04.03.18 Farewell Steven Bochco, who knew TV audiences wanted to be ‘transported’
He was the man behind Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, L.A. Law and Cop Rock. OK, nobody’s perfect. But Steven Bochco, who died of a rare form of leukemia on April 1 at age 74, bridged classic old TV procedurals with a new, edgy way of storytelling that was also hugely commercial.
As I grew up, his name was synonymous with television — and damn good television at that. I spoke with him twice over the years, and he was never uninteresting. Below, excerpts from our chats where he talks about other classic TV guys like Stephen Cannell and Grant Tinker, the genius of Mad Men and the “Fuller Brush salesman” aspect of pitching TV shows to executives. RIP, Mr. B, and thanks for all the great television. Be careful out there.
Hill Street won four Emmys in a row. That must have been quite a high you were on for a while.
Well, it was, but towards the end of that run you almost feel guilty. You do. First of all, there are other shows that are really deserving, and by the time you’ve won a couple of these things winning another one or a fourth one really it’s not very exciting and it’s certainly not going to enhance your success. People are kind of like, come on, give us a chance. It kind of actually gets a little uncomfortable by the fourth time.
You can’t not submit, right?
Well, you can, but the reason you don’t do that quite honestly is you’ve got other producers, other writers who may not have won four Emmys and you want them to be available and eligible and have a shot at it, so that’s part of the pleasure of it, those multiple win situations. You’re really rooting for younger or newer members of the team.
What was it, do you think, that kept the Emmy voters voting it as a winner every year?
Well, certainly in the case of Hill Street, that show was kind of a game-changer for television; it wasn’t just that it was a good show – it kind of changed the rules of the game. It had such a devoted following because of that and I think the peers in the business know what it takes to maintain a show like that, particularly because this was like 1981-85 or whatever, and there just was not another show on the air like it in terms of production, size of the cast, and the only other show that was comparable was St. Elsewhere, but to some degree St. Elsewhere was perhaps unfairly looked upon as something of a clone, because they utilized the same kind of approach to storytelling – multiple story arcs, big cast of characters, the really fluid camera. I think that may have hurt them in that era. It’s tough, I actually – easy for me to say with all my Emmys – I would seriously think about changing the rules, because I don’t think it’s terrific to the extent that award shows are big business, and they are, to that extent I think we hurt ourselves as an entertainment enterprise with that same – the usual suspects coming up multiple times year after year. It kinds of gets a little old. Probably – I’d have to think about it, but it would seem to me that if you’re a two-time best show winner that should be it. And you’re still going to have individual opportunities to win directing and writing and acting, but after a couple of wins … give the guys on the bench a shot.
When you’re on the top like that, what are the challenges of staying there?
I always thought it was harder staying there than getting there. Because after you establish a baseline, you have to maintain and improve upon. And those expectations – really are tremendous in success. When we were just starting out with Hill Street and even LA Law and NYPD Blue, you’re just making your show. And then it goes on the air and critics and audiences let you know what you’re doing and the extent to which they appreciate it, and suddenly you feel that pressure that you don’t want to let your audience down, or the show down. There’s nothing worse than doing a season of a show where you know the level of the work has dipped. So you just have to work so hard to maintain your energy creatively.
Is it exponentially harder after winning the Emmy?
I don’t think so, because I don’t think anybody who has a successful show is working to win another award. You’re working to maintain the quality of your show and to advance the mythology of the show, particularly the kind of shows I have done in the past. Unlike a show like Law & Order where you can shuffle the deck and throw them in the air and pick up any one of the cards and it’s discrete, these shows require tremendous attention from the audience because they have long-term character arcs and stories that go on for the whole season. When you have that kind of audience loyalty, you really owe them something. You can’t phone that in.
We’re doing this story because Mad Men has now won four Emmys in a row. Why do you think it appeals to voters?
