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Ken Levine: How to fix television

We came across this interesting blog today- By Ken Levine. Ken Levine is, according to the blog, "an Emmy winning writer/director/producer/major league baseball announcer. In a career that has spanned over 30 years Ken has worked on MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, THE SIMPSONS, WINGS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, BECKER, DHARMA & GREG, and has co-created his own series including ALMOST PERFECT starring Nancy Travis."

Anyway we not about who or what he is, but rather why his latest blog post has some of the most sage advice about the current state of TV in the world, in a piece titled: 'How to Fix Television'
How to fix television
WARNING: This is another rant from one of those old school cranky comedy writers. 
Networks today are more hands-on. Showrunners need approval for everything, from story notions to day players to set dressing. My question is: what was wrong with the Grant Tinker template?
Grant Tinker, along with his then-wife Mary Tyler Moore, started MTM Enterprises in 1970. Beginning with THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, Tinker built a dynasty of top notch, high rated, quality shows. How did he do it?
By hiring the best creative people (from writers to wardrobe) and then staying out of the way to let them do their jobs. I was at MTM for a short while and it was truly Camelot. 
The best writers in town wanted to work at MTM. Grant Tinker let them do their thing. He ran interference with the networks. He surrounded you with great talent. He encouraged you to strive for excellence, not commercial pandering. He never gave script notes. He never saw outlines. He was never in casting sessions for waiters who had two lines. He never dictated who you had to hire. 
And for the most part, his shows turned out great. From THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to THE BOB NEWHART SHOW to HILLSTREET BLUES, and six or seven in between, MTM was not only a beacon of quality, it was churning out ratings winners. 
The truth is we MTM writers didn’t need network notes to keep us all staying late. We were tougher on ourselves than they would have been. We all took great pride in the product and worked tirelessly. And at the end of the day when the result was something we were proud of and the network was proud to air, everybody won. Advertisers were happy, viewers were happy. 
Grant Tinker left MTM in the early ‘80s to run NBC and instituted the same game plan. As a result, shows like CHEERS, FAMILY TIES, HILLSTREET BLUES, and COSBY turned the peacock around from last to first in only a few short years. 
Why can’t a network employ this policy today? I mean, it’s not like the current model is working. Network sitcoms are drawing minuscule numbers. The only ones that have drawn decent ratings the last few years are shows by Chuck Lorre, Larry David, Chris Lloyd & Steve Levitan, and Phil Rosenthal – producers who have earned a certain amount of autonomy. Are networks so panicked that they feel they can’t relinquish control of anything? Are showrunners no longer to be trusted with selecting actors who only have one line? Do seven people have to approve every outline? 
Television comedy was in a golden age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, primarily due to upper management types like Grant Tinker. I’m quite sure there’s a current crop of writers who are every bit as talented and original and dedicated as we were in that age. Let them fly. Give them room. See what they could do. You have nothing to lose. Sitcoms are getting a 1 share. You’re never going to get chicken salad out of chicken Suburgatory
Don’t tinker. Think Grant Tinker.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, Ken.

    It seems that networks today want a brand instead of high quality programs. The shows you mentioned are still loved today because of the very case you made here. When shows I love have that feeling of creative abandon and the ability to win me over entirely, when I am laughing out loud and am thinking of characters decades later, it's creative freedom that makes it possible. The creative process is intimate, mysterious, delicate and powerful. Those things never come out of notes from a suit.