Issues in the Television Business

American television consists of a set of local stations licensed to broadcast by the Federal Communications Commission. However, local stations produce very little of the content of their programs. Most shows are provided by networks with corporate headquarters in New York. How did this industry take its present shape?

By the 1950s, major film companies were producing most shows in Hollywood. They subcontracted much production work to independent suppliers, paying them for distribution rights. If a series lasted long enough (about 100 episodes) it could be syndicated at great profit for rebroadcast on other stations. Financially, the independent producer (who assumed all the costs and risks of production) might not even break even on any shows except those that did become syndicated.

The profitability of broadcast television depends on the ability of a show to deliver viewers' eyes and ears to advertisers. In the early years, one single advertiser, a company that asserted its influence over the content, sponsored each weekly television show. During the 1960s that system changed, so that different sponsors would buy a certain number of "spot" commercials on specific shows rather than sponsoring a whole program. This reduced each advertiser's control over the content of shows.

Throughout the 1960s networks increased their power by underwriting some pilot episodes and/or production costs in return for shares of profits. Government regulations were introduced in 1971 to limit networks' financial control, though they retained nearly monopolistic control of programming. Independent producers remained significant in Hollywood and became the seedbed for the development of higher quality dramas.

Broadcasting networks attract a declining share of viewers, for today more than 85 percent of American households subscribe to cable or satellite television, The operator of a cable system bundles together about 25 networks, adds the local broadcasting stations, and sells this package to subscribers as "basic cable" for about $25 per month - a markup of 100 percent. Other "pay channels" may be purchased separately, and there are also "pay per view" options available. Channels are allocated to cable companies according to the audiences that they propose to serve. Most cable "bandwidth" has already been allocated, but with the coming of digital television, a whole new array of possibilities are open to new stations. The trend is toward "niche markets," with each channel providing specialty content appealing to, say, women, history buffs, cooks, foreign language-speakers, or golfers.

One American cable company, HBO, led the way in drama, producing more "gritty" shows than networks would ever have been able to offer the mainstream viewers to whom they must appeal; HBO now has 38.1 million subscribing TV households. Street Time was produced by another cable company, Showtime, which claims 35 million subscribers. Because viewers have to pay extra for access to HBO and Showtime, these networks need not appeal to a cross-section of American society and therefore compete to display bold, shocking content. Cable companies and huge affiliated entertainment corporations now produce most shows, rarely buying anymore from independent companies. For example, Sony provided funding for Street Time.

Documentaries: Cultural Seedbed for Street Time

Street Time is the creation of Richard Stratton, with the close involvement of Marc Levin. Although both men had also done some work producing television dramas, their main influences came from making documentaries.

Arguably, non-fiction shows are not created for the same purposes as dramas. Typically a documentary is intended less as entertainment than for spreading factual information or advocating particular social policies. This objective had been paramount from the outset.

Every period of social change stimulates a great deal of propaganda. I do not mean that propaganda is necessarily untruthful, but only that it is created as political commentary, whether wise or appalling. The Great Depression stimulated much advocacy in photography and filmmaking. The greatest period of documentary making in every country has been during wars, when there is always a huge audience for propaganda films. Probably the greatest documentary-maker of all time was a German woman, Leni Riefenstahl, who produced three extraordinary pro-Nazi films, Triumph of the Will and Olympia.

Documentaries are still largely meant as exposés advocating a particular approach to reform. They are not usually generated by the same financial arrangements as dramas. Any independent company must rely on support from intrepid investors who may never recoup their money. Therefore, most non-fiction shows are not produced as commercial projects, but rather by the salaried staff of an institution, such as a network itself or a national film board, as in Canada.

In the United States, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) commissions some documentaries. Before its heyday, networks sometimes ran into problems by broadcasting controversial exposés. For example, the muckraking stories of the 1960s included exposés on the deplorable living conditions of migrant farm-workers; on the continuing existence of hunger in America; and on pollution from agricultural pesticides. The uproar following these shows prompted the networks to cut back on hour-long documentaries and to adopt instead such "magazine" formats as Sixty Minutes, which could include some upbeat segments as well as social criticism.

