Small Screen, Big Headaches
Talk about static. Three top series creators get together to discuss the future–and find an ominous new ratings system, intrusive network execs and increasingly demanding talent, among other concerns.
How do some of television’s top producers feel about the state of the industry?
Seeking to take the pulse of TV’s creative community on the eve of the new prime-time season, Calendar brought together three producers of current hits–Steven Bochco, Marta Kauffman and Chris Carter–to explore that question.
Bochco, 52, will soon be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame and can claim one of the best batting averages in television history. Through the years, he has been associated with such hits as “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.” as well as the returning ABC series “NYPD Blue” and “Murder One.” Bochco has also earned a reputation as a risk-taker, someone who seems to welcome controversy. His latest show (and first under a new deal at CBS), “Public Morals,” focuses on vice squad cops and is expected to air with a parental-discretion advisory because of its language and subject matter.
Kauffman, 39, with partners David Crane and Kevin S. Bright forms the producing team responsible for NBC’s “Friends,” an enormous ratings draw entering its third season, whose cultural influence has ranged from fashion to hairstyles. Before that, Kauffman and Crane created the popular HBO comedy “Dream On.” In addition, the “Friends” trio has a deal with NBC to produce a new comedy starring “Cheers” alumna Kirstie Alley, tentatively scheduled for next fall.
Carter, also 39, created Fox’s top-rated show, “The X-Files,” which will move from Fridays to Sundays in late October. With the possible exception of “Friends,” the series has become prime time’s most-imitated program, with NBC alone introducing three new Saturday dramas designed to attract the same sort of audience. Carter’s latest series, “Millennium,” is an even darker hour about a former FBI investigator with a facility for profiling killers. With the series taking over “The X-Files” time slot, Fox’s fortunes ride to a large extent on Carter’s shoulders.
Calendar asked these producers–representing shows on all four major networks, as well as comedy and drama–to assemble for an informal round-table discussion about issues facing the industry. Bochco and Carter had met briefly, but neither previously knew Kauffman.
Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge involved finding a time when all three could meet. The interview ultimately took place in Bochco’s office.
Question: What issues, as the season approaches, are top of mind with you relating to television?
Kauffman: All three of us seem to have one issue in common, and that’s the V-chip TV ratings system issue.
Carter: Or the C-chip: the content chip.
Kauffman: That’s what I’m afraid of. That’s what scares me. We have lesbians in our show; does that automatically give you a rating, just because there’s an idea that some people may be uncomfortable with?
Q: Does it change the way you approach the shows? Each of you has shows that specifically have raised different issues.
Bochco: It’s not going to affect what Chris is already doing or what I’m already doing.
Kauffman: Oh, yes it does. Very much so. We came under such fire once we moved to 8 o’clock. As the climate changed, it became more reactionary. It’s affected us enormously.
Bochco: What I’m concerned about, and what I’m sure Chris is concerned about, is what’s going to happen with development [of new shows]. That to me is the most chilling part. It’s one thing to say, “Well, ‘Friends’ is ‘Friends,’ ” and of course it’s a big hit. If tomorrow they moved it back to 9 o’clock, you’d then be dealing with a different set of standards, more akin probably to what you started with.
The thing that I find so potentially distressing, and I’ve said this before, is that I don’t think in this climate I could develop “NYPD Blue.”
Kauffman: I couldn’t develop “Friends” in this climate. One of the issues is we are suddenly being asked to write something we are not familiar with. The show makes certain demands on you as a writer. After a while that takes over.
Carter: I actually developed something that is definitely pushing the limits of standards, so I don’t know that you can’t develop [risk-taking programs] in this climate, although we have the luxury of having proven ourselves with what we do. A case has already been made, so I was able to push the limits of content to an extent–not violence per se but content.
Q: Isn’t that the assumption: because you’re associated with hit shows, you have more latitude?
Kauffman: I don’t believe so. It may be different in the 8-10 p.m. hours. My fear is that once the TV ratings system is in place, people are going to say, “You know, I don’t think we want to develop those kind of shows anymore, because we know that these advertisers are not going to want [to support them].” I think that this year is less of a concern than next year.
Bochco: I’m less concerned with how we execute a show once it’s on the air. I’ll fight those battles, and I think you can win those battles. Because in fact once your show is on the air, particularly if it’s getting any sort of viewership, the truth is you’ve got [the network] over a barrel.
The other issue may well be that this is an election year, so just from a purely practical point of view, all of us are going to be scattered and none of us are going to be able to develop any momentum in the early going. For an established show it’s not a problem, but for a new show it is going to be a problem.
Once that election is over, politically, who knows? This could really go away. Listen, you can’t un-ring a bell. I’ve been in television for almost 30 years, and I’m here to tell you it doesn’t go back. It goes forward. It’s not an unbroken line. If you graph it, it’s spiky here and there, but inevitably this medium is dragged [forward] kicking and screaming.
Kauffman: I think we think we’ve gone farther than we have. We’ve made a little progress here and there.
