Producer's Lament: Bottom Line Still Tops

This article originally appeared in Issue# 45

In a perfect TV world, the tube would reflect the great diversity and variety of our society. Obviously, it does not. The reasons for this failure lie in our constant struggle to find a balance between commercial and creative demands.

Although programming balance is the goal, it doesn't seem likely we'll ever achieve it. The ratings system (which sends just about any third-place show in a time slot to the showers), the market for dumb or mediocre shows and the values of broadcasters and sponsors are some of the reasons. Fear of change, a reluctance to take risks and an over valuing of assimilation, are others.

For example, although it might be changing, one of the reasons you haven't seen shows with Latino families in the lead, or even in soft focus, is the networks' low estimate of the American public. They've decided that viewers aren't interested, and they will tell you they've arrived at this conclusion from testing or from trial. But the only real test of popularity for this kind of show is quality entertainment.

We know that for years the networks avoided black shows and failed to place black actors in lead or important supporting roles. They started with the same assumptions: People weren't interested (if not actually hostile); they would lose Southern stations. With the advent of The Cosby Show and other hits, we can see that their fears were a projection of their own prejudices. Obviously, black stars and black shows (granted, not all of them examples of authenticity) have had great acceptance and have enriched the television medium.

Without them, we'd be the poorer, just as we lose the minority and ethnic storylines we're still not seeing.

But fearsome assumptions are still going on. Broadcasting time is definitely money, and the totally commercial character of the ratings system means that the network that wins a time slot is rewarded with many millions of dollars. Under this system, audience size - not a pluralistic society or ethnic identity - is the major programming consideration.

There are reasons for some of programmers' fears. Our industry needs to remain self-policing. We don't need another wave of the family hour with all its contradictions and superficial criteria. Neither would I like to see the serious consideration of restrictive suggestions, even from well-meaning groups.

Identity Conflict

Nevertheless, the nature of American society presents a more subtle barrier to the expression of cultural diversity on television.

Despite talk of pluralism, the United States, at least, still values the melting pot — and we're perhaps the only great immigrant nation with this characteristic. Canada, another nation of immigrants, is much more willing to nurture diversity. Toronto's Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Chinese, East Asians. West Indians and Ukrainians celebrate their holidays and festivals, and their languages, traditions and customs seem to be much more intact and respected than in the United States. American immigrants drop anything that identifies them with the Old World and melt into the crowd.

As an American Jew, in some ways I can't complain about the way we've fared. We've enjoyed religious freedom and have been able to express ourselves. But many elements of our origins like those of others - have become obscure. Where is the language and wisdom of the grandmothers and the beauty of our past? In a perfect world we would be deeply involved and devoted to our adopted country and still maintain an understanding and reverence for our cultures of origin.

This is the dilemma, and once the media takes the challenge seriously I think much can be done to deal with it. The heroes of the battle will be the artists. It is up to them to contribute to the climate of appreciation by their selection and treatment of story and character. The bottom-liners will fear losing the bigots and overestimate their opposition. It is up to the writers, the directors and the actors who cherish human values to weave the colorful concepts of ethnic diversity into their work. Our artists will bring our grandparents out of the closet.

Author Bio: 

Gene Reynolds is a television producer and director. His credits include Lou Grant, M*A*S*H and Room 222.