It’s a good question. I can hazard a guess; I think part of it has to do with the fact that it’s genuinely unique. It’s not the fourth or fifth or eighth iteration of an established genre. And there’s always something special about a show that stakes out uncharted territory for itself, and I think the Academy recognizes that and rewards it. I don’t think Academy voters are cavalier with their vote. I don’t think anyone says casually, “Ah, we gave it to them, let’s do it three more times.” I think the Academy voters pay close attention. When a show wins an award it’s a statement, by the Academy, by your peers, and by proxy from an intensely loyal audience. At the end of the day Academy voters are also the audience and they would be just as loyal and devoted to the shows they care about. And they really do pay close attention to shows. For years I would sit on those panels, and you really look at these shows hard and you evaluate them carefully.
Do you think what Emmy voters want today is any different from when you were making your shows?
No, I don’t. I think audience and voters all want the same thing: They want to be transported, they want to be lifted. They want to be significantly entertained, and when a show catches lightning in a bottle like Mad Men, where you have a collection of characters and great storytelling and a genre that is compelling, people love it, people really love it. Once upon a time they would call it watercooler television, but people want to be transported, and the best of these shows whether it’s Hill Street or L.A. Law or The Sopranos or Mad Men accomplish that week in and week out year after year.
The Hollywood Reporter (2009)
How has your experience pitching shows to networks over the years changed?
For a significant amount of time, starting in 1985 and ending – or not ending until really 1997 or 98, I always had series commitments as part of my long-term agreements with networks. And consequently, pitching shows was a very different process because you knew you were going to have shows on the air. So it was a very informal process. I would have informal conversations with network heads about what kinds of things we were all interested in doing, so usually by the time I formulated a concept it wasn’t really even so much going into pitch with a sense of, “Gee, will they like it, will they not” – in those days I wouldn’t really be going in there to discuss a concept unless I was pretty sure we were all more or less on the same page and really it was a more in depth conversation about how we would approach the material.
And we had some really good fortune in those days, those shows that really worked. But once that last deal ran out and the business significantly changed, pitching a show became a much different process. You’d go in, usually not with a whole lot of pre-conversation through your representatives [that would give you] some indication of what a network was looking for. You were really going in like a Fuller Brush salesman. “Let me show you my samples.”
Personally, I have never gone into any meeting at a network in my entire career to either pitch or discuss more than one concept. I’m facetious about being a Fuller Brush salesman, but I’ve always been sensitive to that because I’m really passionate about the ideas I pitch and I would never want to convey the impression of, “Oh, you don’t like this one? What about this one?” That’s the difference between selling a product and pitching something that you truly creatively passionately believe in.
In the current climate it has changed a great deal. I have not pitched to a broadcast network in a very long time, nor do I have any interest in it. I’m not in the broadcast television business any more; it’s not an environment that I think is friendly to creators. One unintended consequence – or maybe not unintended – of vertical integration is that the networks have become such micro-managers of their shows that it’s virtually impossible for creative producers, writers, to create something and shepherd it through its birth pangs and infancy while keeping their vision intact. There’s too much interference about everything from major casting decisions to hair and wardrobe stuff, and it’s a horrible environment in which to do any meaningful work. So I’m blessed at this stage in my life and career that I don’t have to do that any more. [At the time Bochco’s series Raising the Bar had finished airing on TNT.]
But I’ve had an enormous amount of fun working on cable for the last five, six years. We did Over There for FX, this great experience even though the show didn’t succeed, and I had a wonderful time with TNT doing Raising the Bar, and we’ve got a couple of more pilots with them, because they’re delightful to work with. They’e supportive, encouraging, don’t micromanage, don’t nitpick you to death, and really do respect your creative independence to a very significant degree. So it’s a very good opportunity.
