Norman Lear Seminars at the Museum of Broadcasting The Mark Goodson Seminar Series June 1986
Television: Its Culture, Its Impact, Its Ethics, Its Future
June 20, 1986
NORMAN LEAR: For me, the culture of television is dominated by the business of television. And for me, that is true everywhere I look in this society. The name of the game in television today is, “How do I win Tuesday night at eight-thirty?” It isn’t, “How do we innovate?” or “How do we try something different?” or “They’re doing this, why don’t we try something different?” or “They’re doing this, why don’t we try something else?” or “Gosh, we’ve got to find some children’s programming” or “The older population is increasing, we should be paying some attention to that.” The name of the game is winning, because the competition for ratings has escalated so much over the years.
When All in the Family went on the air, for example, we had thirteen episodes and thirteen repeats. The chances were about one hundred percent that if they bought thirteen shows they would air thirteen shows, and they would air the repeats the contract called for. Just a few years before that, the order was for twenty-two shows, and a few years before that it was twenty-six, and repeats, too. At one point the orders were thirty-nine shows and thirteen repeats. So you can see that over the years the orders got shorter and the time in which a show had to succeed also got shorter. We were on with All in the Family; we failed for thirteen weeks. The ratings were on the very bottom. And it wasn’t until the sixteenth week when the other networks were in re‑runs, and people’s favorite shows on the other networks were off, that they could turn and watch what they’d been hearing about. We started to pick up after that.
I did a show a couple of years ago called a.k.a. Pablo. It was the first time a Hispanic family had been seen on the air. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy shaking all that down. Also I wanted to do it with a big Hispanic family, harking back to all of our immigrant beginnings, where families were large and they lived across the street and up the street and down the street from each other—uncles, aunts, cousins. So the network and I discussed this and I said, “This show will be boiling with more people than you’ve ever seen in a situation comedy. It’s going to take weeks for everybody to figure out who’s who, and we need the time to shake down.” They said, “Don’t worry.” But, in some kind of a masturbatory exercise, they were figuring, “The show’s going to work in the first two weeks.” And they knew in their hearts if it didn’t, it was over and out. Well, it didn’t. It wasn’t designed to, it wasn’t going to, and we weren’t casting Jews and Italians as Mexicans—we had Mexicans. And it was going to take some time. After two weeks, we knew we were out. We had made something like four shows and that was it.
The competition has escalated so much, and so has the fierceness of it. I ask you to look at what’s happened in the press over these years. There was a time not too many years ago that the press did not report on the top ten, and the top twenty, and then take all sixty, sixty-one or two shows, and list them in the order of how well they succeeded. It just didn’t happen. I don’t know where it came from, but suddenly the press decided that the public was interested. By now, they had probably gotten the public to a point where it’s interesting, but why should people care how well shows rate, when there are only three networks competing? When you think about it just one step further, these are three businesses, three major American corporations. They print, often enough, how much a thirty-second spot sells for in prime time, how much it sells for in daytime, and how much it sells for in the news. So when The New York Times, as it did just a couple of days ago, reports for the second week in a row that CBS is number one in the evening news, you just have to look up a few weeks before to find out what a thirty-second spot costs; you can see how much money they’re making and what their projections will be.
And so, what we’re watching is the phenomenon of all of America’s press commenting on how three business entities are faring, minute by minute, vis-a-vis each other, in the making of money. That’s what it’s about. When you think about it in those cold terms, isn’t it shocking?
I don’t think we should take television out of context with the rest of American business. Because the name of the game, escalating over the years, is, “Give me a profit statement this quarter larger than the last and everything else be damned.” That’s what American business has been about for a long time. And I think it has been proven that the American motorcar, which was the standard of the world, was defeated by the motor companies themselves. Interestingly, the big three motor companies would not, could not, they thought, diminish a current profit statement, all those years ago, to invest in the tools and dies to meet the threat of the Volkswagen, which was the first, the little bug that was coming into this country. On the other side there’s labor, which didn’t do anything much about it either. Labor was interested in a bigger package of benefits, raises, and so forth, for the labor force. So nobody then was screaming into the wind, “The handwriting is on the wall, guys. These little cars are coming in, we’re going to be hurt.”
