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NEWSHOUR: If we have media conglomerates getting bigger and bigger, what does that do to the creative process?
LARRY GELBART: I guess it does several things to the creative process. In the first instance there are fewer buyers for fewer ideas. There are fewer independent producers now because most things tend to be home grown in the sense that the networks and the studios, and often both, will develop their own material. And so the door is not as wide open as it used to be.
I think that some number like 80 percent of the writers’ income now comes from nine companies, so we’ve narrowed the field of buyers. If you strike out one place, you’ve got fewer places to go to re-pitch an idea. The networks have different ideas about what they want to see on their networks, and so they’re much more involved in the creative process.
NEWSHOUR: You say the networks are interested in a certain kind of product. What do you mean by that?
LARRY GELBART: Well, I think each network has a different idea of the audience it wants to attract. Generally they’re going for the demographic that says the people I think between what, 19 and 39 — or 20 and 39 — are the best people to get. Therefore, program materials, which you think they will enjoy watching, generally involve having younger casts, younger talent to write for those younger casts, which cuts out a lot of writers, more experienced writers. That’s one of the first sorts of casualties of this aiming for a younger audience. I think people must be pretty aware of that fact by now.
NEWSHOUR: How does the network or a big company’s involvement creatively narrow the kinds of things you might see?
LARRY GELBART: You find yourself, I believe, writing more and more to order. There’s not a lot of moral passion or personal involvement in the work. It’s really filling a bill of particulars, what a network might think is a very good idea, who should appear in that idea, that is to say casting approval of the major players, writer approval, those people who will write a series, and so on down the line.
This is a relatively new development, a network being so involved, not that they haven’t always been to some degree, but in prior years in broadcasting the network would be involved thinking what do the affiliates think, what does the advertising community think, those people who are buying commercials? Now they’re thinking very much, how do we feel about what a show should be like?
NEWSHOUR: The average person who looks at the variety of channels out there could say “Wait a minute, before I only had three choices in terms of networks, and now I have a hundred and twenty cable choices, so how can it be that this is smaller than it was before?”
LARRY GELBART: Well, more is not necessarily better. You know, I’m sure that people who spend endless hours surfing in desperation finding something they want to watch for fifteen or twenty minutes because while there’s more stuff out there, there’s not a lot of better stuff out there, and some of it tends to be very repetitious and similar to other stuff. One channel can be virtually indistinguishable from another channel. Conformity really – conformity to a set of rules or standards, which you may not even be aware of.
Let’s take a half-hour show. For starters, when I did a series back in the 70s a half-hour show had 26 minutes and 20 seconds of content. You had three minutes of commercials, and you had some opening and some closing, and you had the better part of a half an hour to tell a story. Now you have only 22 minutes. I counted the other night, watching a half-hour show, I counted 19 commercial or promotional involvement watching a show, so that for those of us who remember what television was like back in the 70s, we noted a drastic change.
I am really disturbed for kids and my grandkids growing up thinking this is television. If it’s lost four minutes in thirty years, it’s probably going to lose another four minutes in the next thirty years, and pretty soon I think a half-hour will be fifteen minutes of content and fifteen minutes of commercials. Now that’s because obviously these owners want to maximize their income on the shows.
Also, we see more and more unscripted shows. We certainly see a lot of so-called “reality shows” – reality with a bit of preparation. We see game shows. We see biographical shows. We see shows that are film clips strung together by people very often not paid for their appearance. So less money spent on programming, less actual programming on the program, because these companies are much more interested in the bottom line than they are in the creative aspect of a program.
They are there to make money, of course, but the people own the airwaves, so they’re our airwaves. The Federal Communications [Commission] is there to regulate on behalf of the public the best use of those airwaves. So I think there’s an obligation from the owners of programming and broadcasting to not use those just as – use us more as viewers, rather than consumers.
NEWSHOUR: But television is now in competition in a different way. It’s competing with the Internet and with cable. If television’s competition is not regulated, why should broadcasters be?
LARRY GELBART: Well, the Internet argument is the new one. In terms of cable, there is enough cross ownership for them not to be labeling themselves as their own competition. Competition has largely been replaced by acquisition. You don’t compete against somebody; you just buy them out, and swallow them. I think they’re yelling foul – I think it is they who committed the foul. A hit show on a network will now not go into syndication but more and more is likely to go on that network’s cable outlet at greatly reduced residuals, if any at all, to writers, to actors, to whatever.
NEWSHOUR: Do you suspect that there is also a lot of self-censorship?
LARRY GELBART: Self-censorship goes back to radio, in my experience, which was very strict. There were no four-letter words; the double entendres were few and far between. We’ve seen that, of course, erode or change to where we have today, so there will always be self-censorship.
You know when you’re writing for a network that certain things are just out; certain ideas are out; certain language is out, relationships. That’s not true of cable. Cable tends to be more explicit. Therefore, networks are breaking down their reservations about those restrictions because they want to compete, just as movies competed with television by making the screens larger. Networks are going to compete with cable by making more and more exceptions to what’s acceptable.
NEWSHOUR: What happens when you have smaller companies selling to networks versus the networks producing their own products? Why is it different if the network is the producer of it than if a company is selling it to the network?
LARRY GELBART: Well, I think the cliché goes “organization is the death of fun.” It can also be the death of drama. It can also be the death of creativity. There are very few showmen in these huge companies. They tend to be business people with very little experience in producing shows, in creating shows, in promoting shows. They’re doing it more or less by the numbers.
A real showman, a writer or a producer, or a director, deals first with the idea. It’s not fulfilling a need, except perhaps a creative itch, whereas, the company’s really looking for product and a certain kind of product very often. Maybe they even have a time slot in mind. Maybe they have a completely different set of priorities. “What does it take to knock such and such off at 9:30 on Thursday? Let’s get us a show like that.”
True creative people – and I’m not saying that the town is crawling with them – might say, “I think a wonderful show might be an examination of an adolescent’s reflection on his childhood and the projection of what he’s going to be in the future.” That may be of no interest to somebody, or to a company, who’s looking for a cop show where the cop is also a veterinarian, and a sheriff in a small town, because that they feel it will be a good battering ram for a certain time slot.
That’s not to suggest that everybody out there is so pure. There are all kinds of wonderful producer/directors, writers, and there are all kinds of producer/writer/director hacks, who are in the business of supplying. Largely this town is made up of worker ants who belong to different guilds…
But I think you need to only look at what’s on television today to see how much Hamburger Helper there is in broadcasting. Of course the standout shows are always outstanding shows but I think they’re fewer and farther between than they ever were.