My experience with pitching is that it’s always a better process when you have a good relationship with the network you’re pitching to. I had such a wonderful relationship with [NBC President] Brandon Tartikoff in the ’80s and we were really able to do some terrific stuff together because of that. In the years that I was obligated to ABC I had good relationships with the folks there, so when you went in to talk about concepts it was a very supportive atmosphere, generally speaking. When I deal with Michael Wright or Jon Landgraf at FX, these are executives who really appreciate good work and encourage good work and creative independence. That inspires confidence when you’re going in with a young writer who doesn’t have 30, 40 years of experience in the business and they’re very supportive and it creates an environment that’s conducive to good, strong creative conversations.
So, you’re Steven Bochco and you come in the room –
I’m not Steven Bochco, I used to be Steven Bochco.
But you likely get a different treatment when you go in with an idea than if, say, I went in. In a sense cable is still experimenting with this whole original programming idea [2018 note: Remember this is from 2009] –
I don’t know so much about that. They may be inexperienced with it, but they’re past the experimental stage. If you look at FX and TNT and AMC, they’re really committed to doing this work. And Showtime has had a real resurgence in the last several years, and HBO. There’s a really vibrant cable environment for cable TV.
Still, they’re not the broadcast networks with an entrenched 50 year history of original programming. Is the old boss the same as the new boss?
The one advantage that cable has — and it’s a big advantage for us creatively because it offsets some of the disadvantages — is that they maintain a boutique environment. [Producer/network executive] Grant Tinker used to talk about the difference between [his production company] MTM in the days that he ran it, and when he went to NBC to run that giant enterprise. He used to compare the two as being a boutique operation versus a department store. And the broadcast networks, for as long as I’ve been in this business – which is 43 years — have been department stores. The cable networks still are boutique shops. So if you’re TNT, for instance, and you brand yourself with the label “we know drama” and you begin to develop shows that essentially sell your brand, you’re only developing one or two shows a year. And how many shows does TNT have on the air right now? Three, four, five. A handful – relative to a broadcast network. So it allows for a completely different set of priorities and focus on a more niche level, where you can target a particular audience in ways you can’t when you’re in broadcast and you have to cast such a wide net.
Were you pitching as far back as the ’70s?
Sure, but in those days I was under contract to Universal Studios. From the late ’60s, and I was there from 1966-1978, and that system was really interesting because you never dealt with the networks, you only dealt with the studio. The studio kept you as far away from the networks as possible; you’d never go pitch independently to a network. What you would do is you’d go through that entire process with your own company and they would carry the ball from there. And then they would call and let you know well, we’re going to make six episodes of this thing, or whatever it is. It was a very, very rigid hierarchy.
What’s the best way that the pitch process works for the creative process?
The best environment for my perhaps myopic point of view really coincided with the era of the strong, independent TV production company as epitomized by MTM. But there were a whole bunch of independent companies that were vibrant. And it was a great environment. The networks were not allowed to own their own shows. So it created a really level playing field for small companies. Everybody could pitch. And small companies like MTM in the hands of really enlightened executives like Grant Tinker, who created an environment in which writers were empowered to take chances, be imaginative.
I’ll never forget going into pitch shows. Grant would come with me and sit in a corner and never open his mouth. But his presence was eloquent. And it sent a statement that this powerful little creative company backs its writers 100 percent. And with the success of Hill Street Blues, that fueled an era of television production that was really innovative. It was golden; there were so many shows that came out of that era, half-hours and hours, and it was a writer-driven industry. And then as the environment changed from a business point of view and networks were able to wrest ownership, it completely changed the landscape and the world sort of shrunk into a five-media conglomerate universe where everything was so vertically integrated that there was no competition, there was no independence. Everybody became a slave to whatever the corporate need was. Give us two of these, one of those. We don’t like that, change it to this. It kind of unraveled. But there was a 20 year period there which was pretty great. And I will be forever grateful that I was coincident with that period of time, or had some hand in creating it.
I talked to Steven Cannell [The A-Team, The Rockford Files, 21 Jump Street] the other day and he brought up your name, said you were a guy who wouldn’t taken notes from a network. That still true? Was it ever?