When I grew up, the American motorcar was so much the standard of the world that it was America’s non-military symbol of its macho, its strength. And maybe it’ll take a hundred years to find out what that meant. When you were keeping up with the Joneses, you were going up from the Chevrolet to the Pontiac to the Buick to the Cadillac, on the General Motors line, or you were doing the same thing on the Chrysler line or the Ford line. Every American family had that car out on the driveway, watering it down, hosing it down, simonizing it, waxing it. It was very important in the American psyche. When you went to the movies on a Saturday, in the newsreels every foreign dignitary everywhere in the world was driving a Cadillac or a Chrysler Imperial or those limousines. We were the standard of the world. Gone. What does that mean in the American psyche? You know, when I think about this president, or recent presidents, and the escalation of the arms race…there may be some connection.
What are we to expect of three television networks and the very decent, educated, motivated programming and other executives at these networks? This is the culture they grew up in. This is what they’re paid to do, accomplish in the short term. They are young, they are largely male, and they are all white, television executives at three networks, who wake up in the morning and find The New York Times, which tells them that their network didn’t have one show in the top ten last week. It’s got to hurt a little bit. He knows he’s going to have a meeting upstairs when he gets back in. On the way in he picks up the Wall Street Journal and they’re projecting earnings for his network, and the projected earnings, based on ratings, don’t look too good. And his stomach hurts a little bit more, his palms are sweating. He walks into his office, and on his desk there’s a warm photocopy of last night’s ratings. Their ratings are down. I submit this guy is in real trouble. And let’s say his first meeting is with tomorrow’s Rod Serling, who was one of the great innovators in television, or tomorrow’s Paddy Chayefsky. Some new young man or woman is coming in with a terrific new piece of innovation—a new, risky, but exciting idea. I would submit that this guy doesn’t have the stomach or the mind for that. He can’t hear it. He can’t deal with it because that would suggest risk, to suggest you can’t put something on that’s innovative and expect it to click. He needs something to click. Well, what the hell is he going to do? If a girl and two guys on motorcycles are working on another channel, then he’ll try two girls and two guys on motorcycles. And if those girls are dressed a little too modestly, he’ll dress them a little less modestly. But they’ll have to do something like that in order to get a quick win. That’s what affects most the culture of television.
When you’re making television you’re dealing with two major components: you’re dealing with the program developers, the program department, the people responsible for what goes on the air, and you’re dealing with Program Practices, which is the euphemism for censor, who tells you what can’t go on the air, what they will not tolerate in your show or what they think the rest of the country will not tolerate. But they have an interesting fight. Program Practices doesn’t want you to do anything too controversial or too violent, or anything too sexy, because there are parts of the community that will say, “This is too violent, this is too sexy….” But programming is always enticing you to get a little more action. They don’t tell you, we want to be violent; they don’t tell you, we want you to get sexy. But when they come in to see the show, they want to know, why isn’t she more attractive? Couldn’t she be more attractive? Well, she could be, in their view, if she took off the bra under the sweater. And if when Daddy said, “There’s lamb for dinner,” she said, “Oh, there’s lamb!” and jumped a little. Or, if she didn’t kneel to pick that up, but bent to pick it up and the camera was placed correctly.
These are some little things that do occur in the making of television shows under network pressure. These aren’t exact cases, but this is the way it works. In a dramatic show, the network will read a script with a six-page scene that takes place in a kitchen and there are two people talking. “Well,” you say, “yeah, two people do talk.” And this is the nub of the show, the whole plot is in here. They say, “Well, but, it’s dull. I mean, what are you going to do?” Under pressure, let’s say they take the dialogue out of the kitchen and put it in a moving car with some scenery behind it. It is the same dialogue, but the course of the scene requires an argument, and in the argument the guy swerves and causes another car to go over an embankment—you’ve got a little piece of action in there. So the network has settled for some action. This is the way television is put together based on the needs of the network to score quickly. And it affects not just the culture of television, but also the impact of the medium on the rest of the culture.
Mary Hartman had a comment on television one time. We didn’t prepare any film of tapes of the show for this particular seminar, as we did for the other three seminars, because we’re talking about television generic, its future and its ethics, and there is no way you can put a piece of tape together about it. But there was one piece of tape out of Mary Hartman that comments on television that I’d like to show you.
[Videotape is shown to the seminar audience.]
LEAR: I hadn’t seen this tape in so long, and it reminded me how much Mary Hartman commented on the effect of the media. It opened, in the very first episode, with the neighbor, Loretta, running in to say that there had been this mass murder down the street: A family of five with two goats and eight chickens had been slaughtered. And Mary Hartman said, “No! Oh, my, what kind of a crazy person would kill two goats and eight chickens? And the people, the people, yes… .” We had the most difficult time in the world selling it, but what we were trying to say was that the news opens every day of our lives with whatever murder took place, whatever fire took place, and “Oh, and the people… .” But news is two goats and eight chickens, you know? Somebody would sit up at that. Who would sit up anymore after all of the mayhem you see opening television news?
