'Cagney' reaches beyond nostalgia

Barney Rosenzweig has never suffered from a lack of self-esteem, as his new memoir, “Cagney & Lacey … and Me,” makes eminently clear. Yet beyond the warm glow of nostalgia, his book about the 1980s drama offers two timely points of discussion — articulating precisely what a producer does, amid a devaluation of that title; and second, exploring the impact of “Save our show” campaigns through the prism of when such letter-writing pleas truly meant something.

Early in the book Rosenzweig laments the wanton proliferation of the producer credit, tracing the roots of its propagation to the legendary producer Quinn Martin, who found a way to massage writers’ egos and keep a core group “under his wing and exclusively his,” Rosenzweig asserts, by throwing a bone in anointing them “producers.”

Relatively soon, “producers” became so prevalent that another term, “showrunner,” was coined to describe what a producer traditionally did — a checklist of duties Rosenzweig summarizes as follows: “Someone with an overall vision … who can handle the network or studio needs, who can communicate with the cast, hire the writers and the directors, supervising the editorial concept, and turn out, week after week, a consistent, promotable product.” As for the title’s loss of significance, he concludes, “That credit, if it is ever to mean anything again, will have to be retrieved from an awful lot of production managers, staff writers and assistants.”

Rosenzweig held to that line when he made “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill” for CBS, with a single producer (himself, naturally) and associate producer earning such recognition. Beyond that, he conceded in an interview from his current semi-retirement in Florida that the will to continue fighting this battle — along with other skirmishes, when “I can’t even understand the business model anymore” for network television — has long since evaporated.

Seeing such a stark, feisty description of the producer’s craft seemed particularly appropriate based on my recent movie and TV consumption, from Warner Bros.’ “License to Wed” — a modest little comedy populated by nine producers or executive producers — to Bravo’s upcoming reality show “Welcome to the Parker,” which designates a trio of exec producers “for Bravo” alone (bringing the grand total to five), reflecting the increasingly common practice of cable executives claiming producer stripes on programs aired by their networks.

In the silver lining dept., at least there’s minimal risk “License to Wed” will yield an awkward scrum to determine which three producers are eligible for Oscar consideration. As for cable fare, this notion of network executives sharing onscreen credit not only clutters the screen with titles but appears inherently contradictory — a bit like managing the team and also playing first base.

The other epiphany triggered by Rosenzweig’s tome stems from the often-cited uproar that not only brought “Cagney & Lacey” back from the dead (the sets, he notes, had already been dismantled) but birthed Viewers for Quality Television, a lobbying organization dedicated to championing classy TV.

These days, it’s become routine for loyalists of canceled series to mobilize on their behalf via the Internet, but the immediacy and ease of that medium has made it difficult to separate genuine grass-roots campaigns from delusional dweebs, frequenting chat rooms to find voices echoing their own.

A recent exception was “Jericho,” a series CBS exhumed in part due to avid fan reaction. That situation, however, has as much to do with the network mishandling the program — concluding the season on a major cliffhanger, as two post-apocalyptic Kansas towns braced for all-out war — as the merits of online petitions, which still largely consist of people naively convinced that a few dozen fervent torch-bearers amounts to a groundswell.

Having started his career as a PR guy, Rosenzweig’s stroke of genius was in asking those writing to him and CBS on “Cagney’s” behalf to copy their local newspapers — “on the theory,” as he wryly put it, “that network executives may not read their mail but they do read their newspapers.”

Granted, that’s not an assumption one can automatically make today, but some of execs must still subscribe to a local paper and maybe scan a few others online — during their down time, that is, when they’re not busy producing.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more