Producer offers a prescription for what ails network television

September 08, 1992|By Steven Bochco

Here's a little quiz, multiple choice. Complete the following sentence: Network television stinks because of: A. Producers. B. Advertisers. C. Networks. D. Dan Quayle. E. All of the above.

You could make a case for any of these choices, but my own personal pick would be: C. Networks. Let's face it, if you've spent more than 20 minutes in the television business, you know you can run a network better than "those guys."

I mean, c'mon, let's be honest about it. If television was a dog, that dog wouldn't hunt. It's not very smart. It's not very funny. It's not very truthful, or very real. It's not very enlightening, and only occasionally thoughtful. In short, it's just not very good. No wonder viewers are deserting the ship. The ship is going down, folks.

Listen, I feel bad for the networks. Really. They're scared to death, notwithstanding their annual frenzy of optimism about their new seasons, and with good reason. The economy is lousy. Viewership is down. Advertising is down. Revenue is down. Costs are up. Pressure groups are up. No one's having fun anymore. And it shows.

The television business, like it or not (and I don't), has become politicized. Networks have become increasingly skittish about any program content that is perceived by pressure groups as objectionable. Does this mean that television shows have, by and large, become more conservative? You tell me. The airwaves are filled with law-and-order shows, both fictional and quasi-fictional, which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be identified as espousing liberal sentiments. And, Dan Quayle's ridiculous remarks about "Murphy Brown" notwithstanding, half-hour TV sitcoms generally remain a bastion of traditional and overly simplistic moral preachment.

The net result is that pressure groups have succeeded in bullying advertisers and networks into gutting program content as never before. Networks don't want controversy. They don't want bad language. They don't want sex, particularly sex between individuals of the same gender. What they do want is big ratings and lots of advertising revenue, yet they're not willing to take the risks necessary to achieve those goals.

So, how do you change things? How do you revitalize the television business in an environment gripped by fear? If I were king of the forest (i.e., a network president), here are some of the things I'd try to implement.

* For openers, I'd eliminate network censors. Let viewership determine what's appropriate and what isn't.

* I'd eliminate jobs. Lots of them. Sorry, but how many network executives does it really take to screw in -- or screw up -- a light bulb?

* I'd stop relying on research as a network tool. It doesn't work. If it did, TV wouldn't have a failure rate in excess of 90 percent.

* I'd eliminate pilots. Which, by definition, would eliminate pilot season. (We'd all have to come up with another excuse for our tax-deductible trips to New York, but I know our lawyers could do it.) The point is, if you believe in something (and in the people who brought it to you), order it. Put your money where your mouth is. And never order less than a full season of episodes of any new show. Not six. Not 13. But 22. In a cluttered viewing landscape, 13 episodes just aren't enough to gain the viewer's attention, let alone loyalty.

* Acknowledge that you can no longer operate in old ways in a new environment. Buy only what you need. The extensive stockpiling of back-up shows is a waste of talent, time and money.

* Mess with traditional program lengths. If there's a really great 45-minute show you want to put on, do it. (I know. There's all kinds of conventional wisdom telling us why we can't. But we can. Just do it.)

* Watching the fall season is like watching the start of the New York Marathon. Eliminate it. Once you've bought something, give its chefs the time to cook it. When it's ready -- only when it's ready -- put it on and leave it on.

* How's this for a plan? Everybody's screaming (rightfully so) about screenclutter. Too many credits. Too many logos. Main titles are too long. Not enough program time. Well, how about reducing the number of commercials you put on the air and charging more for them? Less advertising minutes means less glut, which in turn means more attention to the advertising that's there. I bet they'll pay. Call me crazy, but I'd be willing to give that a try.

* Here's a radical thought: Make everybody who works at the network get some practical, hands-on experience learning how production actually works. Because if you can't understand the process, how can you help solve the problems?

* Finally, and most importantly, I'd acknowledge television as an art form, and challenge those working in the medium to redefine their standards of excellence accordingly. I'm weary of feeling embarrassed about using the "a" word in connection with television. At our best, we are artists. The problem, however, is that art isn't always politically correct. Which means we'd have to tell the pressure groups -- all of them -- to take a hike. Go pressure someone else. We're going to give our talented writers and producers the chance to make shows they're passionate about.

Steven Bochco, a winner of nine Emmy Awards as a writer and producer, is best known as the co-creator of "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "Doogie Howser, M.D." He wrote this story for the Los Angeles Times.

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