The Colgate Scene
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Lightning in a bottle
Over lunch in Los Angeles, six alumni writers, directors and producers compared notes on the state of television today
|by James Leach|
The second golden age?|
Ray Hartung With shows like X-Files and Law and Order and NYPD Blue, some critics lately have called this the second golden age of television. Does anybody here disagree with that? And if we accept that this is a golden age, what accounts for it given the way this business works?
John Romano I don't know about the golden age, but there are some wonderful shows on at the moment.
Hartung Are people going to look back 10 years from now and say, "That was a really terrific period. There was something on every night that had some serious content."?
Lydia Woodward Personally, I disagree. To me there is nothing on to watch. I don't know if that is really a difference in product or if it's just me. Particularly in the half-hour world I think there is less to watch than ever.
Barnet Kellman We mustn't be shortsighted. Take a 10-year period. Every year the critics say, "There were no hits this season," as though anybody could produce hits every year; as if this were just boxes of Kleenex.
Romano The year in which NBC had both ER and Friends rekindled that "there-should-be-a-hit-every-few-minutes" philosophy.
Kellman In comedy during this 10-year period, there has been Murphy Brown, Mad About You . . .
Romano . . . and even some you didn't direct!
Kellman . . . some I didn't direct like Seinfeld, Third Rock From The Sun, Frasier, even coming forward to Drew Carey. There have been a lot of shows to watch. The last couple seasons have been disappointing, but a big reason is that micromanagement by the network has gone to new heights.
Romano The proportion of good shows is always low. In other words, we remember Vivaldi, but there were 50 churches in Venice that had choir masters at the time. For all we know, the other 49 stunk. So if you were asked at the time, "What is the quality of the concerto in Venice?" you might have responded, "It's pretty damn low because the only thing I can watch on a Thursday night is Vivaldi."
Mel Damski That is not the question. We are comparing this to a golden age of Playhouse 90 and Lucy, Milton Berle, Jack Benny . . .
Kellman . . . through the lens of memory.
Hartung It was an entirely different ball game, just in the volume of material that was being broadcast. Now we have five networks of some stature, all the cable outlets and everything else. There is an awful lot of stuff to wade through to get to the few things that are good.
Damski I think there is a tremendous pandering to the lowest common denominator. I don't believe they did that in those days. I think that there was some high-minded work being done and it wasn't as driven by the numbers as it is today.
Hartung I don't disagree with you, Mel, but what strikes me is the number of people who owned TV sets and that their economic status was different. That was an expensive item. Not everybody had it. The audience they were catering to was probably more up-scale; that might have been a factor.
Damski Good point. But still, when it comes down to saying this is the second golden age, I vote thumbs down.
Romano It's funny you should say that, Mel, because for 20-some years you have been directing shows like Lou Grant, Ally McBeal and The Practice that contradict what you are saying. You are talking about some of the best writing one can do.
Damski As a director I have been very lucky to do really high-minded shows. As a TV watcher, though, I have to say that I agree with Lydia. I can almost never find anything I want to watch.
Kellman Wait a second, I used to go to the theater with my dad and I would be thrilled and delighted with the stuff I saw and I used to get mad at him because he would constantly say, "It's Abie's Irish Rose all over again," and I thought, "You're killing it for me." You know guys, that's us now. We're jaded. We were watching the first golden age when we were 10 years old.
Anthony Santa Croce There was a different structure, though. A lot of those shows were run by the sponsors and owned by the sponsors. It wasn't a network, which I see today as a great leveling force with its layers of executives and business people.
Damski One of the wonderful things about our business is that it is lightning in a bottle and nobody can simplify it. Nobody can master it.
Romano My mentor Len Goldberg ran ABC in the '60s. There were six guys and a couple of secretaries. That world was much smaller and therefore they could think like a creative team. You have a world now where there are vice presidents of vice presidents. What we keep doing is distancing the creative process -- the lightning in a bottle -- from the decision making.
It would take more than a Scene page to list all the credits of these six Colgate writers, producers and directors. But here is a sampling lifted from the Internet Movie Database:
Damski It seems to me that the term "broadcasting" has really become obsolete; we are in an age of narrow-casting. The reality is that the networks are going to have to tailor their shows to a much smaller group of people. Once they accept that, I think television will be a very enriched environment.
