Disparaging television has long been a favorite national pastime – second in popularity only to watching it. Americans spend more time watching TV than in any other voluntary activity. During those holy hours known as prime time, half the nation may be found, day in, day out, camped in front of the set, consuming the evening’s ration of sitcoms, soaps, cop shows, and, most of all, commercials.
Why can’t TV offer this vast audience “better quality” programs? As formulated by earnest intellectuals – whom television dismisses as a group too tiny to count much – the debate about quality tends to judge TV shows as a form of literature or cinema, and thus to misconstrue the stern arithmetic of Nielsen. The ratings may doom to failure a program watched by 15 million people – if its competitors draw a few million more. Understanding television demands first of all a grasp of demographics, not aesthetics.
How do the people who make television manage to function in such a system? How are the demands of ratings balanced against those of quality? What do cable and other alternative forms of TV mean for the future of the medium? To consider these questions, Harper’s invited a network executive and a group of producers, writers, and critics to reflect on the extraordinary medium in which they work.
Les Brown served as moderator.
is editor in chief of Channels of Communications, a bimonthly review
of electronic media, and was for many years television correspondent for the
New York Times. His books include Les Brown’s Encyclopedia of Television and
Television: The Business Behind the Box.BUD GRANT
is president of CBS Entertainment Division and senior vice president
of entertainment for the CBS/Broadcast Group.NORMAN LEAR
is an owner of Embassy Communications and founder of
People for the American Way. He developed All in the Family; Maude;
Sanford and Son; Good Times; The Jeffersons,
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; and many other programs.
is co-creator and executive producer of Hill Street Blues.
He was co-creator and executive producer of Bay City Blues and Paris;
executive producer of Richie Brockelman; and a story editor and writer for
McMillan and Wife, Columbo, The Name of the Game, and The Invisible Man.
RICK DU BROW
is television editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and
former television critic for United Press International.
is an independent producer whose programs include Paper Dolls, Brian’s Song,
and Something About Amelia. He was co-producer of Hart to Hart,
Starsky and Hutch, Family, Charlie’s Angels, and other programs.
Goldberg was formerly vice president for programming at ABC.
is associate professor of sociology and director of the mass
communications program at the University of California at Berkeley.
Among his books are Inside Prime Time and
The Whole World Is Watching.
is a producer and writer who was co-creator of Dynasty, Minstrel Man,
Intimate Strangers, and Sarah T. She is a former vice president for miniseries
at ABC, where she was in charge of developing Friendly Fire,
Roots: The Next Generations, Masada, Ike, East of Eden, and Pearl.
LES BROWN: Ladies and gentlemen, this is to be an uninhibited discussion of the current state of prime time television as seen from the inside – or, television looking at itself.
You work in the only one of the art forms that doesn’t have to generate an audience. Television viewers are always there in predictable – and enormous – numbers, sitting in front of their sets night after night. Your task, then, is not to persuade people to watch television but to attract the largest share of the 80, 90, or 100 million people who will already be watching at nine o’clock on almost any night of the week. Unlike productions in the other arts, all television shows are born to destroy two other shows. When a show fails to destroy the competition and it can fail while attracting 20 million viewers — it is itself destroyed. Those are the simple rules of the TV game.
While it is true that some surprisingly good shows have been produced under these conditions, it seems a terrible climate for creating quality programs. And quality is the issue that I hope will underlie our discussion today. But what exactly is “quality television”? The people making programs, of course, always believe their shows are of good quality. But that’s not how American TV programs are usually perceived by television companies around the world, or by American television critics. I hope we can keep the question of quality in mind as we discuss the state of American television in the 1980s. In particular, how have we ended up with the television we have? And what can we expect from television in the future?
Bud Grant, as a network executive who puts these shows on the air, how do you evaluate the system and this season?
BUD GRANT: Well, I believe television today is quite different from what it was in the 1970s and the 1960s. The biggest reason for these changes is the enormous growth in the number of competitors to network television. The TV audience today can choose from among so many different outlets for entertainment, news, information, sports, and music; this increased competition has to have an effect on what you see on network television. That’s why I believe television today is better than it was ten years ago. Frankly, I believe the golden age of television is now, and that ten years from now television will be even better. TV today is dealing seriously with contemporary issues, not only in weekly series but also in movies and miniseries. And rhe execution is extraordinary. Given the time restrictions, the money restrictions, and the restrictions on format, it is astonishing to me that the wonderfully talented people working in television are able to deliver the sheer quality of today’s product.
BROWN: In a sense, network television has had two phases – television before All in the Family and television since. And the creator of that show, Norman Lear, with his remarkable string of hits in the 1970s, was probably the first auteur television ever had. Norman, how do you think television has changed in the last ten years?
