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Appreciation: Steven Bochco Fought the Good Fight for Television

Steven Bochco was a true TV tough guy.

The producer behind such groundbreaking series as “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue,” and “L.A. Law” reveled in pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo. Behind the scenes, Bochco, who died Sunday at age 74, expertly leveraged his status as an A-list showrunner. In 1987 he commanded a still-unprecedented six-year, 10-series deal with ABC.

Bochco in his prime helped usher in the contemporary Golden Age of TV dramas by insisting that “NYPD Blue,” which ran from 1993 to 2005 on ABC, move the needle on the content restrictions that had traditionally defined broadcast TV. Bochco often used the phrase “… and the Republic didn’t fall” when asked about the controversy stirred by his shows.

Airing at 10 p.m., “NYPD Blue” offered a glimpse of the occasional bare bottom and saltier language than was usually heard on TV. It took months of wrangling with advertisers and ABC’s affiliate stations to pave the way for the show’s premiere. When it opened to nearly 30 million viewers in September 1993, Bochco knew he’d won an important victory for the creative community, albeit one that remains a singular achievement.

“I suppose I was naive,” Bochco told Variety in marking the show’s 20th anniversary in 2013. “I thought ‘NYPD Blue’ would open a door to more adult, mainstream programming.” He admitted to being disappointed that “NYPD Blue” influenced cable more than broadcast.

In “Hill Street Blues,” which ran from 1981-1987 on NBC, Bochco delivered a show with a large ensemble cast and highly serialized storytelling format. “L.A. Law” was a mix of procedural case-of-the-week with the emotional lives — and sexual appetites — of its core characters.

Bochco came of age as a producer in the Universal Television school of drama. It was sometimes an assembly line process, but talented writers such as Bochco, David Chase and Stephen J. Cannell emerged from that system with the training that would make them industry superstars. Bochco wrote several distinctive episodes of Universal TV’s “Columbo,” including the 1972 John Cassevetes starrer “Etude in Black” that hints at the moody anti-heroes to come in Bochco’s work.

In his later years, Bochco was not one to spend much time reminiscing about his past glories. After he was diagnosed with leukemia, he poured energy into writing his autobiography, “Truth is a Total Defense: My Fifty Years in Television.” He wanted to tell his story in his own words. Bochco was at times accused of taking too much credit for shows that he co-created with others. But his long run and track record of success stands as the ultimate arbiter of his skill as a storyteller. The same is true for the number of future star showrunners who came through his shows, a list that includes Dick Wolf, David E. Kelley, David Milch and in later years, Joel Fields of “The Americans.”

Bochco was famously fiesty with network and studio executives. He was among the first to file a lawsuit for “self-dealing” in the era of vertical integration among networks and studios. When 20th Century Fox TV sold the rerun rights to “NYPD Blue” to its sibling FX cabler, Bochco demanded an accounting and was prepared to fight it out in court. The suit was settled virtually on the courthouse steps on the eve of trial in 2001.

But there was one industry chieftain who stood apart and exerted enormous influence on Bochco’s career. Grant Tinker was head of MTM Television when Bochco was recruited to the studio where he would launch “Hill Street Blues.” Soon after Tinker segued to NBC, where he protected “Hill Street” from cancelation despite weak ratings. Bochco never forgot the support he received from Tinker.

“It was one among the many lessons I learned from Grant, and always tried to emulate: Protect your talent. Fight their battles for them. Don’t let the suits distract them from their artistic endeavors,” Bochco wrote in an appreciation for Variety following Tinker’s death in 2016. “He taught me by example how to run a company. He taught me to respect and nurture and support writers. He was the best executive and, creatively, the best friend I ever had in my 50 years in television.”

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