Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Creation is in Peril when the Creator's Voice is Lost

I was having a great chat the other day about television with a guy who has been in the industry almost three decades.

He had started an impressive career in TV while I was still back in Martinez, California, only watching it.

By the time we met, years later, he had taken his unmistakable talent and turned it into a fifteen year career in network television and in recent years in movies.

I was talking to him about my latest nostalgic obsession THE INVADERS (I just received the complete Season 2 in the mail) and was going on about how good these shows were. Music, cinematography and much of the writing and acting.

And he told me what a different place not just ABC, but the world of television was back then.

When I told him that Dominic Frontiere's music for the INVADERS, and prior to that, THE OUTER LIMITS, was some of the best sci-fi, horror and suspense music ever written, he added that some of the best composers ever were writing music for TV back then.

Other shining examples were:

John Williams for LOST IN SPACE, LAND OF THE GIANTS and THE TIME TUNNEL, just to name some of his great work for TV.

And of course Jerry Goldsmith for DR. KILDARE, THE MAN FROM UNCLE and countless other shows he lent his superior talent to in scoring television.

I said it wasn't just great music back then, but most of the episodes of THE INVADERS seemed to have been scored individually rather than with library cues from earlier episodes.

And since it was before the advent of synthetic music (electronic) each score for each episode was performed by live orchestras.

My friend said that was the difference back then. The composers did write for a live orchestra for each show. This is almost unheard of today.

With the rare exception of say LOST where J.J. Abrams fought for the budgets of his show to include money for live musicians for his composer Michael Giacchino.

But it wasn't just the music back then: there was something different about 60s TV, I argued.

And maybe sadly one of the reasons TV is in such bad shape today. Because back in the 60s, TV really was a different world and people's expectations were still based on going to movie theaters.

TV strived to match production values and the dramatic quality of motion pictures. And somehow this created a different marketplace than what TV is today. The whole mentality of television programming was different back then.

The Dick Van Dyke Show is a prime example.

It was given an entire season to eventually find its audience. Before its second season started, repeats of season one were seen during the summer and the show was on its way to being one of the best ever to go out over the airwaves.

If those shows from season one were simply yanked off the air, the Dick Van Dyke Show would have never become the great TV it became.

And I know that producer Sheldon Leonard went to New York and practically begged for a second season for the talented cast and crew, but I think something else may have been at work as well.

Was there maybe a different attitude about programming back then?

Call it respect for the material. And looking past "the bottom line" of economics to what might be. I guess what I am talking about is faith and vision.

CHEERS was allowed to find it's audience as well, any number of shows that are now considered the finest examples of American television, only exist past their initial mediocre ratings, because they were allowed time to grow and evolve and for people to find these shows.

Today, shows are literally pulled after one or even two episodes because a ratings battle was lost on a single night. I'm sure we can all think of shows we liked and never saw again after we blinked our eyes.

On TV, a good time slot is everything. And if you have a bad one, forget it.

If you are up against a ratings powerhouse like say, AMERICAN IDOL, you are basically a sacrificial lamb. (Though ratings are down this season suggesting it may have run its course)

On the other hand a hit show can also give a new, debuting show the upper hand by creating a lead-in to big ratings from the premiere episode and on.

One of the most gracious things I ever heard an actor say, was George Clooney telling one interviewer, with all sincerity, that the only reason he was a successful movie actor -- was that ER was given Thursday nights at 10:00 pm by NBC.

As my friend and I continued talking about TV then and now, we surprised each other by agreeing that the series BIG LOVE, now in it's third season on HBO, might be the greatest TV series on the air right now.

Which made me quickly jump in and add to that list AMC's MAD MEN and Showtime's THE UNITED STATES OF TARA.

I had just finished watching the DVDs of Season One of MAD MEN, and while the show was brutal and hard to watch for this reason, it was also brilliant.

MAD MEN and BIG LOVE were two exceptional series that stood out because each had a rare and singular voice, traveled territory not usually traversed in TV, and had done these things with spectacular results.

These shows felt more like movies than TV ever has. They were brilliantly cast and acted, exceptionally well written and wonderfully photographed (watching them in widescreen HD TV is helpful as well) and their music scores were thoughtful and effective.

You also never feel like you are being presented with standard TV fare that exists primarily to sell you a bill of goods. More specifically: shampoo, dog food, cars and cell phone packages.

And that's when my friend explained that we weren't. Not when we were watching those particular shows.

We were talking about shows that don't have armies of network executives (like they do at ABC, NBC and CBS) "working" with the shows creators to shape and reshape these shows for the highest ratings possible.

Why? Because they are not Network shows, so the ratings don't need to be as high.

Does this explain it?