This reminds me of television’s impact on what we perceive as important, in terms of the way they handle the news. There was an extensive piece of research done by the Radio and Television News Directors Association about what people remembered over the last year of television. What they remembered were the murders and fires and traffic accidents. And the News Directors Association in their remarks about this research said, “Well, you know, that’s what they want! That’s the American people. They don’t remember Iraq, and they don’t remember Iran, and they don’t remember this war or that war, but they do remember all those murders and crazy homicides.” Well, of course. That’s what they’ve been weaned towards. That’s what they get every night. How would they know, based on the news, what is important?
Where are our priorities? The networks and other programming executives will say, “That dial is a voting booth. The people, the viewers, vote with that dial.” Well, first of all, they can only vote between what’s on, so you’re never going to know if they’d like to hear some better music, see some better drama. They’re going to vote between Dynasty, Knot’s Landing, and Dallas, if that’s what they’re faced with. One of them is going to win, two are not going to do so well. But what are their choices?
I also get upset with the notion of “they are the voters” because it takes the responsibility off the rest of us whose obligation it is to lead. In politics the politicians too often say—and this is part of this short-term thinking—“Give me the win now and the hell with the future.” Politicians are too eager to say, “What are they thinking? Let’s poll them.” Well, the hell with what they’re thinking. “Let’s poll them all of the time.” What about what the politician is thinking? He’s been voted into office and given some position of overview, and from that position of overview, shouldn’t that elected official be able to come to us and say, “Look, I know what you’re thinking, I know how you’re feeling, but you elected me, you put me in this position of an overview, and I want to tell you that your short-term interests are going to hurt you if I have to go your way. This is the door we’re going through in your long-range interests. And you’ve placed me here to be able to tell you that. Come with me.”
That courage doesn’t exist in American life today because they’re only polling. So where is the viewer left, where is the voter left? The viewer and the voter are not running for office or they would then be telling you what they want. And they’re not seeking to program television, either. So, somewhere, somehow, some of the responsibility has to be taken by those in a position to lead, to say, “There’s enough of Dallas and Dynasty.” I don’t mean to pick on those shows. We as people with some sense of overview and responsibility have got to deliver a kind of programming that provides something different, some innovation.
Maybe this is a good time to take another break and look at a second piece of tape, which is a compilation of some scenes from All in the Family and Maude, and we can laugh a little. I beg you not to walk out of here misunderstanding one thing that’s so important to me. I want to make myself clear to you. I don’t want to ship television out of context. I think the serious problem is in the culture overall. The water is polluted, we know what’s happening with toxic waste. It’s an unsafe situation. The air is an unsafe situation. Breakfast cereals that should be sold as candy, based on the ingredients, are an unsafe situation. Infant formulas sent to third-world countries that are killing babies…unsafe drugs. There are a lot of short-term problems, problems that result from short-term thinking, that are killing Americans. Unsafe automobiles on the highways.
So it isn’t just television. It’s terrific to be able to look at television because it’s a great metaphor for what’s happening every place else. But think about what’s happening every place else. Society’s very unsafe in too many areas, in too many ways, as a result of bottom-line thinking, and television is simply a great example of it. Now, let’s laugh.
[Videotape is shown to the seminar audience.]
LEAR: Many of these shows were done in the very early years, and all of these characters, the four lead characters and so forth, were developed in those early shows. What followed in the third and fourth and fifth years and on, followed from the foundation that was laid in the very first shows. The man who directed the first five years of all of those shows is sitting in the audience here today. Please meet John Rich. And sitting in the audience for all those early shows were John’s family and my family, one representative of whom is here, giving us all the support we needed, my daughter, Maggie Lear.
Q: I was wondering if any Emmy Awards went to the cameramen or editors? It just hit me, after I’d seen it a couple of times in these clips, that for a live filming—and I don’t care if you have three cameras or thirteen—somebody’s putting this stuff together, somebody’s getting it. It’s magnificent work to capture.
LEAR: Most of it is the work of the director, because he sits in the booth selecting which camera gets to the actor at the right moment, to catch exactly what needs to be caught, or to the other actors for reaction. That is almost exclusively the work of the director. And some of that, where mistakes are made, can be corrected later in editing.
Q: Of course I know the phrase “block for the camera,” but it’s magnificent teamwork.