People who avoided advocacy by presenting material as objective or "educational" history lessons produced the most successful TV documentaries. David Wolper was especially innovative in this way, scrounging through the bottomless pit of old film footage for scraps to recycle as documentaries. He bought up Soviet footage of their space program and combined it with American NASA footage, calling the result The Race for Space.

Wolper created a documentary in 1971 about endangered animal species, showing a disturbing scene of a polar bear being killed illegally by hunters. A secret came out - that Wolper had staged the kill by an actor, but this disclosure evidently did not upset viewers (except for a few defensive hunters). Therefore Wolper began creating what came to be called "docu-dramas" - combinations of true and enacted events. He could present, for example a so-called "newsreel" showing the assassination of Lincoln or the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk.

Still, some of the most powerful documentaries are those that expose shocking social problems, such as Michael Moore's successful commercial films, Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 911.

Richard Stratton and (especially) Marc Levin, the producers of Street Time, belong to that same school of radical documentary-making. They have a strong sense of social justice and a passion for certain causes - especially against the prison system, racism, and the war on drugs. They have worked as a team several years. Levin himself has made more than 20 documentaries over two decades, working originally with his father. He has described his style as "drama verité."

"I've always been wandering in the no-man's land between fiction and nonfiction, asking `What is real?'

For me, it all started with my first job as an editing apprentice for the Maysles brothers on the classic rockumentary, Gimme Shelter. Right from the beginning it was sex, drugs, rock and roll, politics, and murder. A black guy stabbed and killed by Hell's Angels at Altamont during the Stones concert. All captured on film. The line between the performance and the people was smashed. That's where my film education began. Since then it's been simple. Find the spot where the real is radiating, throw talent in, mix, and start shooting."

Influences on the Content of Television Drama

There are at least four ways for viewers to influence the programming of television: first, through government regulation. Since airwaves are public property, the public is entitled to influence how they are allocated. However, most people are opposed to anything that could be considered censorship, so this approach has only limited support. A second way is by direct lobbying and protesting against the decisions of television firms. People can, theoretically, picket a cable company, but it is unlikely that any such campaign could be sustained long. A third way is through ratings. Viewers always do "vote with their feet" by not watching shows they dislike, though for any individual or group, this is a feeble and delayed means of influencing corporate decisions.

Besides, network executives have to interpret the meaning of low ratings. Is it because they failed to advertise the show properly? Is it because the script is confusing? Is it because viewers dislike the show's violence? Or instead want more of it? The executives sometimes reach erroneous inferences and base their decisions on them. For example, Showtime utterly failed to promote Street Time. The ratings were disappointing, but was the lack of advertising the sole reason? And if so, could the show still become popular as late as the third season? Showtime actually pressed Stratton to use more violence and to emphasize the episodic elements and downplay the plots about the protagonists - two decisions that I believe were misguided.

The fourth approach for viewers to exert influence on programming is one that Hillary Rodham Clinton has endorsed - the use of consumer boycotts against companies that sponsor offensive programs. This would require considerable organizing, and its effectiveness would be limited in the case of shows on pay channels, which depend less on advertising than broadcasting or cable channels that are included in basic services. However, it is true that when citizens protest against sponsors of obnoxious shows, the companies are usually responsive. It only takes a few loud protesters to induce a company to apologize and revoke its sponsorship of a show. This fourth approach may yet become the most effective means of democratizing television and making it accountable to citizens.

But citizens are not the only people who dislike the financial clout of the corporate controllers of television; the creative workers also resent the power of the big dollar. Producers, writers, and actors function entirely at the mercy of the network. Executives can show up on set and participate in directing a show, or they can re-edit it after it has reached headquarters. Ultimately, of course, it is their decision whether to renew the show or let it die. There are always tensions between the financial side of a company and the creative side. Having a free hand does not guarantee that the creators' production will be excellent, but the intrusion of executives makes it less likely. The hands-on production people see the financial management as cautious about plots and as paying too much attention to other shows, trying to guess what faddish new formula is becoming popular with viewers so they can jump on the bandwagon.