NORMAN LEAR: Well, I believe too many programstoday begin with people asking themselves, “What do the networks need this season?” And too few begin with someone saying, “I love this idea, I have a crying need to do this program.” Too many of the networks’ efforts begin with executives saying, “What will rate? How can we win the ratings game very, very quickly?” All of us here know that we work in a business where orders are shorter now than they were ten years ago, and that they were shorter ten years ago than they were ten years before that. In other words, the networks buy fewer episodes of a series at a time than they used to, so they can cancel the program more easily if it isn’t an instant success. That means the need to win in the ratings is increasingly the only motivating force for writers and studios and producers. Everyone is desperate for a hit, so a successful show like Dallas immediately begets – name them – six quick children.
BROWN: Well, it’s certainly true that the kind of program you championed in the seventies shows concerned with social issues and human problems, like All in the Family and Maude and Mary Hartman – seem to have vanished from the top ten or twenty programs.
LEAR: That in itself may not be a bad thing. Television should be more open to other styles. But hearing you use the word auteur, I have to say that you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of writers and producers in the last ten years who have had the freedom to follow their own creative impulses I have had. I wonder what television would be like if more people were able to work freely, to follow their own instincts. That new Paddy Chayefsky who might be waiting out there ready to make brilliant TV programs, that new Rod Serling – I wonder
whether any opportunity really exists for them.
STEVEN BOCHCO: I think the opportunity always exists. But there are a lot of talented people who for one reason or another don’t want to go into television. At any given time, a limited number of genuinely talented writers, producers, and directors are at work in a medium that devours their products at an ever greater rate.
BROWN: Steven, you created the breakthrough show of the 1980s, as Norman did that of the 1970s. Most people know by now that All in the Family got on the air against the odds; it was turned down by ABC and was accepted at CBS only because that network was courting younger, urban viewers. How did you achieve a breakthrough show like Hill Street Blues?
BOCHCO: Accidentally. By that I mean that Hill Street can be held up as an example of a breakthrough show only because it survived its initially terrible ratings long enough to be recognized. If we had been canceled when, according to the rules, we probably should have been canceled, Hill Street would never have been more than an interesting, quirky thirteen show fade-out.
But Michael Kozoll, the other creator of the show, and I were blessed by circumstances. First, we were asked to do the pilot by NBC, which was then ranked number three and was in desperate need of pilot material. Since we were asked to do the show on very short notice, Michael and I were able to exact from NBC a much greater degree of creative autonomy than is usually forthcoming from the networks. And since the two of us had worked on so many cop shows over the years and were so genuinely bored by the genre, we decided the only way we were going to do another one would be if we could do something fresh and different. For instance, we didn’t want a tightly limited number of characters. But we quickly discovered that to do justice to a lot of characters you have to extend the normal boundaries of the form – loosen the plots a little, develop themes from week to week instead of resolving everything within a single episode, and so on. It wouldn’t have been possible to include that many characters in the traditional cop-show form.
BROWN: Would any but a third-place network have been able to air a show that was so different?
BOCHCO: I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, Bud, I recall you were quoted as saying you wouldn’t have bought a show like Hill Street.
GRANT: Well, I take it back.
BOCHCO: But your attitude was understandable. Given the ratings, executives at a stronger network with more product in the bullpen would have said, “Well, that show was a noble little experiment. Let’s move on to a more traditional show that’s guaranteed to score higher.” But it was an extraordinarily dismal year for NBC. Its shows had awful ratings and terrible reviews. And here we were, getting highly favorable press despite our low ratings. I think the strong approval from the critics really saved our bacon.
Of course, NBC also quickly realized that the particular audience that was watching Hill Street, though not vast by TV standards – 10 to 12 million people – was predominantly young, urban, and relatively affluent. This small audience represented a potent force in terms of buying power, and was thus very desirable to advertisers.
Toward the end of Hill Street‘s first year our advertising rates were inordinately high for a show that rated eighty-three out of ninety-seven prime time series that year. We’ve gone up since then, of course. We now fluctuate week to week in the ratings from, say, fifteenth to as low as twenty-ninth, and our audience has roughly doubled.
RICK DU BROW: The survival of Hill Street, I think, is an example of audiences talking back to television. As Bud said, people have more and more alternatives to network TV, and the networks need special programs to attract people who are considered “desirable viewers” by advertisers. Hill Street, St. Elsewhere, and Cheers are three shows that were near death but were saved partly because favorable press coverage attracted the attention of people who were defecting from network television. When the shows started attracting those people, their advertising rates went up because advertisers pay a premium for viewers in the big cities, and especially for affluent “heads of households” between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four. NBC built its comeback around that principle; its shows are very highly rated in urban areas and among “upscale” viewers.