Bochco: But it’s a different medium now than it was. Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t have a real dialogue with broadcast standards, and the rules were such you couldn’t show two married people in bed together. You couldn’t say the word “damn.” I remember the first time I ever put the word “bastard” in a script, the [expletive] hit the fan. It’s just a different world.
Kauffman: I have to say, I react as a mom too. I have two young kids, and I find the whole V-chip TV ratings system incredibly offensive. First of all, my kids watch my show, and most of it goes over their heads. The only questions my kids ever ask me is “What’s a lesbian?” and I should answer that question.
Beyond that, I think it [leads to] uninformed decisions being made by the government, not by the individual or especially by the parents.
Bochco: Every show is rated already, just in terms of the fact that nothing that gets on the air is an unknown commodity, so there is a book on everything. No one’s going to tune in to “Public Morals” unaware that it’s kicked up a little controversy by virtue of its language, so to that extent everything out there is already informally rated.
To me the chilling part is hooking that rating to a technological system that then becomes by definition censorship. That’s the part of it that’s scary.
Carter: I’m doing a show, “Millennium,” and it’s very intense. As a responsible producer, there’s a limit to which I think kids will be too young to watch this show, and without putting an advisory on the beginning, I don’t know how to put that point across except in that way you’re suggesting, which is this informal ratings system. The press does this job, the media does this job, of informing viewers.
Q: In some respect, isn’t an advisory liberating? If you know “Millennium” is going to get an advisory, then you can play with it a bit more?
Kauffman: It’s one thing to have an advisory, and then you go back to content, which to me is the scariest issue here. When you start advising about content, you’re talking morals and judgments and a system that just doesn’t make any sense.
Q: Do you feel you’ve been well informed about this process?
Carter: I don’t. It’s always changing, [and] I don’t know quite what is going to be incorporated when. My fear is that the dialogue will end, that there will be a final, definitive decision.
Kauffman: When we did our lesbian wedding episode, NBC put on extra operators. That night, they had four phone calls. That’s it. Months later, the mail started pouring in: Rev. [Donald] Wildmon got a bunch of people together to complain, and he never saw the [expletive] thing. They knew it was something with lesbians, and they got mad.
Carter: I just hope the dialogue continues. I don’t want, once these things move farther along, for us to quit talking about what it is that we are going to be censoring or governing.
Bochco: I may be a little more cynical, to the extent that I’ll believe it when I see it. I am more skeptical than most people in this creative community that this will actually eventuate into a coherent system of ratings and technology.
Q: Let’s cut to another issue, which is not just the content of the shows but getting them launched with the low ratings the networks have had over the summer.
Bochco: That’s going to be tough this year. It’s always tough in the fall with the glut of new shows. You’ve always got events, with the World Series, the playoffs–and this year you’ve got a presidential election and debates.
Then, by the time most everything gets on, you’re going to be deep into October, so you’re into the holiday season and those holiday preemptions. It’s real tough for new shows.
Carter: I keep saying, all I can do is just the same good work and hope that people come.
Bochco: “Murder One” is a perfect example of a show that just got killed in terms of its time slot, getting yanked off for seven weeks, then coming back in a different time period. You couldn’t have asked for a more horrific scenario, and yet we’re back, because we kept our eye on the one thing we did have control over, which is the work.
I have no control over where they put me. I have no control where they move me or preemptions. All I can control is the quality of the work.
Q: What do you think of the quality of television generally right now?
Bochco: I think there’s an awful lot of good stuff on television. That said, none of us can watch it all, and there’s so much stuff that the majority of it will always be mediocre.
Kauffman: A lot of people will probably get [angry] at me for this–and maybe it’s because I don’t do drama and don’t have the same harsh judgment–but it seems to me that drama has really improved, and comedy for the most part still sucks.
There’s very little comedy I can watch and really enjoy. I think it’s banal and stupid.
Carter: I sort of agree, although it may be unfair because I’m taking potshots at a format I’m not working in. I think what bothers me about it is that it’s that same proscenium show; it’s all the same. The lighting is the same, the rhythms are the same. It’s setup, joke.
Q: Do you attribute any of that to the glut of shows?
Kauffman: Honestly, what I attribute it to is people feel they can write TV from whatever they were doing. Lawyers go, “You know, I can do that.” What happens is there were no people who learned theater, who learned dramatic structure, who learned how to write a scene.
Bochco: Everybody thinks they know what funny is. What’s funny is like music–everybody’s an expert about music, because everybody has their own sensibility. When it comes to what Chris and I do, you tend to get a little more regard, because most of those folks at the network don’t have a clue about how to do what we do, but they all think they have a clue about how to do [comedy].
It’s been 15 years since I’ve ever submitted an outline to a network or even told them what we’re doing. The first time they know what we’re doing is when a script plops on their desk, and then we go and shoot the script. That’s it. Nobody ever calls and gives me notes on a script from the network. You get your broadcast standards stuff, then you go and make the show.