In the case of Street Time, the tensions were unusually intense because Stratton and Levin had an unpredictable streak that could be seen all the way across the continent. They had worked on documentaries before and treated this show as an improvisational experiment. Not only did Showtime business managers fail to publicize the new show but, anticipating his unorthodoxy, they kept the creator under tight control. They arranged for Stratton's decision-making responsibilities to be shared with another, more experienced producer and some writers who knew the usual rules and pretty much played by them.

On the set in Toronto, Stratton would sketch out a basic outline for each episode and send it to the writers in Los Angeles, who would produce the script. It would arrive by e-mail back into Stratton's in-box and he would massage it, then seek approval for his revisions from Los Angeles and the "showrunner" co-producer. A script might bounce back and forth several times and Stratton might win or lose. Sometimes the other producers would not accept a story as he wanted to tell it.

By the fifth episode, the showrunner producer had been so involved in the process that when Stratton eventually got to see the polished script he could barely recognize the story he had outlined. It was too late to revise it. Richard fired off a response that sizzled. The showrunner, caught between two contradictory forces, immediately resigned, leaving Stratton temporarily with more control over Street Time. (I could understand his complaints when I watched the botched episode five. It was heavy-handed and formulaic.)

Levin, who had returned to New York and his documentary business after directing the pilot, was now hired as co-producer and returned to Toronto to finish the 18-episode first season. The quality picked up immediately, though the Showtime executives remained nervous. Even while the show was getting better, they would visit Toronto and try to bring the improvisational shenanigans back under control. After the first season, Stratton and Levin heatedly issued an ultimatum; they would leave the show entirely unless the network moved Street Time's main office to New York and put them in charge of season two as co-producers. They won. At about that time, Robert Greenblatt (a producer of the excellent show Six Feet Under) was put in charge of Showtime's programming. He had never even been aware of Street Time until then, and when he saw it he loved it. But the advertising money had already been allocated for the second season, and Street Time was still out in the cold. The ratings did not improve.

In two other ways, a change in decision-making practices might improve the quality of television series. First, there is the matter of contract renewals, which determines the second issue - the room for character development.

Aristotle said it: Every drama should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. An television series needs a beginning, middle, and end to each episode, to each season, and to the whole story - which may last five, or conceivably up to ten, seasons. This is one of the most difficult problems that writers face, since they do not know from one season to the next whether they will be canceled. Imagine writing a novel in which you cannot be sure whether there will be any chapters after the one you are writing now. A great television series should be structured like a nineteenth-century novel - by Dickens, say, or Tolstoy. Stratton says that this problem is "something we struggle with all the time."

The solution, obviously, would be for networks to contract from the outset for a fairly long and predictable number of seasons. This would enable writers to plan their long story arcs in advance. Unfortunately, such a five-year or six-year predetermined contract cannot happen as long as networks and financial backers require their investments to show short-term profits. However, it might be possible for decisions about renewals to be made almost a year earlier, giving writers an extra six months or so in which to complete an ongoing story arc without seriously truncating it. That is probably as much as television viewers can conceivably accomplish by lobbying the industry, and it is a long shot - but worth attempting.

Then there is the matter of character development. In many television series the characters neither learn anything nor go downhill. Seinfeld and his friends had the same personalities in their last episode as in the first one. You can watch their episodes out of chronological order, but you cannot read the chapters of a Dickens or Jane Austen novel out of order. The characters of long novels change as a result of their experiences, so why don't characters on television? According to Todd Gitlin, there are practical reasons, namely that

"...the regular schedule prefers the repeatable formula: it is far easier for production companies to hire writers to write for standardized, static characters than for characters who develop. Assembly-line production works through regularity of time slot, of duration, and of character to convey images of social steadiness..."

Formulas of this kind are not art. The genuine artistic potential of episodic television will never be fully realized until lengthy stories are developed in which the characters change over time in response to the events of their lives.

Rob Morrow has said, and Richard Stratton agrees, that Street Times asks whether people can learn from their mistakes. But if Morrow's character, Kevin Hunter, is to change in plausible ways, it may take five seasons, and no one can be sure of having such a long series.