BROWN: But what Steven said about Hill Street fluctuating in the ratings is very interesting, because I think that’s one reason networks don’t like to do that kind of show. Hill Street Blues appeals to members of the so-called intelligentsia, who live differently from people who come home every night and sit down in front of the television set after dinner. Hill Street is my favorite TV show right now, and I watch it maybe twice or three times a year.
LEAR: I think that’s why networks have not historically liked to serve an intellectual audience – they can’t depend on it. The networks prefer programs that appeal to people who are in front of the set every night. Yet I will always believe that those viewers too can be attracted to better quality shows – if the networks put more of them on the air, and leave them on long enough for them to become an acquired taste.
BROWN: So what do we make of this? That a network has to be in trouble before it will air innovative programs? Leonard Goldberg has been on both sides of the fence, as head of programming at ABC and now as an independent producer.
LEONARD GOLDBERG: Well, I don’t think these issues are particularly esoteric. When I became head of programming I got a very simple order. I was told that I worked for a profit-making organization and my job was to deliver the largest possible audience while spending the smallest possible amount of money. If in the process I could get quality programs, that would be great, but that was not necessarily part of my job. I used to have a New Yorker cartoon in my office that illustrated this principle: it showed a scientist rushing into a boardroom with a beaker, shouting, “I’ve done it, I’ve done it. I’ve found a substitute for quality!” It doesn’t sound very sophisticated, but that’s the way it works.
When I left ABC I became a producer, and I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve worked hard and I’ve produced a lot of successful programs, many of which did nothing whatever to enhance the quality of the medium. But I have also produced a few that I believe did constitute what we are speaking of as quality television, and I’m very proud of those. I have to admit, though, that as the networks’ share of the audience has dwindled in recent years because of the competition from cable stations and sports stations and all the other alternatives Bud mentioned, the networks have gotten more and more conservative – frightened is another way to say it – in their programming. All the network programmers have rules and regulations now. You go in and tell them about a show, and they say, “But it doesn’t meet Lou Erlicht’s rules,” or “Harvey Shephard’s rules,” or “Brandon Tartikoff’s rules.” If you’re doing an action show on ABC, say, regardless of what it’s about or who the characters are, the program has to have a piece of action – a car chase or whatever – every eighteen and a half minutes. After I made Hart to Hart, a successful commercial show for ABC, network people at CBS said to me, “We would never have bought Hart to Hart, because Harvey Shephard doesn’t buy shows that aren’t franchise shows.” A franchise show has to have a cop or a lawyer or a doctor as the main character. The program is centered around some job where characters work out their troubles.
GRANT: I would hate to blur any of these persuasive arguments by bringing up the facts, but I honestly don’t have any rules and regulations that I would ever tell a producer his show must follow. At CBS we put on Dallas, and if people claim Dallas broke some kind of rule, well, then it broke a rule. So I think my friend Leonard may be overstating the case a bit.
GOLDBERG: Not to disagree with my good friend Bud, but if the networks are doing such a wonderful job of programming, why does their share of the television audience keep dwindling? Years ago, when cable TV first began, ABC did some studies and predicted that in the following ten or twelve years the networks would lose at most 7 percent of their audience. Well, the networks’ share has declined from a peak of 93 percent in 1976 to 74 percent last year. If I were at a network, I would be wondering why I wasn’t supplying mote exciting programming to get these people back. After all, when NBC puts on The Burning Bed or CBS broadcasts Silence of the Heart, they get record audiences, equal to those they had before cable.
GRANT: Look, there are simply more opportunities out there for the audience. More choices have to affect our audience shares negatively. I’m not suggesting that’s bad, incidentally. I think competition is good.
You know, from time to time someone asks me, “Why don’t you put on more shows like MASH or All in the Family?” Well, the answer is that programs like those don’t come along every day. And we’re lucky if we recognize them when they do.
LEAR: The question Leonard’s raising is, why don’t the networks seem to care? I think the answer is very clear: the networks’ profits are higher now than they’ve ever been. Which reminds me that just before automobile sales started to slide downward, General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford had their highest profits ever. I think network television is in a similar situation now. That may be true for most of American business and education, politics, publishing, all of our institutions. This obsession with the need to win in the short term is choking the entire society
BOCHCO: If we really want to understand why we see what we see on television, we have to recognize that the creative work goes on in an environment of sometimes intense struggle between various businesses. Bud Grant, for example, represents the networks – he’s concerned with making money by selling advertising time, time which is more or less valuable depending on how many people watch a program and how desirable its particular audience is to advertisers. On the other hand, I am a producer, busy trying to put together a decent program every week under the constraints Bud described. Our needs are very often in conflict. They want what they consider the best audience; I want what I consider the best show.
TODD GITLIN: As Leonard said, television is principally the business of drawing the maximum number of viewers to a given program at a given time. But many people seem to assume that the networks know how to make programs that do that. In fact, by my count, during the 1980 and 1981 seasons over two thirds of all new network shows failed to do well enough to get renewed.