LEAR: Well, it’s more than blocking for camera. You block for camera, and then everything changes with a live audience because where you least suspect it, something gets a laugh, and the director will decide, he stays here, he cuts there for a reaction, he comes back. All of those decisions are made by the director, so I repeat, all of that ground was set with John.
JOHN RICH: Those were the days. I was looking with amazement at the kiss of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Archie. That was caught by a tape. I mean, it had to be done precisely. And it was largely guesswork in rehearsal. You had to do it until you got it right:
Q: I asked you a question the other day and we discussed how you felt that you had a right to discuss your values on television. I went home and thought about it, and thought about it. I think that the question was a mistake. I think God forbid that you did not have a right to show your values on television, and then I thought about that. And I came up with another question. What right do you feel CBS’s department of Program Practices had to pressure producers and writers in television, and what do you feel can be done about it? Should something be done about it? And do you feel that this is dangerous?
LEAR: Well, Program Practices is not as big a problem as the program department. Because Program Practices comes after the fact. They have nothing to do with what gets on the air, only with the contents of what is already on the air. And then, as I’ve indicated over the last few days, it’s silly to have to argue for days as to whether Archie Bunker can diaper his infant grandchild, or whether this or that or the other thing can take place. We won the great bulk of all of that stuff. Hard fought, but we got most of that through. I want, quickly, to point out that often they were very helpful, because their criticism would lead you to think about doing it some other way or a better way, and very often it became a collaboration and you found a better way to do it as a result of their looking at everything under that microscope.
The program department, however, is what you have to go through to get on the air. And that takes us back to where I was before we ran the film. They’re limited by the competition for ratings as to what opportunities they will have for innovation. And people who have truly innovative ideas stand little chance of getting through.
Q: Getting back to your main thesis. There are really millions of thoughtful Americans who agree with you, and are enormously frustrated by what they can no longer see on television these last few years. What prognosis is there, and how can people overcome the impotence one feels when listening to you and realizing we really have no impact? Apparently certain millions do have the impact, the Nielsens. Where is the future?
LEAR: Well, I feel we do have an impact. And it is a question of how little or how much impact you must have in order to satisfy your bellies and feel that you had an impact. I grew up with a grandfather who used to write to the Presidents, and this old man used to get answers. Every once in a while there would be a little white envelope that said White House. I lived with him for a few years and I saw those envelopes. He caused somebody to think about it enough to answer him. He felt he mattered. Most Americans say they don’t feel that makes any difference, that doesn’t matter at all. But at his knee I learned that I mattered because he felt he mattered and I grew up there. So I became a writer to Presidents and so forth, and to members of the Congress when I felt there were problems. And I always got letters and I always felt I mattered.
I think as a society we have to start talking about where we’re going in terms of short-term thinking. The wonder to me is that every minister in every church every Sunday of our lives isn’t speaking to this, because there it is everywhere. Top ten this, top five that. I think we’ve already raised a couple of generations of kids who don’t know the difference, who don’t understand that life has something to do with succeeding at the level of doing your best. Because the culture tells you, “If you are not a winner, you are an absolute loser.” How can we be raising our kids that way? But that’s the way the culture instructs. And we know better, we know that’s not true, but yet we stay on this treadmill.
So I think we matter if we talk to each other about it. I think we matter if we talk to our children about it. I think we matter if we write about it. I’m talking about the phenomenon and the climate, but in terms of specifics, there are a million things one can do about it just if you believe that raising your hand and saying something matters. I believe in my heart it matters.
Q: What does this tell you about the American people that they let the networks get away with programs like that? I practically do not watch television anymore.
LEAR: I think the worst trap we can get into is to fault the American people. This country and this people has proved itself to be so wise of heart again and again and again, undereducated because we haven’t done the best job, but then it’s not the people’s fault. Too many people are in situations where they can’t get a good education because of minority status, poverty levels, families splintering and so forth. But it pushes the responsibility in the wrong place to put us in a position of saying the people should lead. Well, that’s not what they’re about. People in places of responsibility have to lead. It says nothing to me that they watch what they watch, because that’s what we give them! They come back in their emotionally crowded lives, to homes and bedrooms, and watch what’s available. We have to take more responsibility for making better materials available.
Q: It’s great to hear you speak because you’re obviously a passionate guy, passionate not only about our society but about television. You must have considered in your mind where you have more of an effect, as an independent producer or as a network executive. Have you ever been offered a job as a network executive? Would you accept one? What are you doing as a producer to make happen these things that you’ve been speaking about?
