writing and producing in prime time

Thursday, April 3, 2003
5-7 p.m.
Bartos Theater


What's Happening to Prime Time?

TV has been America's first story-teller for almost half a century. Its evening or so-called prime-time programs are a complex record and reflection of our culture. But only recently has this field of texts been recognized as necessary to preserve and to study. And only recently has the importance of seeing programming historically been recognized by journalists, the entertainment industry and even many media scholars.

This historical awareness is itself an historical event, a signal that what we call television is already in some deep sense past, not so much a living practice any longer but a remnant, disappearing as we watch.

This ongoing series of Forums on prime time television will feature some leading TV scholars and media professionals.

Their assignment: To help us understand the forces shaping contemporary prime time by looking in part to television's past. What is the state of television drama in this era of profound social, economic and technological transition? How have cable and satellite networks and the emergence of the Internet altered the TV medium and its story-telling functions? How are contemporary political realities shaping prime time television? What is the future of "reality programs"? Our speakers and our always lively audience will engage these and related questions with their usual passion and civility.


Currently a producer and writer of American Dreams, John Romano has worked on more than a dozen major prime time series, including Hill Street Blues, L.A.Law, Knot's Landing, Party of Five, Third Watch and Providence. He has created three series of his own: Class of '96 (Fox); Sweet Justice (NBC) with Cicely Tyson; and Michael Hayes (NBC) starring David Caruso. Romano's screenwriting credits include The Third Miracle (1999) starring Ed Harris; the forthcoming Coen Bros' movie, Intolerable Cruelty starring George Clooney; and now in preparation, American Pastoral, from Philip Roth's novel and directed by Philip Noyce. In an earlier life, Romano earned a Ph.D. from Yale and taught English literature at Columbia. One vestige of his professorial career is a book of literary criticism, Dickens and Reality (1979). A new essay on Dickens and screenwriting is forthcoming in Dickens and Film, ed. John Glavin (Oxford).


JOHN ROMANO began by addressing the distinctions between high and popular culture. He mentioned the fact that on American Dreams, the staff of seven writers includes three graduates of Harvard, and three from Yale. Among their previous credits were sitcoms and teen dramas like Dawson's Creek (WB, 1998-2003).

This shows that there are high-culture sensibilities behind television that is created for and about the middle class, but not entirely by the middle class.

The wall between high and popular art can be taken down in two ways: descendentally or ascendentally. You can either say that great art isn't that great; or you can say that some things happening in low art really are great.

Ascendentalists sounded the opening notes of this debate by calling All in the Family (CBS, 1971-79) the restoration comedy of their time, putting it in the place of great literature. More recently, descendentalists have de-privileged the nature of high art.

Romano formed his own notions about what it meant to be a writer by studying Charles Dickens, the 19th-century novelist undervalued in his own lifetime and now recognized by many as a great genius.

Dickens was an artist who watched his sales like hawk, and adjusted his art to make sure the public stayed with him. In the same way, television writers read Nielsen numbers and adjust their work accordingly. Dickens also stood well within the middle class for whom he was writing. His novels are famous for their social commentary. Romano identifies with such a writer who wrote for the people and still did memorable and important novels.

Two features of television particularly define its status as a form of popular, not high culture.

First is the idea of television by committee. Every show is created by a committee that includes not only the writers and producers, but also advertisers and focus groups.

Second, TV is an art necessarily bound in its economic relationship with capitalism. Television is expensive, and if you need $50-100 million a year for a show, you must know how to deal with capitalistic forces.

To demonstrate the idea of television by committee, Romano showed a clip from the last episode of Hill Street Blues. In a scene he wrote with David Milch, Dennis Franz plays Lt. Norman Buntz. Earlier in the show, he socks the chief of police and is likely to be fired from the force. He discusses his fears with his stool pigeon Sid (played by Peter Jurasik), who offers comfort. It seems a tender scene of male friendship. Sid offers to accompany Buntz, who says he wants to walk off his anxiety. No, he says, I'd rather be alone. Ok, Sid replies, but on your way home would you stop by a convenience store and pick up an orange pop for me.

Romano talked about his experience in writing the scene. The first draft of this important scene was serious and written from the heart. It did not include the line about the orange pop. David Milch suggested that line and complicated the original vision of this moment of feeling and sentiment.

Milch's line deepened the scene not only by undercutting the sentiment, but by showing Sid's devious, needy nature. His request for the orange pop is both a demand for payback for his having shown such sympathy to his friend, and also his way of testing the limits of this emerging friendship among unequals: a cop and his stoolie.

It is the rare artist who would introduce this piece of deflation, Romano said. Probably only a committee could do it.

To further illustrate the intervention of the cultural context into a work of art, Romano mentioned W.H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," which describes Pieter Bruegel's painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus." The famous painting depicts the mythical figure falling into the ocean in a small corner, while the activity of the picture is all the everyday stuff that happens on the rest of the canvas.

Allowing the world to influence your vision is built into television, because of the committee. This happens on American Dreams all the time.