The networks are enormously profitable not because their executives are geniuses at making programs that unfailingly draw the most people. They are profitable because there are only three of them, and because they all own and operate local stations – given them gratis by the American government-that bring in a large portion of their earnings. We shouldn’t concede that the networks know what people want. They are just programming what they can easily recognize as a possible hit-a franchise show, a show with a recognizable hero played by a popular star, or a show that simply copies whatever recentshow has already proved to be a hit. Hill Street and All in the Family and MASH and The Mary Tyler Moore Show are perfect examples of shows that, by the networks’ normal business judgments, should have failed. I think the networks’ claim that they are somehow serving the public’s needs – giving the public what it wants – is only a way to rationalize their own simplistic formulas. People don’t know what they want until they’ve seen it, and even then what they want is confused and complicated.
LEAR: William Goldman, in a book called Adventures In The Screen Trade, said the same thing this way: “Young screenwriter, remember: Nobody knows nuthin’.” In other words, since nobody can anticipate what the American public will want, go with your gut. What you think is funny, they will think is funny; what you think is dramatic, they will think is dramatic. Go with that feeling; it’s the best slide rule available.
BOCHCO: Except that it’s kind of naive to knock your head against a wall; at a certain point you want to develop enough street smarts to get your stuff on the air.
ESTHER SHAPIRO: I think this whole discussion is hung up on the issue of what quality television is. I love Hill Street and All in the Family as much as anyone, but why should we dismiss entertainment shows, adventure shows, soaps and sitcoms, anything that doesn’t “illuminate the human condition” on a weekly basis, as trash? The fact that hundreds of millions of people make these programs part of their lives every week is easily ignored in a discussion like this one. We’re forgetting that television – whether it’s Hill Street or Roots or Dynasty – is the art of storytelling. People are buying VCRs so they can tape Dynasty. Why should I defend Dynasty? I don’t think I have to.
Where are our storytellers today? I’ll tell you where. When talented writers like Steven Bochco or Norman Lear come along – which is once in a long while – the first thing that happens is that they become producers or entrepreneurs. Suddenly they’re not writing so much; they have other writers working for them. Suddenly they’re too busy to hear the fresh story ideas that come in, so they hire someone to listen for them. By the time the story gets to the producer and then to the head of the network, it has begun to sound like everything else. We should spend more time searching for stories. Today everybody’s a part-time writer or producer; everybody has sixteen projects going. Whatever happened to the idea of committing yourself to one show?
BOCHCO: People don’t stay with one show because writing and producing serious television in America is like running a marathon. Most writers, directors, and producers simply cannot tolerate the demands of television over a long period. The business is so massively demanding of your time and creative energy, you find yourself pumping out so much material, that by the end of the first season – not to mention five or six seasons – your tanks are empty and you’re running on fumes.
BROWN: That is another factor distinguishing television from other art forms – the sheer volume of material produced in a relatively short period. Or I should say it distinguishes American television; the BBC, for example, usually doesn’t produce more than six or seven episodes of a series in a season. That allows them to insist that the original writer do the entire series.
LEAR: In general, writers working for American television are not protected the way writers in other art forms are. The Dramatists Guild, for instance, stipulates that no word of a script may be changed without the writer’s consent. In television the writer is not protected that way.
BOCHCO: But it’s impossible to give that kind of protection when you’re putting out twenty-two hours of television in a season. In writing or producing a play or a movie, you might devote two years to achieving that single goal. When you’re writing and producing twenty-two hours of television in about eight and a half months, things are very different. That’s an astonishingly short period; you have a staff of writers and story editors working under intense pressure, and things get rewritten many times. So when we talk about quality, I think we have to apply different standards to television than to the theater or the movies, if only because the working conditions are so different.
GOLDBERG: Yet the results are basically the same. After all, the top money-making films of all time, all of which were made by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, are certainly not what we commonly refer to as “quality entertainment.” The film critics’ awards may have been dominated by Amadeus and A Passage to India last year, but Beverly Hills Cop earned over $36 million in its first twelve days. It’s popular entertainment, just like most of television. Interestingly enough, these popular films are being created more and more by filmmakers, writers, directors, and producers who have grown up on television. Increasingly, movies seem to be imitating the more popular forms of television.