Because it is starting to look like this: without six producers, twelve writers and a coven of network overlords, without network CEOs making most or all of the creative decisions: some TV seems to be better than ever.

While on the major networks, let's be honest: if you think the economy is the worst its ever been -- look at TV on these three slowly sinking giants.

It does all come down to money.

If you think there is too much "reality TV" or wonder why, look no further than the simple fact that "reality TV" and I am using those quotations for obvious reasons, is that the documentary style of these "unscripted shows" is much less expensive to make than scripted programming.

I won't make the mistake of again proclaiming it is a passing fad that people will eventually revolt against. On the contrary, the more revolting it is, the more people seem to tune in!

And the longer people tune into them, the longer it will take the pendulum to swing back toward more great scripted comedies and dramas.

The biggest shows in the category of "reality TV" (which to me is like putting the words "fair and balanced" next to the words "FOX NEWS" -- you only do it for comic effect) the biggest of the shows is AMERICAN IDOL.

And in fairness, I have only seen one complete episode (and the tidbits on E's THE SOUP) But like most big reality series, it seemed to be more of what I call humiliation TV. The more it can humiliate, the more people seem to be drawn to it.

You probably know that I love a good horror film, but my friends thought I was joking when I told them that the most horrifying film of recent years (and it is just now playing on pay cable) is Jake Kasdan's THE TV SET starring David Duchovny and Sigourney Weaver.

If horror fans are reading this, don't run out and rent it expecting a scary flick about a killer TV, this is horror of a different kind. This is true life horror.

This is any artist or storyteller's worst nightmare: a biting, hilarious, dark and sickening example of how commerce usually destroys the art it pays to create.

It is the story of a writer who sells his idea for a family drama (about the life of a young man who returns home after his brother's suicide) to network TV.

And then watches the great machine that needs ratings, reduce his well written, well acted series, from a drama to a horrible "fart joke" sitcom it was never meant to be.

It is one of those rare films that dares to tell the tale of how the almighty dollar, the true ruling king of movies and TV, undermines the transformative power of art.

The writer and series creator in the film (Duchovny) ultimately has to decide whether to bend to the pressures of the network. If he does, he feeds his family and protects his reputation in the industry (lest he be known as difficult) but also must actively participate in the destruction of his original idea.

His series idea spirals down into a cesspool of test audiences and program directors and a Network president (Sigourney Weaver is brilliant) only interested in ratings and insatiably hungry for more humiliation, pain, sensationalism and bigger, louder fart jokes.

We live in a culture and society that downplays the importance of movies and television. It downplays the importance of art and music in our lives. When education gets cuts in funding, the Arts are the first things to go.

You won't see a school dumping its Football program so the Drama Department can continue.

That "art is irrelevant or unimportant to a society" is one of the age old lies of conservatism. One that keeps our society leaning dangerously toward madness and destruction.

Because the truth is that art keeps us sane.

And while some might argue that movies and TV are what make people commit acts of violence or live lives that are more sexually permissive , I would counter, that movies and television are also the reason people choose NOT to commit acts of violence or make cavalier choices about their sexual practices.

Depends on the person and the program doesn't it?

Art keeps us observing our culture. It keeps questioning politics and policies. It keeps a light on our fears and can reveal them as well founded or as just ignorant hatred and bigotry. TV, movies, books and songs, keeps a balance of information that is vital to a thriving culture.

Because art is often the ultimate whistle blower.

It says, "Look at this. Isn't it bullshit?" Sometimes it says, "Look at this, isn't it beautiful?" Because by an artist sharing their perspective, telling their story: we see things differently than we did before.

Only visionary figures on the political horizon ever talked about the importance of supporting art and artists for the sake of the country and the mental health of the Free World. The two that first come to mind are Dr. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy.

These guys understood that without art, without songs and movies and plays to enrich the country, there would be only a society collapsing in on itself.

THE TV SET is as great a warning about letting the business end of show business have too much power, as the warning president Eisenhower gave at the end of his presidency, cautioning the American people about the military industrial complex.

And how it was becoming powerful enough to be our ultimate downfall.

If you think I am being overly dramatic comparing these ideas as each capable of our doomsday? Then we differ on just how powerful and important self expression is to each man, woman and child in any culture.

I sympathize with the big networks. I really think they are about to become dinosaurs if they don't adapt to "a whole new world" that is already dismantling their once powerful thrones.

Oddly enough, the music on TV shows today, helps point out the problem with current network programming.

I don't know if it has occurred to you the way it has to me, but network dramas, ABC, NBC and CBS, their scripted shows have wall-to-wall music. And I mean underscore and sometimes even songs played right through entire scenes as loud as the dialog!

Music especially needs to be used sparingly (in movies and TV) If you use it everywhere, then what are you going to use to accent very unique and important moments within the story?

