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Spielberg’s TV education

Medium can be humbling for feature talent

Steven Spielberg basked in the well-deserved glory of his seventh Oscar nomination as director Sunday, amid a telecast produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, whose credits include a previous winner, “Chicago.”

Barring an unexpected miracle, the three of them will have awakened this morning to another round of punch-in-the-gut numbers for “Smash,” the NBC musical drama on which they serve as exec producers.

For Spielberg, the sensation isn’t entirely new, especially of late. Of his recent high-profile series, “Terra Nova” went the way of the dinosaurs, and “The River” rather quickly ran through ABC’s lineup — and into a dead end.

Commercially if not creatively speaking, the best news has come from “Falling Skies,” a TNT sci-fi drama featuring close encounters with E.T.s of the genocidal, colonizing kind.

This observation about Spielberg’s continuing education in the vagaries of TV isn’t intended to pick on the director, merely to demonstrate just how humbling the medium can be for feature talent who venture into it. Moreover, Spielberg’s conspicuous good fortune with “Lincoln” — a movie achieving the rare feat of prestige as well as box office success — stands in especially stark contrast with “Smash,” which has become not only an object of creative derision in many quarters, but because of all the attention garnered when the show premiered last year, the linchpin in a spate of “Woe is NBC” stories.

Obviously, there’s an element of schadenfreude in watching someone of Spielberg’s stature experience setbacks, just as mere mortals do. But there’s a larger issue for people who principally work in TV, who chafe at the notion movie luminaries possess some sort of magic key to unlock the secrets of primetime, when it’s been demonstrated time and again they’re just as fallible as everyone else.

It should be noted, too, that unlike some movie folks who moonlight in television, Spielberg has made clear that, at least on certain projects, he doesn’t play the role of absentee landlord. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the director spoke about conceiving the idea for “Smash” and watching all the dailies while on the set filming “Lincoln.”

The mortality rate for TV series backed by feature folk — which is about the same, and certainly no better, than those ensconced in TV on a regular basis — hasn’t stopped networks from eagerly picking up pilots while trumpeting their bigscreen auspices. This enthusiasm gap hasn’t been lost on many who toil in TV, with director Dan Sackheim (“The Americans,” “Red Widow”) recently tweeting, “Pilot season is when TV execs show their disrespect for the Television medium by relying on FEATURE directors to sell their TV shows.”

Admittedly, talking about a schism between movies and TV seems oddly dated, especially with marquee names like Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon comfortably straddling both worlds. Moreover, the relationship between movies and TV in terms of creative perception has perhaps never been quite so skewed toward the latter, which might explain why online outlets like Netflix are choosing to announce themselves as players in original production principally by commissioning series.

For all that, most aspects of showbiz snobbery die hard, and movie stars do tend to send hearts uniquely aflutter, even if someone like George Clooney started in one before graduating to the other. (Spielberg, too, cut his professional teeth in television, directing episodes of series and the masterful little suspense movie “Duel.” Still, the biz today bears scant resemblance to what it was then.)

Nor is the infatuation with movie stars limited to TV. As the New York Times recently reported, the allure of casting Hollywood A-listers in New York theater is such that they are “calling the shots as never before, bringing back plays that were seen on Broadway only a few years earlier and sometimes edging out new works.”

Spielberg certainly has nothing left to prove in any medium. Yet “Smash’s” increasing unlikeliness of receiving a third-season curtain call offers a reminder even premiere players can be taught a lesson in TV. Because no matter how much networks endeavor to hedge their bets with such pedigrees, there’s still a greater chance of the sky falling than there is a “Falling Skies.”

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