DU BROW: But the difference is that television is a social force more than an art form. To see a film or a play you go out and stand in a line, then sit in a theater for a couple of hours; and when it’s over, you go home and do something else. But TV is not like that; it’s just part of the furniture, part of the natural flow of life. When you go to the theater, or to a movie, something is presented to you by the creator. But in television there’s a very important creator who isn’t critical to the other forms – the viewer. With the vast number of buttons he can press at home, the TV viewer creates his own program schedule – a spectacle that reflects his private tastes and personal history. He can tune in every Sunday night to a fashion show on cable, or watch the Golden State Warriors play at four o’clock in the morning, or look at Cable News Network twenty-four hours a day. Or he can press another button and watch a half-hour program that someone paid twenty-five bucks to put on the public access channel. Today, each viewer can create his own TV life. That’s why there’s an erosion in the network audience. It’s a reaction against sameness.
BROWN: I want to examine more closely how this “natural flow of life” has changed in the last ten years. Norman Lear created All in the Family, the show that symbolized TV in the 1970s. Esther Shapiro, with her husband, Richard, created Dynasty, the show that symbolizes TV in the 1980s. The difference between those two shows is more than a difference in style. All in the Family was a show about the common man, while Dynasty is a show about rich people. What happened in those ten years, Esther?
SHAPIRO: Well, some critics have said that Dynasty mirrors the Reagan Administration – which is a terrible thing for a middle-aged, middle-class, liberal, Jewish woman television producer to hear. They point out that Blake Carrington went into his mansion about the time Reagan went into the White House; both had tough exwives, rebellious daughters, and a sensitive son. Of course, there’s more to the show than that; we used an old form, the soap opera, but we used it differently from the way we would have in the 1970s. I loved the writing Jack Pulman did in I, Claudius; I loved seeing Roman history set out as the story of those outrageous things the emperors and their families did to each other. And we thought, America doesn’t have a dynasty like that – why don’t we just make a show that creates one, and that does all the things you supposedly can’t do on television. You know, you can’t do a show about a middle-aged woman, you can’t do a show about the rich because not enough people care about them, you can’t have a major character who is a homosexual, and so on. Our dream was that we would keep the show on the air for five years and then, suddenly, one character would go into a monastery and another would run for political office. And, of course, it’s just about that time now …
GRANT: But, Esther, didn’t ABC have some hint, perhaps, that a show about a rich family, with a very well crafted story, might succeed because Dallas was such a huge hit?
SHAPIRO: Frankly, no, it didn’t have to do with that. In our miniseries department, everything had been family. Alex Haley’s Roots was the saga of an American family. East of Eden was about a family. Everything that Richard and I have ever written has been built around families and good storytelling. And we had wanted to do a show about the rich for a long time.
BOCHCO: I think Dynasty had a precursor in the early 1970s. Apart from All in the Family, what was the most popular show on television then? Columbo. Columbo was not really about a little schlumpy guy solving murder mysteries. It was the early Dynasty. It depicted a world of evil rich people – and how delightful and evil they were! Then into that world of incredible wealth
and evil fantasy came this little schlumpy guy in a raincoat who stuck a pin in it all.
SHAPIRO: Dynasty is also a fantasy show, of course, but here we are talking more about the power fantasies of women in the 1980s. Dynasty is a very matriarchal kind of show, where the women, whether they’re doing good or evil, are at least doing something. I think the female audience finds the show just as escapist and entertaining as Magnum, P I. There’s precious little pure fantasy for women on television – Dynasty is women’s Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course, women are also the primary consumers – in a way they are the ultimate end product of television – and Dynasty is the ultimate consumers’ show. Dynasty provides women – and men, too – with fantasies of power and consumption.
GITLIN: This is what making television is really about – figuring out some way to take the amorphous public moods of a given time and make them fit together. All in the Family is a good example: Archie Bunker represented half the audience, and Mike Stivic the other half. Put them together, and CBS had a polarized country sitting in front of the same TV set. Now people are hot for “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” So a program can indulge that urge and
at the same time treat it in a campy way, which is what I think Dynasty does.
That kind of ambiguity is built into television. It must seek mass audiences, and therefore it has to talk out of both sides of its mouth. The “social issue” TV movies, for which Hollywood congratulates itself, do the same thing: explore a reasonably safe issue and appeal to the national prurience at the same time. The networks simply put out programs that seem to them to touch the moment right. I don’t think Dynasty would have worked in the early 1970s, and I don’t think All in the Family would work today. Both would be out of step with the mood – however complex or contradictory – of the country.
BOCHCO: While what Todd says about the mood of the country is undoubtedly true, we shouldn’t forget that in television, good is just simply good. All in the Family was a wonderfully executed show – well conceived and brilliantly written. Week in and week out, it depicted recognizable human beings with recognizable problems. It was executed by consummate professionals who knew when to tell a wonderful joke, and how to set one up.
GRANT: If I understand him correctly, Steve is defining quality as the successful execution of a concept. Hill Street is a cop show, right? Cagney & Lacey is also a cop show. Both shows are very well executed, and I think most of us would say they are quality television. Quality is in the execution – because there aren’t that many different concepts. The Cosby Show is generally perceived as quality TV, and what is it? It’s a well-executed example of the oldest form in the business, the half-hour situation comedy.