There are even producers who insist, on principle, that characters never should change. That may be a valid theory for a few shows, but not for all. Street Time will be ruined artistically if Kevin Hunter and James Liberti fail to grow wiser through their interactions over several years.

Television Creation

The actual work of creating and producing a TV show requires input from a whole hierarchy of producers, writers, directors, actors, and technical crew. A "producer" is a generic word that may or may not reflect authority. The top producer - the "head coach" - certainly does have authority; he is called the "showrunner" or, more formally, "executive producer," and he may or may not also be the show's "creator." The showrunner not only makes such decisions as hiring the stars, but is involved in writing the scripts. If he is also the "creator," he is the source of the main story idea. Showrunners must be experienced writers. Although Stratton was the storyteller behind the whole Street Time series, he was not the showrunner at first. Though he was telling his own life story, the final script was beyond his control. However, by the second season, after his fights with the Showtime executives, he and Marc Levin came to share that top position as "co-producers." Then he picked a new set of writers and spent a couple of months with them in New York "breaking the stories." That is, they sat surrounded by blackboards and traced out the main story of the season. Then each writer was assigned certain episodes to write, under Stratton's supervision. Each final script might appear only a week or so before it was to be shot, and only then did the actors know what was coming up. Presumably, if they knew the whole season's story in advance, their performances would lose spontaneity. Yet Street Time was remarkably spontaneous because Stratton and Levin were open to suggestions from their actors to change the script on the spot. The degree of improvisation probably was greater on Street Time than for any other previous TV series.

Directors. Television directors are responsible for working with the technical crew and actors to take a script and turn it into a finished, digitally recorded drama. In films, the director is king, but in television that top status is occupied by the showrunner producer. Three or more directors are required for every series, since a director who is handling an episode must devote one week to preparing for it, seven days to shooting it, and another week to editing it. He or she is supported by numerous assistant directors ("ADs") who organize various technical aspects of the work. Sometimes a guest director will come in to do a single episode. The director, along with the director of photography, must work with the actors and crew before each new scene, blocking out their movements around the set and planning the lighting, microphones, and camera for the shoot. After that, he will return to his seat outside the set, directly in front of the monitor, where he watches and listens by headphones to the dialogue, calling for as many takes as he thinks he needs, but often proposing no changes whatever to the actors.

The Needs of Viewers

Besides the aforementioned issues, television dramatists must be concerned with several factors that are of particular importance to viewers. The best answers usually require a balancing antithetical ideals. I will describe three such polarities here: arousal versus meaning; realism versus truth; and just retribution versus acceptance. We cannot resolve the contradiction between these alternatives, since both sides are partly valid.

Arousal versus Meaning. If, as I have suggested, people choose what to watch for the sake of mood management, then the success of a show should be determined largely by the moods that it evokes. We know that this is true; however, it does seem that large numbers of viewers need stimulation of a kind that others actively dislike. I, for one, hardly ever enjoy shows that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, but many other people obviously do. And, since you cannot be thinking deeply while vicariously chasing villains on horseback or spaceship, or while your knuckles are white in response to a lurking monster or coiled-up rattlesnake, shows featuring arousal can hardly devote much attention to exploring the deep meanings of the characters' lives. Street Time is more an action show than a sensitive show about personal growth - which limits its appeal to me but may (I don't know) help its ratings. Almost every aspect of Stratton's adventurous personal life is revealed in the show (including his boyhood experience as the founder of a delinquent gang called the "Pink Rats") but his introspective spiritual quest is absolutely missing. This absence may indeed reflect his DRD4 "risk-taking" gene, but I imagine it was based on his assumption that the audience may be interested in seeing a criminal become normal and civilized, but will not be interested in seeing that same normal, civilized person go on to become an outstanding, even great, human being. To me, that's a pity, for I am fascinated by those who quest for meaning in life and, unlike Stratton, I have no interest whatever in outlaws.

Realism Versus Truth. Actors cherish "truth." Often when talking about a deeply insightful breakthrough in performing a role, they describe it as "truthful" moment. But on other occasions when I have discussed a plot with actors and directors they have invoked a notion of "reality" that did not mean "truth." Indeed, I think it is important to keep the two terms quite distinct because sometimes they are at war with each other.