LEAR: Six years ago I decided I wanted to leave the half-hour television shows, not the company, but just the on-the-line, day-to-day responsibility for the shows I was doing. I was going to write and direct a film about religion, because I’ve always been fascinated with the dissonance in religion in our country. I was especially fascinated with the way religion is used as a tax dodge by hundreds of thousands of civil servants that the country just doesn’t see, the media has never focused on. The story was going to take one of the characters onto television as a minister. So six years ago I began to watch all of the television ministers. My first experience had been Jerry Falwell, catching a glimpse of him here or there and laughing as most of us did, not taking it seriously. But then I watched fifty, sixty hours of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and others, and I became deeply concerned at the way they were mixing politics and religion and suggesting that a person was a good Christian or a bad Christian depending on their political point of view. Again, at my grandfather’s knee I learned that’s not the American way.
I woke up one morning and said, “Wait a second, Norman, you’ll spend three, four years writing to make one film, which is what happened the last time you had made a film, and maybe you’re missing the target. Why not do a sixty-second television spot, which can be done in a couple of weeks, and at least start trying to hit a target?” So I made a television commercial in which a working guy simply said, “Hey, I get all this mail and see all these guys on television telling me I’m a good Christian or a bad Christian depending on my political point of view. My wife and I disagree politically, my kid and I disagree politically, and I think my wife’s a better Christian than I am, and my kid is certainly terrific. But I disagree with the minister so I’m supposed to be one hundred percent bad—something’s wrong. That’s not the American way.”
I realized that I had lousy credentials for taking on fundamentalist religious figures. I’m Jewish and I’m a product of Hollywood and I’m not going to get a lot of attention that way. I knew I needed the help of mainline church leaders so I went to South Bend, because I had a nice acquaintance with Father Hesburgh at Notre Dame. He gave me a lot of time and he loved the spot I had done. Did we make that together, John?
RICH: No, not that one.
LEAR: John just directed a wonderful spot last week with Lloyd Bridges on the question of the judiciary, for People for the American Way.
Anyway, Father Hesburgh said, “Let me help you. You need to get as many mainline church leaders involved as you can.” He gave me some names and phone numbers and made some calls. I toured the country visiting these mainline church leaders, all of whom said, “This is terrific, and you should do more of them.” One of them said, “Institutionalize it.” Because the guy on the commercial wound up saying, “That’s not the American way,” somebody suggested the name “People for the American Way.” And an organization was formed, which is now 250,000 people, for which we make lots and lots of commercials and half-hour documentaries and publish books and do everything. But we use the media as much as we can. We have a weekly radio piece and so forth. We’ve been deeply involved in the nomination process of individuals to the federal bench that are absolutely anathema to the American way because they’re not looking for qualified people but for ideologues. I’m not talking about what just happened on the Supreme Court—People for the American Way has no quarrel with legal scholars and brilliance, though they may be anathema to any of us as individuals politically. You have to understand that these people who rule 300,000 times a year, as opposed to the Supreme Court ruling 1,500 times, control our lives, and the climate of this country, for the next forty years. These guys go into court in their late thirties, early forties, and they’re there forever.
Six years ago as I watched all of this, I became concerned about two things: the mixture of politics and religion, but more than that, the impact on the culture of these people as they, in an increasing fashion, ate up more and more time on television. Now talk about television’s impact on the culture! We have had six years of these people occupying not just the nooks and crannies of television time, but finding non-prime time and some prime time on cable and independent stations everywhere. When you think about such noxious fumes, you breathe them in and you don’t know you’re breathing them in until somebody finds you dead on the linoleum. And that’s the way I believe it is with what’s happening in the country today. Those television sets are on seven hours a day, the research tells us, often on these figures. They’re all saying the same things, making the same sounds, and they have thousands of them on the radio across the country. If you drive across this country, it’s hard to find music. And it’s certainly impossible to find mainline church thinking, because it’s all the ultra-fundamentalists all over that dial.
I believe that national “thermostats” control the climates and what the climate means. And television, as a result of these people all over the dial, is changing the climate of this country. Maggie Lear is twenty-seven years old. The country was sweeter when I was twenty-seven. It’s a meaner country now. It gets meaner of spirit by the minute. And I believe it is fueled by the noxious fumes that come from these people. As a society and as a culture we are doing nothing about it but letting them grow and proliferate.
