Monday, September 01, 2008

Golden Opportunities

Thanks to the spectacular crash of thunder early yesterday morning that introduced an almost continual downpour, I put my feet up and finished reading Robert J Thompson’s Television’s Second Golden Age. Published in 1997 and subtitled “From Hill Street Blues to ER”, the book is obviously out of date now, but what’s important is how it began rather than where it is now.

Yes, the American system is different from the English was of programme-making, but there are still things to be learnt, whether they directly apply or not. Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University sees the Golden Ages of Television being predominantly defined by the drama on offer. These were the programmes described as “quality television” by the critics of the time and to narrow the focus, Thompson looks to The Viewers for Quality Television organization for a definition:

A quality series enlightens, enriches, challenges, involves and confronts. It dares to take risks, it’s honest and illuminating, it appeals to the intellect and touches the emotions. It requires concentration and attention, and it provokes thought. Characterization is explored. And usually a quality comedy will touch the funny bone and the heart --

So, that’s Knight Rider off the list then. Taking on board what viewers, critics and scholars agree makes up “quality television”, Thompson creates an eleven-point profile that includes:

Quality TV is best defined by what it is not. It is not “regular” TV.

Quality TV creates a new genre by mixing old ones.

Quality TV tends to be literary and writer-based.

The subject matter of quality TV tends toward the controversial.

Reading those snippets today may lead some to think, “Yeah, so?” but remember this is relating to the 1980s when we were still having the likes of The Dukes of Hazzard foisted upon us. As noted in the book, prior to the arrival of the first of these quality dramas, prime-time stories based around abortion, homosexuals, racism and religion had yet to appear. AIDs was ignored until St Elsewhere ran a storyline.


Though the critics’ darlings, most of these shows were never great ratings winners. Ordinarily they should have been cancelled, but the networks usually saw their way to giving them a reprieve. It could have looked like they were looking for much needed plaudits the same way film studios indulge in movies that attract accolades rather than audiences. Instead, the shows may not have got all the viewing audience but it did get the right demographics: the “upscale, well-educated, urban-dwelling, young viewers advertisers so desire”.

One other drawback of the quality television shows was how it didn’t make syndication in America easy. People could take a load off and enjoy an episode of Magnum PI or The A-Team because the narratives were structured to be self-contained. Coming across an episode of Hill Street Blues or thirtysomething, the casual viewer would be confronted by a story that wouldn’t be properly resolved until the next episode or the one after that. That may be why so many of the more contemporary dramas that specialise in ongoing stories have been speedily packaged into DVD boxsets.

Still, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The first Golden Age of Television in America took place in the 1950s and the shows associated with it were the anthology dramas like Kraft Television Theater, Studio One and Playhouse 90 that put on work by the emerging new writers like Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose and Gore Vidal. In early 1961 the Golden Age was ruled to be over by the US government who declared television had become “a vast wasteland”.

Addressing the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington DC on May 9th, Newton Minow, the newly appointed Federal Communications Commission chair challenged station owners to watch their content for an entire day, stating:

You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials – many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all boredom. true, you will see a few things you enjoy. But they will be very, very few.

Replace “Western” with the more repetitively tiresome contemporary genres and that all sounds horribly, horribly familiar. With BBC One being named Terrestrial Channel of the Year at the recent Edinburgh Television Festival, it makes you wonder whether it shouldn’t have been the celebrated for being the least worst channel as opposed to the best. As for BBC Three being named the best digital channel and Doctor Who winning the best programme of 2008, let’s not even go there.


The book covers such dramas as St Elsewhere, Moonlighting, thirtysomething, Northern Exposure, China Beach and Picket Fences, and shows what each brought to television. Although very different in content and style, one thing most of the shows had in common was that they were picked up that networks that were in last place at the time, meaning they had space in their schedules and willing to take a chance on something different.

Although ABC, CBS and NBC would in turn be seen as networks that embraced innovation, over the years they would also become less friendly to bolder programmes as their stock rose. As well as celebrating the ingenuity of such shows, Thompson also offered a warning about the damage a drama like Twin Peaks could unwittingly do to quality television. Writing for Connoisseur magazine in 1989, Warren Rodman called Twin Peaks “the series that will change TV forever”. For all the wrong reasons it almost did.