Why does network TV lather each scene of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES or BROTHERS and SISTERS, UGLY BETTY or HEROES with music? Wall to wall music and in EVERY scene of every episode, until you just want to tear your hair out and plug your ears? Why do they do that?


Fear that you will turn the channel.

They will do anything to keep you from turning the channel -- and that includes destroying the quality of the show they are creating.

They don't care if they are destroying the drama, they don't care if they have reduced what might be otherwise good writing and acting into some kind of Music Video or a silent movie where the piano player had to pound the keys non-stop until the last frame.

They are desperate alright, more than any of those housewives on Wysteria Lane. Desperate to up the ante and do anything they can to keep you from "losing interest."

And they don't just use music.

Look at what stations do now to all their programming: while they are playing their dramas, documentaries or even theatrical motion pictures, they are RUNNING ADVERTISING for their other shows, right on top of the show you are already watching!

It's gotten ridiculous. It's gotten absurd. And if you don't know what I mean, it's those hideous banners and animation which run in the corners or all along the bottom of your screens.

The banners that seem to be getting bigger and bigger.

They come crashing in, shattering your focus and concentration, right in the middle of key moments in any show.

At the expense of what these channels and networks should value the most: your viewing experience.

Basically they are hawking their shows to you while you are already engrossed in one. They destroy that moment of storytelling for you, so they can sell you on watching more.

I had to stop watching JEEPERS CREEPERS on the Sci-Fi Channel one night, first, because they butchered the movie to cram it into a two hour timeslot -- which means they have to chop out twenty minutes of your movie to make room for the 35 minutes of commercials they need to show in a two hour block.

But to add insult to injury, every three minutes a little miniature truck or miniature man would walk right into the shot with a banner announcing the latest greatest show coming up next.

Some of the most key moments in the movie where literally upstaged by banners featuring car crashes, and animated Sci-Fi Channel Logos that are so big on their HD station, they take up half the screen --obscurring half the shot while they run.

This will eventually be why nobody will watch movies on commercial television anymore. People want to watch a movie without a constant barrage of bullshit flying at them while they are trying to do it.

The TV channels, both cable and network, are slitting their own throats by disrespecting our viewing experience at every opportunity.

Now NBC is moving Late Night Leno into primetime, which feels like the last act of a dying man who clearly has no idea what else to offer.

TIVO put our TVs in a time machine that we control. With the ability to skip the three to five minutes of commercials that separate the three to five minutes of actual programming.

Commercials destroy the momentum of any show you are watching and TIVO has rung the bell on them -- and it is a funeral bell.

And with all the banners and ads running during the programs, all the editing and the disrespecting of what is being shown and how, I can only think these guys have brought the death of commercial TV upon themselves.

Now, don't misunderstand me. These studio heads and network guys. These are not bad guys.

They love movies just like we all do. But they are tied to the bottom line. And luckily, the filmmakers and storytellers are not. And they shouldn't be.

These strange bedfellows make up show business. And yes, I do know that the word "business" is half of the word show business.

But I'm blogging here to remind myself and everyone else that once you step away from having to make a profit, your art can again, be absolutely anything.

And it will probably be better art,

And let's be honest, we already know it makes better TV shows.

But if you want to paint with a large brush, on a large canvas, in my case, if I want to tell stories that will be seen by millions around the world, stories with some of the great actors and talents of our times, stories scored with a 100 piece orchestra, and light up TV and movie screens across the globe -- that takes money.

Millions of dollars most of the time. And when you are suddenly spending millions of dollars -- and not your own -- that is going to involve money men. And money men are about making money, in the same way you are about telling stories.

In commercial film and TV, one does not exist without the other. We actually NEED each other! I just wish we could remember, in the world of high venture capital, how important the artist's voice is in whether or not a film works.

Because that effects the art and the profit from that art.

Someone once told me, when I was bemoaning how my film was being compromised by budgets and business, that if I want to tell stories just the way I want to tell them, I should get a dog and talk my ear off to him.

But I find myself, like most filmmakers in this biz, trying to walk that line, where a good story is told and a healthy profit can still be made.

It keeps occurring to me: The mentality that gave us those deregulated Wall Street whizzes who have almost destroyed the most powerful country in the world by financially castrating it, with greed, no conscience and certainly no thought of consequence?

Isn't that same mentality, the quest for the dollar above all things, systematically destroying TV and movies in the same way?

Because if the decision makers are scared guys who have to look good to the stockholders and have forgotten what happens to the actual creation when the voice of the creator is lost...?

The shows will get worse and further darken the society, rather than helping to make it strong and a place of dreams and hope.

At best, the most watchable and terrific TV and movies will be slowly pushed out of theaters and away from TV networks to an independent computer screen near you.