To answer the question—why are people watching them? Because what are the rest of us offering them? What is the progressive side of any issue doing? How are they appealing? We are a religious country. The religious orientation of people is very important and very strong in America. Why does television ignore this? Why have all of us involved with situation comedies for all of the years, stayed away from religion, except to put it down? Now, there are two books written about Edith Bunker, one calling her the quintessential television Christian and the other saying the same thing in other words. We knew she was a totally Christian lady by her every instinct—a Sermon on the Mount type of Christian, not a Pat Robertson type of Christian, which is something else—but Edith never referred to The Book. She never cited scripture. She never discussed that, largely because we who wrote the shows weren’t able to give her those words because we weren’t as familiar with scripture as we perhaps should be. I don’t mean that because I’m Jewish and we were Jewish. We were Jews and Gentiles, but none of us were well enough equipped for that. Take a look at the news, there is no religious desk on the evening news, or the daily news, or the morning news, which is a two-hour show. There is no news operation that takes a look at what’s happening in the world and places it all in a religious context, despite the fact that almost every war on the face of the globe is a religiously motivated war.
Q: Why have you stayed away from religion in sit-coms?
LEAR: We’re getting meaner and meaner and overlooking the spiritual needs of people, so the rest of us are not offering anything to them. Mainline churches are not offering what they need for connection. But these TV preachers are on the tube with very simple answers to the most complex problems in the world. Drugs and alcohol and such. “They took prayer out of school—how can you take God out of school and not have drug problems!” and so forth? They’ve got these very simple answers, which are very appealing to people in their emotionally crowded lives, when the rest of us are coming in with no answers!
Q: How do you think such new technology as cable and satellite dishes and VCR’s might affect the future of television?
LEAR: I hope they will affect it for the better, but we’ve not seen that yet. Cable is the home for all of these televangelists, and cable seems to wish to do what is succeeding on network. We haven’t seen evidence of that. It’s nice to see CNN doing the news more in-depth than the networks, but what they do is what the network does, and they are more in-depth because they have more time. I look for something much more innovative than that and don’t find it. VCR’s may be a piece of the future that will help in that direction.
Q: In that vein, do you think the pay-for-view or the viewer’s choice for requests of tomorrow are an answer to that?
LEAR: I hope so, but all we’re seeing is movies. And all that matters on pay-for-view right now is where you see the movie first. Can you get it first on pay-for-view as opposed to Showtime or HBO? Will pay-for‑view go to the Kirov Ballet, if that arrangement could be made? It’s a terrible thing to think there may be only seven million people in the country, what a tiny little audience, huh? Seven million people may be interested in the Kirov Ballet. You know, we’ve come to a place where that’s nobody. It’s incredible that seven million people may be interested in something, but that is not considered to be a sufficient audience.
Q: A question was asked about what we can do to change it. This question takes another angle: If the leaders in the television arena fail to take the lead in providing diverse, imaginative, serviceable programming, what can or should government do to fill the void?
LEAR: Well, what a question that is. I don’t know. You can get into very big trouble with that. I would support a plebiscite on this question. I would like to have a debate in this country as to whether it’s a good idea to have television available twenty-four hours a day. If there was enough education, perhaps people themselves would vote to say, “Six hours a day, or six hours during the day, four hours in the evening is enough.” I think something is basically wrong with competing for people’s minds on all of those channels twenty-four hours a day. I don’t know how you get out of it unless you look at it in the broadest strokes, and over a long term. What’s happened to us in the forty years since there’s been television? Do we want that to continue the next forty years? I suspect if we had those answers we wouldn’t want it.
Q: In your mind, where does public television fit in with the cultural view and what you see?
LEAR: It fits in as the weakest of four networks. I don’t see that it has the same pressures to succeed.
Q. Just recently, PBS in New York, Channel 13, decided to cut back on its preparation of programs for the national network, and I guess is going to pick it up from independents to some degree. Is that a positive trend or does this seem to be part of the Tuesday night eight-thirty rating excitement?
LEAR: I didn’t quite understand what they’re doing.
Q: They’re cutting down on their funding of basic programs which they’ve been doing for the national network in large measure. It’s a complicated issue. The feeling is that when they do national programming they can’t get enough financing and they lose money on it. And, with the difficulty of raising money, they’ll now sort of pull back from that and do more programming just for New York, and not worry about providing it for the national system. I guess the question is, is that a good or a bad thing?
LEAR: That’s fascinating. That doesn’t sound like a good development.