Mark Frost and David Lynch’s quirky small town crime drama was initially the critic’s darling and an audience pleaser but by the second season the bloom was firmly off the rose. Filled with nods to past films the way St Elsewhere before it had been rife with amusing television references, Twin Peaks may have set out to defy traditional television drama but ultimately became, “a show about little more than it’s own strangeness” that alienated everyone but the core fan audience.


While its influence may have lived on in Northern Exposure and David E. Kelley’s Picket Fences, the perceived negative effect of Twin Peaks would see network heads lose patience with numerous “quality” shows and the critic’s favourites were purged from the schedules. Although quality television wasn’t completely snuffed out, the new wave of shows like NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street and ER would be set in more traditional television genres.

Still, the best lesson to be learnt comes from the opening chapters of Thompson’s book. Although Hill Street Blues would revolutionise US television drama, creators Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll both had a bellyful of working on cop shows and initially turned down the invitation. They eventually relented only when Fred Silverman, Michael Zinberg and Brandon Tartikoff at NBC effectively gave them catre blanche to come up with something completely different from the shows they had worked on before.

It also helped Bochco and Kozoll were making the show at MTM, the company co-founded by Grant Tinker and his then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore in 1970. Initially formed to produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MTM, with its familiar meowing cat logo, went on to produce a number of the acclaimed dramas of that decade. Many of the shows stood head and shoulders above their more obvious contemporary fare because of Tinker’s decision to make MTM a writer’s company.

Openly acknowledging that he was not a creative person, Tinker let them get on with what they wanted to do, all the while shielding them from any network interference. Under his watch, this new kind of quality television began to emerge from the nurturing environment. Even when he later became chairman and CEO of NBC, Tinker decided that the network should follow the same lines as best it could. As Thompson writes:

Celebrated as one of the giants in television history, Tinker’s principal contribution to the medium was to do what few executives have had the courage to do: to gather together talented creative people and to leave them alone.

If only such a radical idea could be employed over here.

8 Comments:

At 1:19 am, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

Interesting, not least because that's a reminder of how bad some of those US networks shows could be.

And I wish the newspaper critics would occasionally step back from reviewing whatever crap was on last night and reflect on the broader state of the industry, as you've just done.

BTW, saw a fun interview on the Beeb with Steven Berkoff. At 71, he's past his prime, but still good value - and yet another example of how a simple talking head can be the most entertaining thing on TV.

He lamented that there's no quality drama on the BBC anymore. The interviewer immediately played her trump card and asked him what about Lark Rise for Candleford.

His head nearly exploded.

 
At 10:55 am, Blogger John Soanes said...

If nothing else, I think Twin Peaks made studio and network folks realise that there was an audience for serial drama, relying on people watching and remembering previous episodes (the prevalence of VCRs helped, obviously); I suspect there's a throughline to be drawn from TP to shows like Lost and Heroes - the 'previously on' clips at the start of all the shows don't really help the new viewer very much at all, as there's so much catching-up to do.
J

 
At 4:12 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

J&C,

Oh, the reminder of the stuff that was pumped out is just frightening, but then it was made for the masses – inoffensive programmes designed for the masses, it was like McDonald’s TV. I remember watching some of it when I was younger because it was entertaining to a degree and, at that early age, you didn’t know any better. At least, until I started watching the best that UK television had to offer.

Talking about the writers, one thing the book mentions is that when it came to staffing Hill Street Blues, Kozoll published stories in literary journals and did graduate work in linguistics at the Sorbonne; Jeffrey Lewis had written poetry while at Yale and then taught expository writing at Harvard where he’d received his law degree; David Milch graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale and received a masters from the Iowa Writers’ Worksop; Roger Director had a masters degree in Engligh literature from Columbia and had contributed to the New Yorker magazine.

The four writer-producers of St Elsewhere - Joshua Brand, John Falsey, John Masius and Mark Tinker - had a similar pedigree. Then in the first season they hired Tom Fontana, a theater-arts major. And that is just a few of the names that “graduated” from MTM.

I would have loved to have seen the Berkoff interview. It wasn’t The One Show was it? That programme seems to have a history of getting in guests and then either ignoring them, humiliating them, or subjecting them to the most inane questions possible.

John,

Yeah, but Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, LA Law, China Beach, and thirtysomething had already proved that serial drama would work, attracting the key demographics. They also showed that content could be different from the usual rot audiences had been used to.