The notion of "reality" tends to be invoked as a justification when discussing whether a character should behave in a particular, questionable way. For example, I asked Rob Morrow's opinion of an upcoming episode in which the script, as it stood at that point, called for Kevin to commit a murder. Since in Street Time, unlike other shows, Rob has a lot to say about the decision, he was deeply engrossed in the debate over this possibility (which was eventually rejected). He said,

"Personally, when I read it, I thought `Oh, no. Don't make me be a murderer. I don't want to be a murderer!' But then I thought, that's just me, Rob, not wanting to be associated with murder, but when I really thought through the game these people are playing, the life they are living, the role they are in, it seems that I'm going to have to cross that line sooner or later."

The logic here is that if something might plausibly happen in real life, that fact makes it realistic and therefore justifies its happening in the story.Realism is invoked by way of justification more often by writers who seek "gritty" or "edgy" effects than by idealists who want to inspire the audience.

Besides the criterion of realism, there is also the other ideal: "truth." The term is often used to describe the level of meaning behind a particular action. Thus an actor may describe an "Aha!" moment when he first realized how to deliver a particular line - a moment when his character's motivation became clear in a situation that previously had seemed incongruous. To discover coherence in a character's unexpressed meanings is to "find his truth."

A character may perform actions that, indeed, may plausibly occur in real life without reflecting any coherent sense of direction or any meaningful principles. Realism does not yield truth, which is of greater value and must be sought in a different way.

A theologian friend of mine learned the difference between realism and truth as a boy while accompanying his father on a preaching trip. The father recounted one of Jesus's parables and then paused to say, "Of course, that was just a story. Can a thing be true that never happened?" Of course it can! And every great story should point to something beyond itself, as a finger points to the moon. If we see only a finger, we may be realistic but not truthful. But a parable may be profoundly true, for it points to the moon.

Just Retribution. As Scott Cohen suggested, actors function as priests, confronting our moral dilemmas head-on and replenishing our empty spirits with meaning. The characters in some dramas are generic types, performing the role of "Everyman" and re-enacting before our eyes our own wretched mistakes. And, as in morality plays, every blunder must bring about its retribution and every heroism its recognition. Drama throughout the ages has reaffirmed the rightness of a universe that gives each of us, ultimately, our just deserts.

But today this seems too pat. Realism recognizes that life is not just. Many innocent people are wrongfully executed, with no one ever discovering the truth. Many guilty people enjoy their ill-gotten success and their evil is never discovered. These things happen. To say so is realism.

The most interesting characters are gray - not wholly good, but likable nonetheless. Some are pale gray, others darker. Writing dramas about such characters is a project for which few clear guidelines exist. Should bad characters come to a bad end, and good characters reap the rewards (or at least the posthumous recognition) that they deserve?

This much is clear: If the villain goes unpunished and the hero unacknowledged, the audience will be upset. But the explorers of moral ambiguity keep trying to find the limits and contours of this principle. Just how bad can they make a good guy become without losing the empathy of their audience - or without causing them to switch off the TV set in disgust?

The answers to this question differ from one genre to another. In melodramas, we used to see unmitigated villainy that was always punished, and we cheered when the evildoer got his comeuppance. There was no empathizing with the likes of him.

Today's morally ambiguous plots are the antithesis of melodrama. We empathize with the whole cast - at least until one of them crosses over some obscure line that makes him irredeemable. Our empathy in itself is excellent - very good for our souls - unless unthinkingly we fall beyond it into mimesis and imitate the ways of some attractive but unprincipled character. Therein lies the seductive depravity for which television, not unfairly, stands accused.

What then, do we demand, as advocates for a great new culture that will deploy television in the service of wisdom and loving-kindness? Do we want villains to be unmistakably evil and, as in classic melodrama, invariably to receive their proper retribution? Or do we want them to be lovable villains who get off scot-free? Or perhaps, instead, lovable villains who learn from their mistakes, redeem themselves, and then get off scot-free? This last possibility is the most appealing of the three outcomes and possibly also the most moral one. It is perhaps the one that will describe the fate of our charming protagonist, Kevin Hunter.