American Dreams is a mixed-genre show but it is a domestic melodrama at its core. Since it inherited the library of American Bandstand (ABC, 1957-87), it has musical elements. The sitcom background of many of the writers also influences the program. Whenever the show is capable of excellence, it is because of this chaotic mix of people and resources. The result is a crazy energy.

Writers of the show complain that they do not get to tell their stories in a pure, uninterrupted way. However, the students in Prof. David Thorburn's class liked the energy gained from "jumping around" to different stories. This may be characteristic of the MTV generation, but more importantly exemplifies effective art by committee. This messy nature is what makes some of the best television.

It is interesting, Romano said, that many of the high-minded shows everyone admires are the ones we stop watching, and are gone in a few seasons. One example is Once and Again (ABC, 1999-2002). It was well-written with long scenes where writers could fully realize their visions, but was cancelled.

Romano moved on to the second point, capitalism's role in television, by showing a clip from a show he created, Class of '96 (FOX, 1993). Lasting only a season, it was a drama set in a small liberal arts college, following the lives of students. In this scene, an old-fashioned professor of philosophy is being attacked by his students for his politically incorrect views.

Romano talked about the political and ideological context of doing television for big corporations. Corporations will generally let writers do "hot button topics," but there is a limit to how far they can go. Yet so far, he has not felt externally constrained by such outside pressures.

Whenever Romano has been censored and the networks have been under fire for things that would be offensive to the audience, the criticism has been from a good-natured liberal position. For example, there are complaints over the proportion and number of black criminals on TV and complaints about unfair depictions of homosexuals.

However, the bad news is that corporations only care about money. If you were to propose a show that featured Jesus as a black lesbian, but could guarantee a huge share in ratings, no problem. The order of business is to do something people want to watch.

The writers of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue (ABC, 1993-) had liberal sensibilities, and therefore had the potential of shocking and offending the conservative audience. Many remember NYPD Blue as the first prime-time show to show nudity. But more significantly, it was the first show to use the word "nigger," when lead character Andy Sipowicz (played by Dennis Franz) reveals his racist tendencies under pressure by using this word. If writers had not used that word, they would have been ignoring the realities urban police forces. Getting closer to the truth of this character, Romano said, is a kind of victory over capitalistic forces.


LORI FRANKIAN: I am highly frustrated with the committee you talk about. My question is: what will it take for the committee to start consistently interviewing and hiring actors like myself, who happen to be in a wheelchair, or are physically challenged, for roles that have nothing to do with the visual difference?

ROMANO: There is no good reason why that shouldn't be the case. I think that the most interesting use of a disabled actor would be for a role that had nothing to do with the fact that he or she is handicapped, because it would let the irrelevance or realities of the real world into the canvas. In American Dreams, one character is a little boy with polio, which was common at the time. But it is hardly alluded to in the series. It is mentioned twice, and made a story point once. The actor who plays the boy is not disabled himself. But why can't the disability of the actor and the character both be real? Alas, I have no good reason for why they can't.

QUESTION: I have two questions. First, the sad thing to me is that no matter how good the work is, the medium of television is always a vehicle for carrying a commercial load. Despite the quality of the programming, what in the end is really being accomplished in terms of the people watching? Secondly, it seems to me that censorship occurs in a nature different from what you talk about. I see more cases like that of Bill Maher, who was fired by ABC from Politically Incorrect for his views on the terrorists of the September 11th attacks. There are others who experience censorship, but are in a different branch of the medium.

ROMANO: First of all, commercials are like the price of admission, and artists are good with dealing with that. It does not mean you can't do a great piece of work.

About censorship, you should not underestimate the audience. Sometimes they like being pushed around or offended. They call it high drama. They don't like being bored, which is what you get when you have a show that just strokes their sensibilities. This is not a complete answer, but take a show like MASH (CBS, 1972-83). There, you couldn't have a more vivid anti-war piece of work.

DAVID THORBURN: I'd like to add a short answer to your question about commercials. First of all, you are right that they are very intrusive and distracting. But like any convention, audiences can get used to them. Second, you have to consider the environment in which television is experienced, and why commercials would work there and not in any other medium. Commercials can be understood to respect the domestic and intimate space in which many of us watch television. Not their content, but the very fact that their interruptions create freedom for us to carry on with the personal and domestic tasks endlessly required of us when we're at home. The fact that TV interrupts itself can be seen as a positive quality in this sense at least, once we recognize that the medium of television occupies a domestic space that is intimate and belongs to the viewer.

QUESTION: Your description of an artist being trapped with a committee sounds like the novel Don Quixote, where Don Quixote is the artist and Sancho Panza is the committee.

ROMANO: Yes, that is a good example. One of my teachers used Don Quixote as the seminal text for understanding the role of the artist. Left to his own, Don Quixote would narrate the perfect heroic tale, but he keeps tripping over the intrusions of reality, pointed out by Sancho Panza. Television can capture that.

QUESTION: How would you compare the experience of writing for a broadcast network like NBC versus writing for a cable network like HBO, specifically for shows like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under?

