AT A WRITERS GUILD FOUNDATION seminar last week, David Milch was asked the age-old question whether writers should write about what they know or that which they think will sell. The “Deadwood” creator responded in customarily thought-provoking fashion, saying scribes could only gain satisfaction developing that which engages them, which is usually what sells, anyway.
Milch, of course, resides on the privileged side of the creative aisle and thus possesses the latitude to counsel passion over profit, unlike someone hoping to pen something, anything, that will pay a few bills. As usual, though, he zeroed in on a larger truth regarding the Hollywood condition — namely, the tendency not to trust others to embrace the projects we like.
The latest example of this guessing game surrounds “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” NBC’s fall entry from “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin. After initially making the show the linchpin of its Thursday lineup, the network shuffled its schedule last week to spare this fragile hatchling from being trampled by “CSI” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
ALREADY, HOWEVER, speculation around town is whether Sorkin’s backstage examination of the TV biz — punctuated with personal flourishes, including a writer recovering from a drug problem and network suits at best indifferent to quality — is “too inside” and can pass muster with what Bill O’Reilly likes to call “the folks.”
Conventional wisdom says the series won’t work. As evidence, skeptics can point to an elephant graveyard of canceled series set against a showbiz backdrop, with “Action,” “Grosse Pointe,” and pay TV entries like “The Comeback” and “Fat Actress” among the casualties. Even “The Larry Sanders Show” was never an audience hit despite HBO’s less-exacting standards, so it’s likely that duly beloved series wouldn’t have survived as long today.
Hollywood stories, after all, lack the life-or-death stakes associated with primetime’s most popular dramas. TV execs don’t put away bad guys (in fact, they often help put them in multimillion-dollar estates), and they don’t save lives or cure the sick (this summer’s unscripted onslaught threatens to destroy brain cells at an alarming clip).
“Studio 60” engages viewers intellectually, which already places the show in rarefied territory. And while that sounds like a long shot, NBC will doom the show from the get-go if it shies away from its strengths, which include challenging the audience to contemplate their media consumption and the state of TV in general. After that, it can be about characters and casting — at which point Sorkin’s latest becomes a big workplace ensemble soap, albeit one peppered with TV terminology instead of scientific or legal jargon.
GIVEN THAT MOST shows fail, it’s hardly bold to predict that one will. Yet if NBC wants “Studio 60” to stand apart from the fall herd, proudly saying “It’s smart” is a place to start, and fears of being labeled “too inside” be damned.
Grant Tinker, who led NBC out of the desert once before, was fond of telling his programming team, “First be best, then be first” — a mantra that’s quoted more frequently than it’s followed.
As for writing about whether that’s the surest path to fame and fortune, sorry, but that’s not really something I know.
IN THE ETERNAL STRUGGLE for journalism’s soul, the May sweeps offered another reminder of the disparity between the 18-34-year-old demographic and the older audience that watches broadcast news.
Scanning the 11 p.m. slot in Los Angeles, the three network-owned late newscasts averaged a 1 rating within that younger group, far below their 2.6 among adults 35-49 and 5.3 rating in the 50-plus category.
By contrast, reruns of “South Park” posted a 1.5 within the 18-34 segment in that timeslot, dropping to 0.8 and 0.2, respectively, in the two older brackets.
Based on this logic, young adults learn more about current events from Cartman than L.A.’s anchors, which, considered the content of local news, isn’t all that disturbing.
So is there any overlap among those three age demarcations, anywhere we all get along? Turns out KTTV’s “Geraldo at Large,” the syndicated program hosted by Geraldo Rivera, averaged roughly a 0.8 within each group, proving some things — in this case, “Geraldo” avoidance — do traverse the demographic barrier.
So give it up for Geraldo: A true uniter, not a divider.