But the rules for this kind of morality play have not been established and are to be discovered by testing the audience's reactions. How far can the storytellers go in darkening these gray characters? Is there any such status as "irredeemable"? Richard Stratton does not think so, but I do.

Contemporary storytellers are remarkably subtle. The prevailing culture within showbiz argues against "dumbing down" stories or making it easy for viewers to understand plots. The admonition is: "show, don't tell." Make viewers work to get the message, if you have one at all.

I think that rule is often overdone. Audiences do not necessarily understand the message, even if they are intelligent. Subtlety has won altogether too decisively. Drama has an important value in society, but only if it succeeds in exploring a human situation with insight and conveying that insight to the audience. To do so, it is often necessary for someone to explain the message in plain English. I am sorory, writers, but that's the way it is.

We are cognitive creatures. To change our way of living, someone has to influence our minds, our way of thinking, our paradigm. Experience alone doesn't do that, for learning is not primarily inductive. Our pre-existing theories tell us what to see and what to ignore. As the philosopher Thomas Kuhn pointed out, what we see depends on what we look for - which in turn depends upon our theory. We often fail to notice whatever our theory does not regard as real. Actors can dramatize a situation that logically disproves our theory, but we probably won't see the contradiction. Our theories are integrated as systems of beliefs and we may need to be `banged over the head' to see that a belief of ours is wrong. We do not abandon a paradigm readily, or recognize any disproof of it.

Without proposing to bang any heads, I do favor accompanying the emotional experience with commentaries for those of us who may not think much after the show. My insistence is based, in part, on experience. One example: As a peace researcher, I know a thing or two about nonviolent resistance. According to the paradigm prevailing in our culture, it is impossible to bring down a totalitarian dictatorship without armed force. In fact, there are hundreds or thousands of cases in which such changes have taken place, yet often the very people who are on the spot, seeing it happen, do not recognize what they are seeing because, theoretically, it is impossible. Thus when thousands of people surrounded the White House in Moscow, protecting it against streets full of tanks, many of those people themselves believed that there must have been some force or coercion used elsewhere that explained their success in keeping the putsch from succeeding.

Likewise, a year after their bombing of Belgrade failed to get rid of the dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, the U.S. began funding and training an unarmed group of Serbian dissidents, who successfully pressured him to resign. Not one life was lost. Nevertheless, almost every journalistic account that you will read claims that he was ousted by the US bombing. Even journalists in Belgrade supposed that there must be violence going on someplace else even if they couldn't see it around them. They literally could not believe their own eyes because they had inherited an incompatible theory. The world would be vastly improved if this notion were rooted out of global culture and abandoned. To do so, television images and news reports have to be accompanied by a pointed comment refuting common erroneous assumptions. Controversy will not arise otherwise, nor myths be dispelled.

I could go on offering similar examples but according to the principle I have just asserted it would do little good. Any contrary beliefs that readers may hold will not give way easily.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of value in the position that Rob and Michelle both hold: that strong emotions are powerful sources of psychological change. Seeing a drama may indeed move us so deeply as to change the course of our lives. I simply suggest that when that happens, it is because there is both an emotional, empathic relationship with the character and also a clear message about the meaning of that character's experience. Both need to occur together.

Why is most television so awful? And can it be fixed? An unsatisfying, but true, reply is that viewers enjoy different kinds of shows and will never agree on what is good - if only because some of them want arousal while others want to explore delicate meanings. Yet progress is possible in giving more viewers what they want and even in making them more aware. It will require better feedback from viewers to the artists, and more powerful ways of making sure these responses influence their decision-making. To exert such an influence, as well as to become more conscious of our responses, we viewers need to watch and discuss shows with like-minded friends and then express our conclusions to the artists and financiers who produce and sponsor our cultural products. Television drama can be improved - if we care enough about it - not so much by eliminating the shows we dislike as by lobbying for more of the shows we do like. It is possible to satisfy all of our tastes, even while we improve them.