Kellman The networks have to keep that quiet or they can't claim ad revenues greater than the cable world. At the same time, when it comes to their programming, I think they recognized narrow-casting quite a while ago. It actually started right around the time of Friends, when NBC started to push an idea called NBC 2000, which was branding. It became important to them that everybody knew what kind of shows you came to NBC to watch. In the process of trying to make you know what their product was they also made the mistake of making every show look alike.
Woodward They branded themselves right into trouble.
Romano NBC had two narrow-cast shows in the '80s by Barnet's definition
-- St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues. Neither of them were top
20 shows, but every smart person watching television watched them.
Woodward Critical success will help you and sustain you for a while. It was the Emmy that got Hill Street back on the air after its first season, because Hill Street really wasn't doing that well financially.
Santa Croce I think Lou Grant had a little of that groundswell of support, too.
Kellman Seinfeld went through that, too, but it wasn't the awards that saved Seinfeld. Seinfeld didn't come through the network development process. It was a sop to the head of the late-night department for his good work with the whole Leno business. So none of the usual sharpshooters got to take a crack at it.
Woodward It lived below the radar.
Romano Let's say something really shocking: Los Angeles television is filled with people who want to make wonderful shows, who are artists to the bone, care tremendously about the quality of what they do, what it says to the public, and how we can express ourselves, and these people back in New York look at what we do as something to be basically sold and marketed in K-Mart. If it doesn't work, the heck with us. There really is an interesting tension between art here and money there.
Kellman There has always been a tension. We have a joke in our world which is that they don't call it "show art," they call it "show business."
Romano But it's not good business. Look at the track record of all the new series. They are spending a tremendous amount of money to develop pilots. They do it in the most inefficient way and they all crash and burn. So it is not good business.
Kellman But if we wanted to tell the truth, our business is not
good business. The only people our business is good business for is for us who
love to do it, and for people who love to see the product. We are always
butting our heads against the corporate interests because, increasingly, the
people running these networks come from the corporate ranks of "rational
business." And business is based on one fundamental principle as far as I can
understand it: the ability to replicate a service or a product.
Woodward There is a difference in philosophies. The philosophy of
someone like Grant Tinker was to hire creative people -- writers, directors,
whoever -- and let them go do what you said you were hiring them to do. That is
opposed to saying: "I am going to hire you and this is what I'd like you to
Santa Croce At NBC we have the general to deal with -- General Electric. I am always fighting with those guys because I am stuck in the middle between who's making the show and who's paying for the show and what I am trying to get on the air. We finally had to set some guidelines and say, "No, this is creative, you have to let us make this decision. It's not just another light bulb, not just more toilet paper for the johns." The networks have leveled the creative playing field because of the way they have been structured.
Romano When I was doing development at NBC in the wake of ER they would tell you to "Do ER," but they didn't understand what made ER great. I would say, "Look at the risks the writers took with the characters," like Eriq La Salle's character, making him a prig, arrogant, all the things they wouldn't let us do with our characters. And they would say, "No, no, the great thing about ER is how people come slamming through doors. So have your characters slam through doors."
Damski That's true, the same year we were doing Sweet Justice, ER was turning television upside down. John had created this wonderful quintessential show about social justice in the south with Cicely Tyson and Melissa Gilbert and we did extremely well with the kind of people you would expect to watch that show, which is an older female audience and liberals. At the time NBC said, "No, we want this to be ER."
Romano . . . and you don't want to see Cicely Tyson slamming through doors.
Hartung Lydia was talking about something that pervades movies and television, which is the blockbuster mentality. A lot of people go into show development with the idea: "I know I am going to develop 15 lousy shows, but all I need is one big one to pay them all off." They make ten new versions of Friends, or ten new versions of ER, and they know that eight or nine of them are going to be crap. In going back to the same recipe, they are just hoping they can find the chemistry in one to get a blockbuster.
Kellman Something else new is using the pilot season almost as a farm system for actors. They look at all the pilots to determine which are the sexiest actors. Then they retool one or two new pilots around those actors that they think have enough chemistry. It's the all-star team.
Romano And they tell the writers, "Now write to this."
Santa Croce That's what we did with Felicity for the supporting roles. They were all well-tested Warner Brothers younger actors and they were promoted through the studio to support Keri Russell.
Hartung One other aspect when you talk about this as a business: Where else do you stock up a grocery store with a product and take it off the shelf a half hour later? That's really the nature of this business.