Q: I think that television has served a purpose in uniting people. I think Americans are so alike everywhere, and I’ve traveled around this country. If you move to Indiana you’ll find a motel with the same kind of bedsprings and all that stuff, and you find that comfort all over the United States. Perhaps that’s not very good because it doesn’t allow for difference. But I’ve worked with the Spanish community and with the Spanish television, Channel 47. I don’t know if you’re totally connected with that, but if you are, I wish you would look at the management right now because it’s a very totalitarian type of thing, and I’m not from the other side, but Cuban people have a different experience from any other Latin American. What’s happening is that—and I don’t know by what grace—they have been able to control the media in New York. They are giving very lousy service to the Hispanic community. They don’t like the Hispanic community. I work as a reporter and many times when I suggested a story, I was told “You don’t go there.” You know, like, “You’re going to interview her? Why can’t she find a white-looking Hispanic?” Maybe Spanish TV could start something new, which would give more service to the community, than to keep thinking about the dollars and all that. That’s almost like a common right. I have a question: Can television be of service and at the same time make money?
LEAR: Of course! Start with the fact that television can’t lose! When one network is suffering at the bottom of the ratings, and they’re struggling and it becomes a revolving door in the executive offices and people are coming and going, check the profit statement. In the worst years there are people who are doing better than they did last year. Yes. What would happen, do you suppose, to Americans if there was nothing but quality on the tube? Do you think they’d give up their television sets? David Sarnoff, all those years ago when he started NBC, said—and I can’t remember in what words—that the promise of television was that the standard of drama for the nation would be raised. People’s tastes would be raised by television. God, this sounds so right! Edward R. Murrow said that television could and should illuminate, inspire, and educate, or it would be just wires and lights in a box. I think, unfortunately, that what we have is wires and lights in a box. But that’s not what we have to have.
Q: It’s been said that there is television before All in the Family, and after All in the Family. Would you choose another kind of program, or maybe tell us what kind of program it would take to have a similar watershed on television at this point?
LEAR: I’m not going to give you a definitive answer because I don’t have one. But I would love to see a show with some outrage and if I do another show, I hope to deliver this myself. We were talking in the earlier seminars about this. In the seventies, there was a lot of outrage, a lot of anger in this society. Vietnam was still a big issue, and Watergate and Nixon and all of that, and the women’s movement. The women were angry, the establishment was angry at women. There was a coursing, wonderful dialogue going on in this country and lots of outrage. We are anesthetized now. We have a placebic administration—or President, anyway. I don’t think placebic is a word, by the way, but it ought to be. There’s no outrage.
I guess my outrage has gone into People for the American Way and into other activities. But there is no real sense of outrage, and there are terrible things going on that ought to have us out of our seats lying down in front of trains. I always think about that because that was the most wonderful example of a sense of outrage, when those kids in the Vietnam days were lying down in front of troop trains as a symbol of protest. I thought that was the best. But nowadays, where is the protest?
Q: Regarding short-term thinking—as you know, for a long time we’ve been telling the automobile dealers we want a small car, and they didn’t listen until we got the Beetle. And as far as television is concerned, don’t you think that by ratings and the fact that Cosby and Kate and Allie and Murder, She Wrote are so popular, what we’re saying is, “We want some wholesome stuff on television.” Now, so far as when to do it, there are some nights when your choices are a movie, baseball, and The A-Team. And since we are getting to be an aging population, we don’t want A-Team or baseball or these movies. We fall asleep before the end of the movie. So, don’t you think that the more wholesome stuff might come out of it?
You mentioned about the overall character of the culture. The second part of my question is, don’t you think television, too, has to say a bit of mea culpa there? I think television has been extremely influential in undermining the family situation. On every talk show you listen to, everybody is sleeping around with everybody else. What does this say to the young person as far as moral fiber is concerned, as far as the solidity of the family? Don’t you think that as far as short-term thinking is concerned, we’re telling them something by making these wholesome shows so popular?
LEAR: Well, there’s a lot in that question, and I agree that television must accept the responsibility. If the only people on talk shows are people who are sleeping around, when there are so many people with so much to say to inspire, then that’s television in its own short-term way of behaving the way People magazine does. Who is in People magazine? People magazine is full of the same people that you see on the talk shows. But that’s what’s selling. Now this doesn’t mean that because that is what the American people buy, they won’t buy anything better. That’s what they’re buying because that’s what’s available. So I would think television, of course, should have a sense of responsibility in those areas, too.
As far as wholesome is concerned, we need to beware of the same things I was talking about with Dallas and Dynasty and Knot’s Landing. Everything wholesome does not have to be the same. I like to think that All in the Family was wholesome. But All in the Family had lots in it to cause you, when the show was over, to sit and talk as a family about what the hell was going on, and everybody didn’t agree with everybody else. But I like to think it was wholesome. It was a celebration of family life. These people loved each other. That’s why they cared enough to fight with each other and share their ideas together. So there’s wholesome Leave It to Beaver style, there’s wholesome Father Knows Best style, there’s wholesome Kate and Allie style, Family Ties style, Cosby style, and All in the Family style. Now, those are all different over a lot of years.
