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.
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.
series of Forums on prime time television will feature some
leading TV scholars and media professionals.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
of television particularly define its status as a form of popular,
not high culture.
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.
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
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
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.
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
It is the
rare artist who would introduce this piece of deflation, Romano
said. Probably only a committee could do it.
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.
the world to influence your vision is built into television,
because of the committee. This happens on American Dreams
all the time.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many in the TV industry see story television as dead or dying,
the victim of reality TV. What is your take on this?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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"?
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.