ROMANO: I'm a little grudging in my respect for those shows, partly because of my competitive nature. But I do think that something wonderful is going on in those programs. HBO used to fall into an automatic desire to outrage, to show things that could only be seen on their channel. But now their task is to be wonderful in more traditional ways. The current season of Six Feet Under actually seems to me less interesting than the first season. But HBO is doing stunning drama now.

Perhaps a more direct comparison would be my experience of writing the movie of the John Walker Lindh story, American Taliban, for cable television, which I just finished after a year. It was a different experience because I was more uncertain as to what the ideal audience would be for this topic, and what they would want to see. I would long for some more concrete parameters of what I could or should do. I found it difficult to write without the commercial requirements of the genre. But I loved it because I had more freedom.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I infer from what you were saying about the writers of NYPD Blue, when they were able to use the N-word, that they were somehow getting close to some truth, and we should be proud of their courage. But as far as I'm concerned, it does not take any special courage to offend groups that don't have a lot of power. I had a professor at Harvard who said that blacks, because of their genetic composition, were better at playing baseball, and there was no controversy. He was certainly not fired like Bill Maher. So I'm actually tired of these stereotypical criticisms of political correctness, and I hope you try to do more television that offends groups that actually have power.

ROMANO: That is a good point. I guess I was trying to make a point more specific than the example sounded. What I was trying to say is: if you are going to do a show about a white, urban detective, and you never reveal his racism, you are not being completely honest about him. The problem with not using the N-word on that show is that you can't tell the truth about racism if the subject of your show is a white detective. Ten years ago, this first instance was a moment of truth. However, now with shows like The Sopranos, which uses words like this every week, it becomes a case where the writers like to use such words, and are thrilled by it, which is bad.

QUESTION: I have a question about the committee. I agree that you are able to speak the truth by letting a committee add textures of reality to a writer's vision, but are there times when you need the committee to bring fantasy into the artist who strives for verisimilitude? Fantasy could be some reality that goes beyond or beneath the reality of the surface of verisimilitude.

ROMANO: Yes, that is true. For example, on American Dreams, only two of the writers can actually remember the 1960s. I just wrote an episode where some characters are discussing the discovery of the bodies of Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney, civil rights workers from the North who were murdered when they went to work in the South. They were killed by white policemen and Klansmen. In a scene, the parents of the family discuss the case with a police officer. Another writer, Becky Hartman, raised the question of whether Helen, the catholic, not college-educated, mother of four, would care about this matter as deeply as my writing of her character claimed. I was really writing with my own voice instead of the mother's.

THORBURN: Many in the TV industry see story television as dead or dying, the victim of reality TV. What is your take on this?

ROMANO: If the networks believe that it is true, that viewers want to see reality programming, then it will be around for a long time. I think it's a question of corporate culture. TV tends to forget its successes like MASH, which was a huge success as a single-camera comedy. Yet there had been nothing like it until Malcolm in the Middle (FOX, 2000- ) was created.

LILLY KAM, MIT undergraduate: I was in Professor Thorburn's class last year when you came to talk to us, a few weeks after September 11th. I remember that you were highly critical of new shows like Alias (ABC, 2001-) and 24 (FOX, 2001-) because you felt that in light of current events, American audiences wouldn't want to watch such violent shows. I think it is interesting that your next project turned out to be American Dreams, which seems opposite to the other shows, although all three have certain patriotic elements. How much did the events of September 11th influence your choice of projects?

ROMANO: It definitely made me want to do the John Walker Lindh story, because I did not know what to think about him. I guess American Dreams is patriotic because there is a nostalgia in it for an innocent time that never existed. The thing I like about American Dreams is that it has a basic ambivalence. On one hand it reminds us of a unified and idealized American family. But at the same time, it rubs their noses at the cataclysmic events of the 1960s. You get the nostalgia, and the hard times, and that is what I was drawn to in the wake of September 11th.

ROBERT J. BAIN, Comparative Media Studies graduate student: Can you talk about how television by committee plays a role on the set, and the relative significance of directors and actors? You focus on the writing process, but it seems like there would also be a difference between what is scripted and what is ultimately captured on film.

ROMANO: That is a great practical question. The best way to explain this is to compare it with movies. In movies, the director is king or queen. Everyone is there to realize his or her vision. In television, it is by a committee that does not include the directors as much. Directors are really there to realize the script. Very good television directors would actually move onto movies.

SUSANNAH MANDEL, Comparative Media Studies graduate student: I don't think people really believe anymore that TV is used as an organ to keep the masses quiet, yet I was startled by the cover of TV Guide this week. The headline said "The TV Cure: Six shows to watch if you're feeling anxious, lonely, depressed." There's not even a very high level of discourse at to why Americans may be feeling this. What is your take on the presentation of these shows as a "TV cure"?

ROMANO: I resent it very much and it's not the kind of TV I like to do. In 1994, I created a show called Sweet Justice starring Cicely Tyson as a venerable civil rights lawyer in the South. NBC loved the pilot and picked it up, but wanted me to stay away from all the racial issues! They forced us to do the show with more palliative issues. I lost interest and the show failed.

--by Lilly Kam