I am no stranger to the art of giving advice, whether it be warranted or otherwise. In my youth, I was regularly put into “time outs” for sticking my nose where it ought not be. In my early twenties I was frequently warned about “Clavin-ing.” If you don’t get the reference, you are really, really young.
A side note: I was originally going to call this column “Dunphy Can Fix It” until I remembered the BBC show Jim’ll Fix It, hosted by creepy strange person Jimmy Savile, found out later on to be a horrendous pedophile. I thought that maybe I’d try an entirely altogether different title then, thanks.
The problem this time is broadcast television. With digital online content becoming more and more accepted and fashionable, and cable channels taking risks more than ever, critics call this a new golden era in the TV medium. On the whole, broadcast TV cannot jump into this gilded age because of a few restrictions.
The first is, and how can I put this diplomatically, breast count…being zero. Broadcast TV is still, by FCC standards, not allowed to show exposed breasts or genital regions. Secondly, the networks cannot use language that cable uses in order to make dialogue more raw and “real.” Also, broadcast TV is still beholden to advertisers and dwindling budgets, so one-stage reality contests and shows remain a fixture just because they’re relatively cheaper to produce.
And yet, there are plenty of ways where broadcast TV and cable TV are equals. If a network shows an old movie in prime time — let’s get wacky and say Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — because of the size, dimensions, and pixel depth of modern TVs, not to mention the superior surround sound, that movie will likely look and sound better than it did for most patrons of movie theaters when it was initially released.
Point of fact, most TV rooms of many homes are viewing rooms the likes of which few of the rich and famous could have dreamed of in the ’70s and ’80s. And yet, how are most broadcast TV shows shot? Tight, close, emphasis on the talking head, on the static sitcom setups, on a structure that was perfectly suited for a delivery system far less demanding or aesthetically capable.
Let us take a tangent. A large portion of modern movies are designed to be blockbusters. It isn’t uncommon for tentpole summer-type movies to spill out every month of the year. The emphasis is on big effects, big explosions, and spectacle. Most of the indie films coming out in recent times have been intimate, a little grungy, a lot guerilla-style. In between, the beautifully composed film appears now and then, usually shot by a camera genius like Roger Deakins, or a John Toll, but they’re becoming more sparse. If you are a studio, you’re bankrolling young princes who will reign over your kingdom after you die. You’re betting on franchises, not well-crafted, more quiet productions.
While I doubt a broadcast TV show would ever have a budget to hire John Toll or Roger Deakins, it certainly can afford budding cinematographers who want to be like Toll or Deakins. Modern cameras are digital, lighter, and more budget-friendly than ever. TVs have the size and quality to best represent compositional skill. All that is required is that the networks have to try harder. That means CBS has to give up a couple procedurals where the bottom line is a sexy woman is kidnapped, tortured, and or killed and it is up to the investigators find, unbind, or autopsy them.
That can be done, but it will take some amount of will to do it. Perhaps that’s not in them, and the time required to get that visual finesse together may not be their speed. So, idea number two: bring back the anthology show. At one time, the anthology was an honored part of TV. They were mini-movies without the need to contract individuals for full seasons. You could get hungry young talent for both sides of the cameras, and the real necessities going in were the wraparound concept and the writers.
Think about The Twilight Zone. You had, as the sausage skin, a genre series that scared and shocked and thrilled generations long after it officially went off the air. Many stars of stage and screen started there, and what a writing staff! Alongside series creator Rod Serling, you had Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson, Reggie (Twelve Angry Men) Rose, Ray freaking Bradbury! And even though the shells of their stories featured pig-nosed people, aliens, ghosts, pool-playing devils and such, the meat of these stories were morality plays and cautionary tales. The Twilight Zone was able to criticize racism during a time where TV was black and white only as how the image could be transmitted. They produced trenchant commentary about the Red Scare right under Senator Joe McCarthy’s nose. In short, they produced some of the finest TV the medium had ever seen, and yet all we seem to do with the anthology format is to resurrect The Twilight Zone itself every decade or so. (Full admission: I’m a big fan of the 1980s edition, but still, we can do better than reboots.)
Okay, says the network head, but that still might be too pricey for us. Got a cheaper solution? Yes, I do and once again, Rod Serling leads the way. Once upon a time, New York was the center of the broadcast TV world. They had the space, the technology, and thanks to the thriving theater community, they had tons of talent. Alongside the likes of Serling, Rose, and Paddy Chayefsky as writers creating dramas for TV, you had directors like John (The Manchurian Candidate) Frankenheimer, Franklin (Planet Of The Apes, Patton) Schaffner, and Sidney Lumet to name just a few. To list the actors would take more time than any one post can provide.
These were not soap operas. They were stage plays, shot on limited budgets with equally limited scenery. They were live, one-take events because they had to be. The means to record and play back were expensive and extremely limited. Essentially, you shot film and then broadcast the film later. That’s a whole extra set of budgetary steps to take, but also a negation of the thing that made these productions so memorable: they were live. There was no “going back to ‘one’ and redoing.” You knew your lines and your marks and you did them. If you went up, if you flubbed, you got creative to put yourself, and the people you are working with, back on track.
Because of the high quality of broadcast standards now, and the ability to do digital work live and on-the-fly (think of how ads and markers are seamlessly dropped into live sports), some of the scope that was limited from those 1950s broadcasts are easily within the grasp of modern efforts. The best part, for the networks at least, is that doing dramas like these again ensures a shelflife. How many people are going back to old recordings of American Idol or The Voice? Not many, I’ll guarantee you.
Yet, even after excruciating critical reception leveled at Carrie Underwood and NBC’s live broadcast of The Sound Of Music, the ratings were remarkable and the sales of the subsequent DVD/Blu-ray/download weren’t disappointing either. NBC is planning to do it again, next time with Peter Pan. Fox is planning a broadcast of Grease. It doesn’t have to be just musicals either. It does have to be contained, it has to be live, and it has to feel like an event you want to see right now, not in time-shift.
Will TV adopt (or rather, return to) any of these ideas as a staple? Probably not. The conversation seems to always go back to fighting the FCC for the right to show breasts and to say “shit” on the air, and not to leverage something that is part of their very DNA, their heritage. That’s a shame. There is room for both. Cable produces a high quality of production, but that production tends to firmly be in the rated R camp. Instead of using unique tools at their disposal right now, the networks would rather attempt to approximate and imitate. They will blame the American viewership for abandoning them for edgier terrain.
I only hope one or all of these ideas has been considered behind the scenes. They are worth the discussion at the very least.