SHAPIRO: That’s one idea of quality. But there is also the traditional test of quality, which we apply to novels or plays or movies: Does it illuminate the human condition? And there is such a thing as quality television in that more traditional sense of the word.
GRANT: Oh, absolutely. I think television illuminates the human condition all the time, certainly more often than movies or the theater do. It’s through made-far-TV movies and miniseries, I believe, that television can deal with important social issues. I think Silence of the Heart did more to prevent teenage suicide in this country than all the documentaries in the world could do. Illuminating the human condition? How about The Day After, about nuclear war, or Something About Amelia, the wonderful movie Leonard did last year about father-daughter incest? I think television makes a very important contribution to the public debate with shows like these.
LEAR: All those shows you mentioned, Bud, were certainly remarkable, but they were also controversial, provocative programs, which the networks could rely on to get high ratings.
SHAPIRO: I don’t think it’s simply a question of ratings: It’s hard to sell advertising for controversial programs. For example, when we did Intimate Strangers, about wife-beating, at first we could not get a single advertiser. Did ABC have a tough time getting advertisers for Amelia, Leonard?
GOLDBERG: Yes. In fact, we had a difficult time convincing them to do it at all. When we originally brought the project to ABC, Brandon Stoddard, president for motion pictures at the network, told us that many people had wanted to do programs about incest, but that the network’s broadcast-standards people – who screen all projects to make sure they meet the networks’ standards of “decency” – had not let them go ahead. The broadcast-standards people at ABC did lay down certain conditions that we had to accept: we had to hire experts who would ensure that the film would not exploit the topic and that the treatment would be realistic.
BROWN: I have to notice that we’re talking about Amelia as a “movie that Leonard did.” In the first twenty or twenty-five years of television, we usually spoke of a program being made by Universal, MGM, Paramount. Now we talk about programs made by Norman Lear or Esther Shapiro or Leonard Goldberg or Steven Bochco. We are talking about authorship. Television has become less institutional. Independent companies and independent people are making television that is quite distinctive.
DU BROW: The question is, how much real creative freedom do people like Norman and Leonard and Esther and Steven have? Even they have to work under certain network constraints.
LEAR: Well, at times the networks can be helpful. I have to admit that all the fighting over what we wanted to do on All in the Family or Maude often resulted in better programs. When the networks said, “Something’s the matter here,” they weren’t always entirely wrong. But in those days it was generally conceded that I was the creative force – there was no doubt about that. That has changed. The young executives at the networks are the people in charge today. Story lines are passed to them by producers; they say yes, they say no, they say they’d like to see another character added, they’d like more action here or there, and so on. And what those network executives want, the producers meekly do.
GRANT: I think you paint a rather harsh picture uf the relationship between the producer and the network,Norman. I have always strongly suggested to our people that they work in a collaborative way with a show’s producer or writer, and offer suggestions only if they feel suggestions are necessary. We should keep in mind, by the way, that many of the young executives in the programming departments will eventually become “suppliers” in their own right. Today’s network executive is tomorrow’s producer.
LEAR: That’s sad. That’s very sad.
BROWN: Are there clear differences between the networks? When you get an idea for a program, do you say, “This is an ABC idea,” or “This is a CBS idea”?
BOCHCO: I’ve worked at all three networks, most successfully at NBC. I did have a pretty nice experience with CBS, where I did a show that failed some years back. But I found CBS to be a bit, well, unforgiving of failure. Not as much as ABC, which I think is genuinely unforgiving of failure – unwilling to accept the fact that the vast majority of everything made in television fails, for an infinite variety of reasons.
I define the success or failure of what I do by the degree to which I’m able to have an effect on broadcast standards. I think that’s what makes a show different; and better – when you push at the bindings of the medium somewhat. I ruffle an awful lot of feathers at NBC, because to push at those bindings you really have to take on the broadcast-standards department. Doing a television series on a day-to-day basis, you deal with the broadcast-standards people more
often than the programming people; they have a more profound impact on what you get to put on the screen every week than programming does. And NBC has the best broadcast-standards
department. By that I mean they are willing to hear what you have to say. CBS I find to be more conservative than NBC. ABC is by far the worst.
SHAPIRO: I’ve also worked at all three networks, and it’s true ABC’s very emotional. They give
more notes on your programs, and their notes are more hysterical. If you want to do something different – put a gay in a show, or a black – they groan. I wish all that negative hysteria could be translated into positive passion about the material. ABC is at its best when it functions as a third eye, and helps a show with print ads and promos. Last year Richard and I went back to CBS, where we had done Minstrel Man earlier, and did a series called Emerald Point. After working at ABC, CBS seemed very businesslike, very unemotional. They gave their notes, but it was really up to you – if you were going to fail, it was your problem. Earlier we did Sarah T at NBC, where they were very supportive and professional, very hands-off.
