he calls me, I go to participate and my "Somebody's Gotta Do It" crew comes along and we spend the whole day with Allan. He is absolutely great, my parents got involved, and we all went to Sabatino's where I went for my prom. And, y' know what, I think the waitress is still there who brought me my veal parm in 1980 ...

Anyway, as you know, there were all kinds of traffic and suggestions on the Facebook page for Baltimore stories that I should do. And long story short, we did the single most interesting park ranger in the world, Vince Vaise, who works over at Ft. McHenry ... We wound spending half a day with him.

And then, I got a line on this group called Fluid Movement, up in Pimlico, who do this outdoor performance art around very unlikely topics. And they had just done a water ballet on Mary Pickersgill (maker of the Star-Spangled Flag Banner that hung over Ft. McHenry) and the whole Star-Spangled Banner.

So, I thought, you know what, 'It's not going to be very flattering. But why not jam my ass in a Speedo and let me do a water ballet?' And so, we basically tell the story of Ft. McHenry, the Star-Spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key, all of it, in a traditional way and then through this wildly interpretive and possibly humiliating experience with me in a water ballet."


Q. When will that air?

A. I don't have a date, but I will soon, because I just put the rough cut together … I'm going to say it will air in about five weeks.

Q. So, sometime in May.

A. Yes, mid or late May.

Q. Will Allan Charles be in that?

A. No, he's going to be his own separate segment in his own separate show, because it was just bigger than I thought … Now that I've seen the finished product of what Allan was actually hired to do, I have a chance to show the before and the after, reconnect on a personal level with a guy in the business, and give the viewer a sense of what happened in Baltimore with its image.


… I'm talking about the whole phenomenon, I don't know if that's the right word. But the reality of how a show like 'Homicide' or 'The Wire' can do so much good, but at the same time, the unintended consequence is, you know, that Marge, from Idaho, is pretty sure she's going to get mugged and shot up with heroin if she comes to Baltimore ...

Q. We've had that discussion before. Let me ask you about the promotions CNN is running for Season 2 with your parents. They live in Baltimore, don't they? Did you film the CNN commercials in their Baltimore home? They are very clever promotional  spots.

A. We actually filmed in L.A. They were visiting my brother and we flew them out … We have a challenge with this show. It's a lighthearted show on a serious network. And I'm not competing with whatever else is on Thursdays at 9. I'm competing with the world – Ebola and Isis. Jesus, it's a bloodbath.

So, the first challenge is to let viewers know it's a lighthearted show. And the second is to make sure they know it's on CNN …

There was nothing scripted. They are based on conversations I had with my parents.

I said to my mom, "Remember when the show wasn't where I told you it was on the CNN schedule and you were worried that it was canceled. Do you remember what you said?' And she said, 'Yes, Michael, I told you your room is just the way you left and you're always welcome.'


And then, I said, 'Dad, do you remember what you said? And he said, 'I sure do. I told you if you were moving back, you were going to have to pull your own weight, because the grass isn't going to cut itself.' OK, I thought, 'Let's work with that. This is the campaign.'