The problem is, if Cosby is wholesome, the other two networks will want to do more of what Cosby does, and will not find another wholesome show but one just out of the same cookie cutter. The first thing that happened at Embassy, shortly before we sold it, was the Cosby hit. Cosby was great, and my company—while I was out of town—took an order from ABC to do an upscale black family show. It was clearly an imitation of the Cosby show. And when I heard about it I went crazy! Who’s going to do what Cosby does better than Cosby? That’s his genius. If you want a show that’s wholesome, in whatever terms, why not do a different show, why not another kind of family? Wholesome, yes, but not the same wholesome across the board. We had, in the sixties, nothing but wholesome. Every sit-com was wholesome and bland, but if you were to look at them you would’ve thought there was no racial tension in America, no political problems in America, no economic problems. It was wall to wall, “Dad is coming home, the boss is corning to dinner, and the roast is ruined.” That was the worst problem in American situation comedy. That’s not good either.
Q: If it’s so impossible to be innovative and make it in network television, you’ve got that man with the ulcers and the bad ratings and all that you have to go through, how did you make it in the beginning?
LEAR: We came along at an easier time. The competition had not escalated to the hysterical point it’s at right now. And we were fortunate. I made All in the Family three years before we sold it. Three networks turned it down for three years. Then a man by the name of Robert Wood became president at CBS. And because he grew up in the CBS culture, he had had it with The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction and Green Acres, which were all CBS shows of the sixties. He wanted to hang his hat, as the leader of that network, on something different. He saw All in the Family, which had been made three years before, and decided to hang his hat on it and try it. So we had that good fortune, and that courage is gone.
Q: Mr. Lear, you’re gearing up Act III for motion picture production. What type of audience and what type of screenplays are you looking for, with the audiences that we have?
LEAR: We’ve been talking about doing that, but it isn’t a certainty because I think about television and pictures and wonder which or both. But when we think about pictures, a young woman I just heard about and met recently got the rights to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Son, and for $2.5 million has completed a picture that stars Geraldine Page and Matt Dillon and several other terrific actors, because they wanted to play the roles. So the notion would be to find wonderful properties and get actors to work for reasonable rates to make quality films. I am not saying anything that has not been said before; it’s too easy to say. You know, you have to talk to me after three years of that effort, and then tell me I did or I didn’t, because it’s all so easy to say that. But that would be the thought.
Q: At the seminar last night, you said that although sociologists said All in the Family and your other programs have made a difference in the way people think, you looked around and couldn’t see it. I would suggest to you that perhaps it’s too soon to look around and see it, because the forty-year-olds and the fifty-year-olds and the sixty-yearolds who were watching those programs may never change from them. It’s the ten-year-olds who were watching All in the Family and haven’t reached majority age yet, that’s where I think you’re going to see the difference.
LEAR: It would be interesting. It remains to be seen what a difference they would make.
Q: You obviously strongly feel that there has to be a milieu for this marvelous vehicle of television to make an impact. A milieu of society, leadership from the top. Let’s assume that we had, say, a Kennedy, a Norman Lear on the FCC. Before we have outrage we have to have education, as you put it. What kind of programs would you envision developing to deal with the litany of problems? How would you most effectively convey those?
LEAR: Some of us have spent considerable time in recent years on this, but are not in a place to do anything about it. I would first look to see what could be done about the news to take it out of the competitive rat race. It just cannot be a secret that Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather are in a fight to be number one. It’s their problem and it’s the country’s problem but it’s not their fault. And the networks will dress those men and have them do whatever has to be done to maintain ratings; at the expense of giving people context in the news, and letting them know what the responsible people at the network feel is most important. Is Kate Smith’s death really more important than a new Chief Justice and two other moves within the Supreme Court? I have no words for that. I consider myself to be in a position of some influence now, so I care to be here talking about it. If I were at the FCC, I wouldn’t have an opportunity to do more about it. But, that’s what each of us have, an opportunity to talk to each other, raise our kids the way we think, take the trouble to speak about these things. That’s the beginning.
I have one thought, though, as we end. I must say I’ve had a wonderful time these past four days, and I suggest that we get the people together who were here in the other seminars and we go out and we all buy sweaters, the same color, with the same letter and maybe a couple of stripes on the arm. We can form a club, and we all will just hang out.
c.1987, The Museum of Broadcasting