by Larry Brody
NOTE FROM LB: Once upon a time, I wrote a book called Turning Points in Television. It was supposed to be a legit history book, but I soon realized that the only things I felt comfortable writing about were those I could be absolutely sure were true – because they’d happened to me.
Fortunately, I had a wonderful editor who went along with my need to take a more or less phenomenological approach (great word, “phenomenological,” no?), and he gave me the green light to take that road.
Unfortunately, even with a foreword by Stan Lee the book didn’t sell very well and is now as out of print as books can get – as in, it’s been pulped, baby.
I, of course, have several boxes of unsold Turning Points moldering in my garage, and recently, while trying to answer a question from a frequent TVWriter™ visitor I broke one open and started reading…and realized that there are more informative and entertaining bits there than I thought.
So, since I own the copyright and this is for educational purposes et al, here’s a selection from Turning Points in Television that I hope will answer the visitor’s question, and give everyone who reads it a little food for thought. Enjoy!
My first face to face encounter with a a network research department came in the mid-‘Seventies, when I was a young Producer and Executive Story Consultant of an NBC series called Police Story. To put it simply, Police Story was a good show. It won a pile of awards and got rave reviews, and I loved the damn series.
I loved it so much that I stayed at the studio as late as I could every single night and woke up as early as I could the following day so I could get back there and write and cast and approve sets and costumes and do all the things writer-producers do.
What I loved most about Police Story was that every story was true, based on events that had happened to real L.A. cops, with twists and turns and ups and downs no one could’ve made up. And instead of concentrating on the cases we concentrated on the feelings the cases aroused in the policemen and women involved. Joe Wambaugh, then a best-selling novelist and active LAPD detective, was our technical advisor, and he came up with the best description for what the show tried to do. “The cop works on the case,” he said, “and the case works on the cop.”
Police Story was an anthology. It had no recurring characters. Since we didn’t have to worry about continuity we could have our characters grow and change within an episode. We could have downbeat endings where cops who were heroic on the job lost their wives and families because of the obsessions they took home with them. Endings where the heroes were killed, or where the pressures they were under caused them to quit, or even commit suicide.
Shortly after I signed on, NBC summoned us to a meeting with the research department to talk about “a new direction” for the series. Since Police Story had been on the air for a couple of seasons (during which I’d been one of its freelance writers) I was surprised that NBC was talking about changing it now.
The meeting was held in a conference room at NBC in Burbank. The table we sat at was round but still managed to give the illusions of having sides. On one side sat the Police Story contingent, consisting of Cal Clements Jr., the Story Consultant, myself, and our boss, David Gerber.
At the time, David Gerber had three things going for him. He was Executive Producer of the show, President of the studio that made it (Columbia Pictures Television), and a Genuine TV Legend at the time–in much the same way that Dracula was a Famous Monster of Filmland.
The Gerb was tough. He was big and beefy. He talked a million miles an hour, always at top volume, and ranted about anything that came to mind. His professional goal seemed to be to create a sort of “creative intimidation” in which people who worked for him did the very best they could in order to escape his wrath.
Gerber caused chaos on every creative level, forcing the ideals of his writers to crash head on into the cliches he often demanded, the result being a hybrid of both that almost always was very moving to the audience, sometimes to the point of being overpowering.
On the other side of the table sat the NBC contingent, one lone, hardy soul, I’ll call The Vice President For Research. I felt kind of sorry for him, facing the Gerb with no backup.
Until he cleared his voice and spoke.
“We’ve been audience testing your episodes and discussing upcoming premises with test groups, there’s a problem. The audience finds Police Story disturbing.” He passed over a pile of reports. “See where the graphs go up? Those are points in the shows where viewers had a big emotional reaction. That isn’t a good sign.”
“I thought we were supposed to get an emotional reaction,” I said. “I thought that making people feel something was the sign of a good show.”
TVPFR handed over more paperwork. “If you look there you’ll see that the reaction was a negative one. The audience pushed the ‘No’ button instead of the ‘Yes.’ They didn’t like what they were feeling.”
“We think you’re going to have to make a few slight changes in your presentation,” TVPFR went on. “Go for more upbeat endings, stay away from the kind of personal jeopardy that the audience identifies with too strongly, be more like our other successful shows–“
That was as far as he got. Beside me, Gerber had taken several deep breaths, as though inhaling ammunition. Now he let it all out with a roar that seemed to hurl TVPFR back from the table and pin him up against the wall. The poor guy never knew what hit him.
“What the fuck’re you talking about!?” Gerber yelled. He machine-gunned along: “We’re a fucking hit! We give you the goddamn numbers you need on Thursday night! You can take your tests and shove ‘em up NBC’s ass! Those people don’t watch television! They hang out on Sunset Boulevard looking for action while you’re sitting and scribbling stupid notes and praying for a PhD! Nobody’s changing a fucking thing!”
Gerber got up so hard and so fast that his chair went crashing down behind him. He hurried to the door. All Cal Clements, Jr. and I could do was follow.
The Gerb raved all the way down the elevator and out to the parking lot. Then, as we neared our cars, he whirled, glaring at me.
“You! Baby producer! Little genius! You fucking listen to what I say!”
He pointed to his Gucci shirt, which in typical Gucci fashion was patterned with a dozen letter “G”s. “See these Goddamn ‘G’s? They’re silk and they stand for Gerber. Me. The Gerb. That’s how goddamn important I am. And the goddamn important goddamn Gerb’s on the line for you now! You give me good shows and get us into the Top Ten, or I’ll personally drive you over to Universal and make you work on the crap NBC’s got going there instead!”
And with that the Gerb turned again and yanked open his door. He pushed his way behind the wheel, slammed the door, and squealed backed out of the space, barely missing both Cal and me.
In the TV business that’s called being a mentor.
ANOTHER NOTE FROM LB: Oh, I almost forgot. The question I was asked that resulted in unearthing this little story was, “People say I should find a mentor to help me navigate through my career. Can you tell me what to expect when I do?”