The State of Television Today
By Gary David Goldberg
Sitcoms have changed from the beloved series of the 1970s (“All in the Family,” “Newhart,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and so on). I think the changes in the sitcom have been a natural reflection of the changes in society. Faster paced – multiple stories in play – lot more representation of different lifestyles and characters. All of which I think is very good.
There’s also been a more realistic look at society, perhaps, reflected in the newer shows. Certainly a more cynical look which, also, I think, reflects the tenor of the times.
I do think the sitcom has survived as it’s been transformed. I think we may have seen the end of the laugh track and, maybe even the end of the traditional multiple camera format shot in front of a live audience. Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know. Done well those audience shows were pretty special. And, for writers and actors you did get that thrill of performing in front of a live audience. In the end, though, that format could also be confining. We tried to enlarge the sitcom universe with our approach to Spin City. Shot about half in front of the audience. Half on location. Used 5, sometimes 6 camera – lot of steadi-cam in an attempt to create a satisfying hybrid.
But, in essence, I think TV right now is what it has always been - “the best of times” and “the worst of times” at the same time. There are some excellent sitcoms out there. Ugly Betty, Scrubs, The Office to name three that my kids have insisted I watch. The last two series I kind of followed, Friends and Will and Grace, were as funny as any ever done, I think.
What’s different at this moment and time and impacting everything is new technology, instant ratings, a more or less insane need in the network mind to hit a very particular, very young demographic.
When I began my writing career in 1975 and through most of the Family Ties years in the early to mid 80’s there were only three networks. It was difficult for any of those networks to actually lose money. It was really more a matter of how high can we go.
It was also extremely rare to have a show summarily cancelled after just a few episodes. If you had an order for 13 it was more the norm for all 13 to get a chance to air. If you look back on Cheers, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Family Ties for example, these shows all started out slowly. But, they existed in an economic climate where they could be kept on TV long enough for audiences to find them. When I worked on Lou Grant we were the absolute lowest-rated show one week and then later that same year the number one show of all shows. I’m not sure that could ever happen again.
When I worked on The Tony Randall Show in 1979 the technology that existed could only provide over-night rating for three cities: NY, Chicago, and LA. Sometimes you had to wait a day or two days for the national ratings to come in. Often they could be in direct contrast to those overnights. It resulted in people taking a much more wait and see attitude about the numbers in general.
The most insidious development has been, I think, this lemming-like network march over the cliff at the altar of the 18-34 year old demographic. I like 18-34 year olds. I have two of them as daughters. I was once one myself. But, I think it’s damaging to hold our whole culture hostage to this very fickle group of consumers. This causes the networks to panic at any sign of trouble, yank shows, try something new, try something different. Try something edgy. All in a desperate attempt to get the attention of a group that isn’t paying them very much attention. Spending much more time with their computers and their phones and their games.
Television has gone from being our great national campfire to a series of small, private and personal “fires” where we’re separated by age, race, and gender, the better to be marketed to. I think that’s a bit of a loss.
There’s a fourth element, too, I think. The networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox -- have been taken over by large corporations, and the over-the-air delivery systems operating over our public airwaves delivering the content of our lives and hopes and dreams are just small blips on the profit screens of the behemoths that control them.
The fact that the financial interest rule was amended allowing these networks to now own their own programming has resulted in a “mafia-like” stranglehold on the means of production, as they force themselves into unwanted “partnerships” with the creative community. And, it results in a dangerously thin opening at the top of the funnel of ideas.
There are no more Grant Tinkers, no more Bill Paleys, Leonard Goldensons who were broadcasters to their bones. Who took great pride in their communication empires, put great store in the trust granted them by the public and their requirement by charter to operate in the public interest. That idea is as quaint as the Geneva Conventions are to Dick Cheney.
One thing I know. There’s no going back.
(Gary David Goldberg is the founder of UBU Productions which produced nine television series including “Family Ties” and “Brooklyn Bridge.” He is the author of the upcoming book, Sit, Ubu, Sit: How I went from Brooklyn to Hollywood with the same woman, the same dog, and a lot less hair (Harmony 2008). Visit him online at www.GaryDavidGoldberg.com)