Kellman That's the other half of your blockbuster theory. Through no fault of their own, ER and Friends were damaging to the business at large because they opened big and they hit fast. What is more exciting to an executive? They don't want to know that it took Seinfeld six years to build, or how many years it took Hill Street to build, or Mad About You. What they want is an instant hit.
Opportunity out of chaos|
Kellman The Chinese character for catastrophe is the same as the one for hope. I think that we are actually in a potential moment of opportunity. I think the network business is crashing. They know the business principle hasn't worked. I think Ally McBeal has been very helpful.
Damski There is an interesting model for what Barnet is saying. John's show Sweet Justice did about a 16 to 17 share and was considered a failure. I just worked on a show called Any Day Now for Lifetime. It's doing about a 2 or a 3 share, and Lifetime is ecstatic.
Woodward It's all a matter of where you are. I agree with Barnet in terms of the opportunity. I don't look at where we are now and the changes that are going on completely bleakly. I think narrow-casting, creatively, could be a much more interesting place for all of us than trying to keep meeting this standard of what "broadcasting" is, which is becoming more and more elusive and you are only going to get beat up every time you try. It's going to be a lot harder to produce the narrow-cast shows because you are not going to have the budgets.
Hartung I'm in that world because I work for syndication. We get a 3.5 rating and everyone is delighted. It sounds like that business is a lot more like what television was 20 years ago, because the layers between us and the people who ultimately make decisions are virtually eliminated. We go in for our meetings and talk directly to the guy who runs the company and battle it out there. We get a decision and run with it. Budgets and shooting schedules are more limited, but if you know your target audience you can do a good show.
Romano Some of the best stories in the business are about Fox, because Fox never imagined that it could play in the top three. Before I came to Party of Five the show had a very successful experience never getting decent numbers. They got the same numbers we got for Class of '96 and the network said, "If the demographic is good, if we are delivering all those 16- to 32-year-olds, you can do whatever show you want." And they stood by a non-Aaron Spelling, non-T-and-A version of a young people's show in spite of tremendous pressure from the development people. They stood by a sincere, high minded, humanistic show, and as long as a certain dollar was delivered, even Rupert Murdoch was content to let this thing take its course. And now, once you get into the 10th season and the seventh year, everyone who's tested it has made money. As you said before, it's good business to narrow-cast within parameters.
Kellman In John's story about Party of Five, the truth is that the fundamental principle is the fundamental principle of show business from the beginning of time, only they are misunderstanding it and misapplying it, which is -- and this is where a writer starts -- a writer knows to whom he or she is talking. That means knowing who your audience is. Murphy did not have a large audience at the beginning, but the audience knew who they were and they got immediately on it, so there was a core. The Ally McBeal audience took what, half a season? But suddenly it was there. Drew Carey was like that. The mistake is they aren't telling you, "Write what you know," they are telling you, "Write to these people who buy the most of this particular type of product." That's completely ass-backward and it won't work.
Woodward The interesting change that we have seen this year at the network is how the promotional division seems to be the tail that wags the dog. There is a philosophy that shows exist to service the promo department, as opposed to the way we believe, which is that the promo department exists to promo the show. Therefore, "Couldn't you put a bomb blast in this show?" We had one in the third show and they began promoting it in the very beginning of the season, to the point where it got to be a negative.
Santa Croce I am doing a show about a bomb. And that's the one shot that I have to have prepared for promos.
Romano Ray wrote a great episode of Class of '96 about anti-semitism. The network's first reaction was, "We're not going to air this." The second reaction was, "There is a B story in which one of our guys finally sleeps with the girl who delivers pizza." The promos were totally devoted to the fact that this kid was sleeping with the pizza girl, which was 30 seconds of an hour show. Anyone who was remotely interested in the serious topic of anti-semitism was not going to watch. Anyone who was attracted as a result of the promos had to sit through an hour on the Holocaust and was going to hate what they saw."
John Romano, left, and Mel Damski
Where is it all headed?|
Romano Opinions are divided at the table, but there are some good stories here in the sense that for some reason, wonderful shows make it through this process and are not canceled, even when their ratings are low.
Damski At some point the networks are going to realize that they are never going to be broadcasters in that sense any more, and they are going to have to get behind interesting shows that appeal to one segment of the target audience for advertisers.
