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VIAAC Deserves the Accolades it Bestows on Others

23 Sep, 2004 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Last night I was honored as one of the Video Industry AIDS Action Committee's 2004 visionaries, an honor that quite frankly means more to me than any of the journalism awards I've won over the years.

I settled on a career in journalism because I wanted to change the world. So far, I don't think I've come anywhere near my goal. VIAAC, the home entertainment industry's only homegrown charity, was launched 15 years ago to help in the fight against AIDS. Since then, VIAAC has raised more than $3 million for various AIDS organizations around the country to help fund the battle against this deadly disease.

With due apologies to myself, that's a much more significant contribution to our world, and to life, than my latest ramblings on DVD extras or the TV DVD phenomenon.

I received my VIAAC Visionary Award for having produced the VIAAC program for the past five years. I'll be the first to admit that's not much, but in my own small way I believe I helped an organization, and a cause, that I wholeheartedly support and champion.

My first personal encounter with AIDS happened in the early 1980s. I was in San Diego, working for San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Reader as a freelance writer. I wrote a lot about San Diego's redevelopment efforts, and that put me in touch with a man named Monte Kobey, a civic leader who had great visions for what downtown could become. Sadly, Monte contracted HIV through a blood transfusion while undergoing open-heart surgery and died of AIDS-related complications. He left behind a wife and two daughters.

Since then, I, like so many of us in this business, have lost a good number of friends to this terrible, and terrifying, disease — a random, indiscriminate killer. When VIAAC was launched, I was proud that our industry at last had a homegrown charity, and when I was asked to help out on the program five years ago, I eagerly dove in — even after I discovered that “help out” meant “do it.”

But as much work as it is, it's fun. I get to see a different side of the executives I profile, the studio executives who donate thousands of dollars worth of product, and myriad hours of company time, to support VIAAC, as well as the retail leaders who have stepped up to the plate over the years to support VIAAC in their own fashion. I get to see the humans beneath the suits, the compassion and sincere desire to do some good, to make a difference, that you simply don't see when discussing copyright protection and marketing strategies.

It was the same this year, except I got out of writing one profile — my own — at the last minute when Stephanie Prange, our executive editor, offered to step in. She interviewed me, then called me back and said she was having trouble filling the space. “You haven't really had a 500-word life,” she said. “I'm not even sure I can make it to 400.” Thanks, Stephanie.

I had no trouble writing 500 words about the other honorees — particularly those who, er, “helped” me write their profiles, like Fritz Friedman, the affable SVP of worldwide publicity for Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment. Trade reporters know full well how exacting it can be to write a story pitched by Fritz. Now, imagine writing a story about Fritz, with Fritz. I'll leave most of this to your conjecture, but let me just say that I was still on the phone with Fritz at 7:30 one evening. Just after I had read him back his last quote and hung up the phone for what I thought was the last time, he called back. “That part where I say, ‘I've had a good life and a great career' — it makes me sound like I'm dead," he said. "Can you put that in present tense — 'I have a good life and a great career?'" I made the change, but before I could shut down my computer the phone rang again. Fritz. “Could you change ‘great' to ‘wonderful?’I did, but only after I put on my voicemail. But you know what? Fritz was right. Wonderful is a better word — not just for his career, but for him, and for all he has done on behalf of VIAAC. And I can honestly say the same of all the honorees I've profiled over the years. They are all wonderful people, and I was truly honored to stand in their company last night.

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