GOLDBERG: What I’ve found at all the networks in recent years is a lack of emotion. I don’t feel any passion or excitement. I talk to network people about new programs, and their eyes wander. I send over scripts and I don’t hear from them for two weeks – and I’m supposed to be a powerful producer. If you happen to hit on an idea they’ve already thought about, then they listen. Otherwise their minds are miles away. They’re going to do what they want to do. If you can execute it for them, fine; if you can’t, “Next.”
I remember the time I read an article on an airplane that made me cry. It was a story about a football player, written by Gale Sayers. I got off the plane and called Barry Diller, who was at ABC then, and said, “I just read an article you have to see.” He said, “I’ll send a messenger for it.” He got it, read it, called me at 7:30 the next morning, and said, “Let’s go make the movie.” That became Brian’s Song. There was passion then about programming.
GITLIN: Well, why should network executives feel passion? If they believe there are only ten or
twelve concepts, and they think that television today is dandy, just bursting with quality programs, then why get worked up over a new script? It’s just another hew product, another concept being executed, another toothpaste being tested in the marketplace.
GRANT: Well, our attitude is just the opposite of that, to tell you the truth. If anyone at a network claims he knows everything, he’s out of his mind. As Norman said, nobody knows. It’s a highly subjective business. When I read the first script of Dallas I didn’t know it was going to be one of the biggest hit series of all time. I thought it was a good script, well written, with interesting characters. I don’t know what kind of passion you’re looking for from the networks.
LEAR: I know. A writer or a producer falls in love with a piece of material. He comes in just aching to get going, to cast it, to do it. That’s the passion I don’t think is on the networks’ agenda. I’ve also done things on all three networks, although my success was mainly with CBS. I think CBS is distinctive because Bill Paley and Frank Stanton exercised a great deal of personal judgment in the way the network was programmed. They both had a degree of showmanship and theatrical intelligence that I think served CBS very well.
GITLIN: I think this lack of passion at the networks explains those rules Leonard mentioned earlier. The networks have rules because they have no idea why they’re making programs, except to make money. Since nobody has a magic formula that tells how to win in the ratings every time, people develop these formula ideas. “Now we’ll do six versions of The A-Team.” “No, only franchise shows sell this year.”
So little is known about how to draw the biggest audiences that two successful shows became
a trend. For example, everyone is talking about the great TV market for so-called social issue
movies, but when I was doing research for my book in 1981, three movies in a row that had dealt with social issues had done badly in the ratings – meaning only 16 million people or so watched them – and suddenly everyone was saying, “Drop all social-issue movies.”
SHAPIRO: But people do make movies about things that are important to them; and they make miniseries about things that are important to them. Sometimes I think those departments at the networks were invented to keep the passionate people busy while the people doing series make the real money.
GITLIN: Then why is network television dominated by weekly series? Why not more miniseries and other shorter forms?
SHAPlRO: One of the reasons is economic. Since a production company makes a lot of its money from syndication and reruns, it’s not usually as profitable for it to do a miniseries. But I think viewers would enjoy television more if the forms were varied. Why not have shows that run one month a year or eight months of the year, or a year and a half? There are so many wonderful books out there. Why must they always be adapted in two hours or four hours?
BROWN: If the economics are what you suggest, it sounds like an uphill battle. On the other hand, the economics can change; they’re changing rapidly now, as Bud said. Not too long ago, the entire industry consisted of three networks and a handful of independent stations. Today there are the networks, a lot of independent stations, and many cable stations, not to mention the home satellite dishes, video recorders, and other technological marvels. A videocassette can make a profit if it sells 25,000 copies. And within cable television there is a trend toward shorter forms, such as the music videos on MTV. Now they’re making three-minute comedy videos, and porn videos, believe it or not. Finally, we should mention the increasing popularity
of remote control, which brings with it the enormously important phenomenon of “zapping.” People zap out commercials, and in so doing undermine the whole economic foundation of television. Advertisers now want their ratings by the minute – they don’t care what rating a program gets; they want to know what rating their commercial gets.
All of this is transforming television. We’re not talking about business as usual; it’s no longer three networks and a failure-proof business. Bud, what do you see as the future of television?
GRANT: As I said before, I think the increased competition will ensure that the quality of television programming gets better as time goes on. And I beiieve the networks will be around for a long time. So will the independent stations.