Kellman ABC basically renewed their whole lineup for the season. I think they looked at shows like Ally McBeal and Drew Carey that took a little longer to roll out and they realized they've yanked things off too quickly. The networks are desperate, and desperation seems to engender some slightly better behavior.
Damski I love Frasier. To me it's one of the most intelligent shows on the air, and it keeps winning Emmies because it's intelligent.
Romano . . . and it never speaks down to its audience. It is willing to make a joke about opera. It is a show that really respects the intelligence of its audience. We read about the dumbing down of television, but how do they explain that show? How do they explain NYPD Blue or ER? We get a bad rap.
Woodward I don't envy the network. It's our job to badmouth them, and they badmouth us. But sometimes I wish the relationship weren't as adversarial as it is.
Kellman Face it, it's a unique business, and it's no longer what used to be called "gentlemanly."
What are the opportunities for young people coming into the business?
Woodward I think the opportunities are the same as when we came on.
Damski Actually more -- I have some friends who are failed feature producers and they're now producing a 26-hour documentary series for the History Channel. They've found themselves in a new business.
Romano I think we should tell young people what a great business this is. On the other hand, you have to keep that Colgate part of yourself pure -- the writer or director who started out wanting to make that wonderful film or write a wonderful book or perform in a wonderful movie. You have to keep in touch with that person. You will have days in which he or she is a stranger to you.
How much do TV shows influence culture today, or does culture influence the shows?
Romano Barnet was around Murphy Brown in the days of the issue of single women having babies.
Kellman That was definitely a political forum. There was a national discussion going on through the show.
Romano We've begun a female abuse story line about a girl who is beat up by her boyfriend and not speaking up, and we knew from the first moment that we were engaged in a national discourse.
Damski A show like Party of Five is so deeply saturated into one age group that it can have a tremendous influence.
Romano They get on the internet immediately and they are discussing the show in terms of their own lives and the lives of the characters.
Woodward There is a huge internet communication about ER. One of the things that has been gratifying about the success of ER is that it has been one of those shows that is in a way a throwback to those shows we used to sit down and watch with our families. If you look at our demographics, we have everybody. My dad and I used to sit there together and watch The Defenders. That's been something that has been missing, shows that you can watch with your teenagers or your 12-year-old.
Damski Although I think the content could be a lot better, as a filmmaker, the network is encouraging us now to be much more bold with technique on these TV shows. Thanks to ER, they have in essence freed the camera from the tripod. Now when I do a movie for TV it's all steadicam.
Romano I still think TV lives on performance, which is a writer, a director and an actor doing their jobs. It's great to see in ER TV having visual energy, but we don't always get better in TV with visual energy.
Kellman That's because it has to grow out of the writing and out of the content. I believe the ER style evolved organically out of the content. Start with the first word, "emergency."
Anthony Santa Croce
Romano Writers have an opportunity in television, too. If, like the writers in the 19th century, you want to talk about the world, society, the kind of things that fascinated Dostoevski, Dickens, Balzac, crime, class, TV is where you have a chance to type something. It is an arena in which you get to talk about that world and you are more likely to find yourself if the world interests you.
Kellman These past ten or so years there is no question that the best comedy writing has moved into television. With rare exceptions like Jerry Maguire it's not on the stage and it's not on the big screen.
Damski It's not just in comedy. John Romano was an extremely promising fiction writer. He had many of his short stories published early on, and now he's writing television.
Romano . . . but had there not been Hill Street Blues. In other words, there was good television.
Hartung That's great, but in terms of encouraging young Colgate writers, you hope some of them will still want to write for the stage or movies, or write a novel.
Romano Right. Everyone wants to see those areas get better. There's nothing like television for seeing your stuff done, though. Successful screenwriters, we all know, will go three or four years between pictures and in their 20-year career amass six or seven hours of film.
Hartung That's right. In TV you can be sitting there on a Wednesday and writing the dialogue, and the next week you are watching the shot. There's no better training.
Kellman Did Colgate prepare us for any of this?
Damski I think they did, actually. When I went to Colgate I was a journalist. I was a good reporter for a couple of good newspapers. They didn't have one journalism class at Colgate, or one filmmaking class. I'm glad in retrospect, because I got a really good, broad education and I think it has helped me to be a more intelligent filmmaker.
Hartung The thing I took away was a sense of confidence -- that you could tackle something on your own and accomplish something. Colgate really promoted that.
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