“Public Morals,” and I’m sure it’s the same with every other half-hour, you go to your table reading [rehearsal], and there [the network executives] are. They’re hovering, and they have their notes, and then comes the night of the taping and the filming, and there they are again, and they’re rubbing their hands. You look over and you see somebody from the network, and of course they never laugh, they never smile. You think, “Where do they find people to work in comedy who never enjoy what they’re doing?”
Kauffman: We must have very good network people. Chances are, we’re going to be a lot harder on ourselves than they will ever be on us.
Bochco: Yeah, but Marta, you’re doing “Friends.” They can afford to come in, have a Diet Coke and chortle and giggle and have a good time.
Kauffman: I got asked a lot last year about “Friends” rip-offs. I think one of the problems with quality is that networks and studios somehow believe it’s a formula–”There’s a hit, so this is what it was about, let’s just do that again”–without taking the time to find anyone who has a passion for saying something.
Carter: I see it as a hedging of bets. They hedge their bets all the way along by wanting a proven commodity. In the beginning, much less now, I felt like I was sort of dared to succeed–they were always spending as little money as they could because we were going to fail anyway.
Bochco: It gets you to that fundamental difference between the business that they’re in and the business that we’re in. They really are in the manufacturing business and the selling business, and we, God help us, are sort of in the art business.
Fifteen years ago, no one in our position would have the arrogance to use the “A” word in television. I started using it eight or 10 years ago with a slight embarrassment, and I don’t anymore. There is a lot of fine art being produced and written for television.
Q: You all have to staff your shows with writers. What does the number of shows do to the talent pool?
Kauffman: Three hundred scripts you read to find 10 writers, and maybe six of them you’re interested in. I get very, very upset about this, that people get title promotions only because they’ve done it for a year. Suddenly it says “supervising producer,” and they can’t spell.
Bochco: On “Hill Street Blues,” 13 years ago, there was a staff of writers on that show five deep, every one of whom could go off and write a great “Hill Street Blues.” I’ll bet you there’s not an hour show in television that can boast a staff five deep, any one of whom can go off and write a script like that.
Carter: What I’ve found too is that when you do find somebody that’s good, all of a sudden I feel like a major-league manager running a farm system at the same time, because the network or the studio is going to take that person I’ve found and try to develop [new shows] with them. It’s like mitosis, wanting to divide the cells and grow new ones.
Kauffman: It’s so frustrating, when you’ve found people and groomed them, and you finally get somebody who can take over your show someday, and they’re gone.
Q: What about talent demands? Have talent demands gotten more difficult or less difficult? Is it just that we report on it more now?
Bochco: Obviously, you hear more about it. The amount of interest in what goes on behind the scenes of what we all do is unparalleled. I’ve never seen anything like the way it is now. All of us, in a certain way, are of interest to the audience as much as the actors are.
When [producer] Dick Wolf took those two guys [the stars of "New York Undercover," who briefly tried to hold out for more money] behind the shed, everyone in our business, and I suspect everyone reading about it in the papers, said, “Atta boy, Dick. Those two guys are dopes. What a pair of mopes they are. They really stepped in something squishy, and they got what they deserved.”
Kauffman: That’s the worst part of it. Negotiations are never fun for anybody, but they’re negotiations and you get over it and keep doing the work. The problem is when it gets out [publicly], it’s very disruptive, and things get bent out of proportion.
Bochco: If I’m an actor on one of those ensemble comedies, where maybe two or three or four of them look exactly alike, there’s every reason to believe they may never have a success like they’re experiencing now. It may never happen again.
It’s like being a professional athlete. You’ve got a real small window. This man [pointing to Carter] is going to make 10 more shows and going to have more [expletive] money than God. This woman [Kauffman] will do the same thing, and so will I. Actors may never have another opportunity.
The truth is, I’m sympathetic to them. I’m married to an actress ["Murder One's" Barbara Bosson]. Smart actors know that. I’m for them getting everything they can legitimately get within the boundaries of professional behavior, [understanding] that we all have contracts.
Q: Beyond the obvious, because you’ve all experienced something very few people will, what’s the best part and most aggravating part about being associated with a hit show?
Kauffman: Truthfully, the best part is doing something you’re proud of. It’s an amazing feeling. You don’t get to do that a lot.
Bochco: And doing something that everybody also acknowledges, because I’ve done things that haven’t succeeded I’ve been very proud of.
Kauffman: The worst part for me is not seeing my family. It’s so hard.
Bochco: It’s a crucifixion. Nobody knows, nor need they know, because it’s not anybody’s problem. They shouldn’t see how hard we work, but it’s routinely six- and 6 1/2-day weeks, nine months a year.
Kauffman: It’s also really hard to go to work, for me, and look at those women [in the "Friends" cast] every day.
Carter: Actually, what really makes me happy is doing something that people respond to. It sort of vindicates your view of the world. As a storyteller, you’re telling a story that people want to see and to hear.
Also, when I get a group of people working together and it clicks, there’s actually a team, an esprit de corps that happens. It’s really special.
Kauffman: Collaboration. It’s invigorating.