Because networks need audiences to attract the advertising revenue, they could only indulge programme makers so far and Lynch’s typical dose of misogynistic nonsense almost killed it stone dead. Some programme makers continued to push the boundaries but for a while it had to be in familiar genres to survive early cancellation that befell other shows.

A lot of the earlier shows were far more daring that Twin Peaks. Like Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere made an effort to get the most outrageous material past the network’s Standards and Practises “censors” and revelled in sex, bad language and scatological humour. Since it was set in a hospital they went wild with all manner of bodily functions and secretions, as well as introducing the most audience-unfriendly ailments and procedures.

Long before There’s Something About Mary they introduced the penis caught in the zipper gag, when one of the doctors got himself caught up. Thompson also notes an episode in which Dr Mark Craig dictates his novel to an assistant:

“Chapter Ten. She came in from the garden, cheeks flushed, arms filled with flowers. I sat playing the Wurlitzer. She said wistfully, ‘Where would you like these?’ I smiled. ‘Put roses on the piano and tulips on the organ.’”

Nothing beats a good oral sex joke.

 
At 5:24 pm, Blogger English Dave said...

'A quality series enlightens, enriches, challenges, involves and confronts. It dares to take risks, it’s honest and illuminating, it appeals to the intellect and touches the emotions. It requires concentration and attention, and it provokes thought. -- '

And you dare to say that excludes Knight Rider? A love affair between a man and his sat nav? Shame on you.

 
At 5:54 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

ED,

well, if you put it that way, consider me suitably chagrined.

 
At 12:47 am, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

I didn't know that the HSB guys had such excellent credentials, but it's no great surprise.

At least in the US, those sorts of seriously smart people have a chance of building a career behind the camera.

The same rewards - creative and otherwise - don't exist in the UK.

Also, it doesn't help that new talent here is expected to spend five years churing out muck for Eastender before they're allowed to write anything interesting.

That interview, incidentally, was on Hardtalk. You're right about The One Show, and just about every other programme of its type on the Beeb, in that even good guests are invariably wasted.

 
At 12:19 pm, Blogger Lucy said...

Everything on TV is not shit.

There is stuff you (as in "one") think is shit and there is stuff that is unquestionably shit but people still like.

But if people like it and want it, does that mean it's devoid of merit?

(Note I'm not talking here about reality TV or crappy game shows. I'm talking about dramas or serials soap operas or whatever. Stuff lots of people like - and probably just as many people don't).

I'm always amazed with you lot saying it was all good in the old days. It wasn't. Yes Edge of Darkness and Boys From The Black Stuff etc were great, but I also watched an ocean of shit when I was a child. Some of the dialogue was so bad it made my head explode and I was only about 10. Especially a lot of the American shows. Bloody hell!

Now everyone seems to think US TV can do no wrong and UK TV is terrible, full stop.

(Note that I'm also making massive generalisations).

What?!

 
At 1:51 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

We’re not saying everything on TV is shit. That would be silly. Especially in the week that God on Trial was screened on BBC2.

The whole point of Thompson’s book is that American drama started to change for the better but it was a gradual process. Even after the growth in innovation through the 1980s, the only drama to enter the annual top ten rated shows between 1987 and 1994 was the rather traditional Murder, She Wrote and at the turn of the new decade there were a couple of years where it was all sitcoms and the news show 60 Minutes. Finally, in the 1994-95 season ER and NYPD Blue pushed their way in.

There was a load of cock awful American dramas that seeped over here like the aforementioned Knight Rider or The Dukes of Hazzard. Since you’re much younger than us, we probably had it worse than you with some on the imported nonsense. But that was compensated by the likes of The Rockford Files. And I do still have a soft spot for Magnum P.I..

British drama at the time wasn’t always brilliant. In 1981 we had The Borgias for Chrissakes! But there was also Brideshead Revisited and then Boys from the Blackstuff, The Jewel in the Crown, Threads and The War Game (finally making an appearance twenty years after it was made), Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective and Brimstone and Treacle, shown in 1987, eleven years after it had been pulled from the BBC schedules.

I suppose there were less hours of television back then, and not solely because there were fewer channels, so the percentages of what constituted good television were better. Now, with a proliferation of channels that need to fill their schedules with relatively cheap content there is more “shit” on offer. Until the arrival of Breakfast Time and TV-AM in early 1983, I don’t remember there being television programmes in the mornings, unless it was school holidays and they showed the Flash Gordon serials.

Maybe there were just other things to do rather than sit in front of the goggle box.

 

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