LEAR: Rick sketched out earlier the new viewers’ romance with television – sitting across the room with the clicker, moving across those thirty or more stations, back and forth. Catch two minutes of this show, see a pretty lady here, an interesting guy there, watch a commercial here, a little bit of MTV there. That’s where the networks’ audience is going, not necessarily to anything specific. Those of us who make television have to create shows that can arrest the
The implications of this new technology are indeed astonishing. When I think about what’s possible with videocassettes, I am overjoyed. Talk about narrow-casting! I see a time when we’ll make films expressly for the videocassette market – someone will bring in material that could never draw enough of an audience for a network, and Embassy Home Entertainment or Twentieth Century Fox will say to a producer, “You know, 50,000 sales of this is enough. Here’s a million to go out and make it.” I look at videos as the great hope for writers and directors and artists – poets – who won’t come near network television today.
SHAPIRO: I agree videos will broaden the range of possibilities for writers and producers, but I still love the idea of doing shows on very large canvases, with virtually everyone in the country
watching at the same time. There’s something so communal about network television; I would hate to lose that. I think racing home to see All in the Family or Hill Street or Dynasty, and talking about it the next day with your friends, letting it become part of your life, is a wonderful
aspect of network television.
LEAR: I don’t think we’ll ever lose that. But I’m afraid that news, events, and sports will be all the networks are left with if they refuse to innovate and take risks.
BOCHCO, I’m not sure to what degree videocassettes will remain a “boutique” kind of cornrnunication. But I’m sure of one thing – whether the current romance is with videocassettes or zapping or MTV, the writers will be out there trying to tell a story the best way they can. So I don’t spend.a lot of time, quite honestly, thinking about the systems that will deliver what I do. The only thing I care about is having the opportunity to do what I do – somewhere. Getting it to an audience, whether it’s on Bud’s network or on HBO or in a movie theater or in a book. As long as I can get it out to people, I’m a happy cowboy.
GOLDBERG, As a producer, I do think a lot about systems. I think the technological diversity Les described is good news for producers, because it gives them more opportunities to display their programs. But so far these alternate delivery systems have done a very poor job of competing. Except for MTV, they’ve become little networks. The networks have been lucky; their audiences have eroded only so much, because the competition has not been very good. But if these alternative forms become more original and daring in their programming, the networks will find themselves in deep trouble.
DU BROW, Brandon Tartikoff, head of NBC Entertainment, said to me not long ago that you can’t program eight o’clock at night for kids the way you used to when you know that someone can push a button and see The Road Warrior or Wargames or Gandhi over on HBO, So either the networks lose these people or they adapt by producing programs that will win them back. Unless they adapt, the networks are going to lose those viewers who are most desirable to
GITLIN, Television has become like the restaurant industry. If you have a lot of money to spend and you’re interested in the latest French or other cuisine, there are twenty-six restaurants for you on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles or on Sixth Avenue in New York. The rest of the population can choose between McDonald’s and Burger King. In American TV now, the programs that are easy to digest – television junk food – drive out the more serious, challenging shows. And as Leonard Goldberg pointed out, even the so-called new technologies are providing little more than expanded segments of the old network day: all-day sports, all-day news, all-day soft-core pornography. The economic game is still rigged toward the biggest bang for the buck, and most of the people who want to write for television want to do so not our of any great passion to clarify the human condition but for smaller, more private glories. Television is like a newsstand where you see six running magazines, six skiing magazines, six coin collecting magazines, and so on. It’s all organized around what people already know, or what people think they already like. And over in the comer we have these oddball things like Harper’s, for those people who don’t yet know what they want. That’s what television is becoming – and that’s not the Promised Land.
BOCHCO, Todd, if you had some television time to use as you wished, what would you do with it?
GITLIN: I would give a lot of very talented and bright people – filmmakers, writers, musicians, artists – an hour here, an hour there, and see what they came up with. Most of it would be quickly forgotten, as even the so-called golden age was, but some of it might be truly extraordinary.
GRANT: What you’ve just described is exactly what I think television is now.
GITLIN: No, today a very small company of people get to play. It’s a limited crowd.
BOCHCO: One of the distinctive things about TV is that people don’t really look at it as something that is made by other people. They don’t see it as a craft that people work hard at, a craft that demands certain skills. But everyone’s a television maven. When some viewer is angered by an episode of Hill Street and dashes off an angry letter, it always shocks them when they get a letter back from me. They’re not really writing to me; they’re writing to their television set. What about you, Rick? What would you do with an hour every week?
DU BROW: I’d like to put on a one-hour show about television – covering television in all its forms, appreciating the fun and significance of it. Television has never, until recently, really understood how interesting it is to other people as news. TV is one of the major ongoing social stories of our time; its ability to help people see the kaleidoscope of their lives through that box – that’s what my show would explore.
BOCHCO: I’d watch that show.
GOLDBERG: So would I.
DU BROW: I’ve got two viewers right here.
SHAPIRO: Why not talk to Bud, Rick?
GRANT: Sure, we’ll schedule a meeting.