It was true for a long time, but there’s a difference between taking notes and listening to notes. I’ve always been willing to listen to notes, and I still listen to notes, but fortunately these days I’m able to work with a guy like Michael Wright, who when he has an occasional note always prefaces it by saying, “It’s your show, it’s your call. But here’s a thought.” How can you not listen when somebody is that collaborative with you. You’d be a fool not to pay attention, and that’s the kind of environment that generates first rate work. Not to mention first rate loyalty.
When it comes to Emmy season, how involved do you get in that process? Were you once more heavily involved?
I never did very much. The extent of our involvement ever was picking out the shows that would represent you, according to the rules. For many years you’d pick one episode to represent your series for that year – that was easy. This is the best show we did this year, so shit, send it off and that was that. And then it got a little harder because you were putting in four or five episodes. That’s about it. I’ve never really lobbied, I think we used to occasionally take out an ad in the Academy magazine, but that was really more a courtesy in a way. We never did any active lobbying.
And I believe the work speaks – you’ll never convince a body of people to elevate you or your work simply because you talk louder or you stamp your foot or buy 25 ads. You had the show Mad Men – tiny little show, zero budget, but it captured peoples’ imagination in the industry and you can’t buy that kind of buzz, you can’t manipulate the media into giving you that kind of buzz. It just happens. Hill Street Blues was the perfect example of that – a show that nobody watched, it didn’t have an audience or any kind of significant audience, just a core, loyal group, but the critics kept us alive in those days and we got a huge helping hand from Fred Silverman who believed in us and kept us going in spite of our meager ratings. But that show simply had a buzz to it.
Is there a sense of how it’s different now?
The only sense that I get is that – in a far more fractured landscape, where television viewing habits are radically altering, I’m not sure that the Emmys have the public cachet that they used to have. It’s been some time since I was nominated for an Emmy, so maybe I’m speaking from the point of view of someone who hasn’t been involved in a long time. I know it is exciting when you are nominated, but I always felt – and this is true – I always felt that personally I couldn’t care less about the event as a celebrity platform. I would have been happier personally if these things were never televised, or like the Writers Guild Awards, where it’s a peer group honor and a private celebration of work and you move on. To me the whole idea of awards shows as an entertainment event in and of itself sort of subverts the true intentions of the Academy and the various guilds in honoring the best work. Gee, I sound like an old fart.
So for whatever it’s worth now, one of the points we want to touch on is the way cable is slowly leaching the big awards away from broadcast. Is that a deserved shift?
It’s a great thing, because selfishly there’s a whole segment of the creative community that is really devoted to making one hour dramas for television. And there are no serious one-hour dramas to speak of on broadcasting any more. You could count those on fewer than the fingers of one hand. For writers like myself who really love the development of the more complex dramatic hours, the only viable environment for us is cable. And so to the extent that all these shows do begin to leach some of that recognition from broadcast fare, that’s a contribution toward keeping our segment of the industry alive.
I have to nitpick: There’s no serious drama on TV?
I want to make something clear – not only do I have nothing against CSI or Cold Case or Law & Order or any of those procedurals; they’re clearly a real staple of the landscape. But I don’t consider them real one-hour dramas because I think part of the legitimate description of a procedural – at least these days – is that they don’t really develop character. They’re not character-driven. The procedural aspect of it really is the star of it. What has always made CSI a hugely popular show aside from its mystery elements is that it stylistically created a whole new look, which then is always the case, it got copied ad infinitum by other shows. But I don’t think any of those shows really – by design – develop their characters. And so my somewhat more narrow definition of one-hour dramatic TV is that it does involve some degree of complex character development and evolution.
So it’s not a true procedural without those elements – character development and storytelling?
Generally speaking the true procedural doesn’t have those elements, generally speaking. I may be all wet here, because admittedly I don’t spend a lot of time watching those shows, for all kinds of reasons. As a general rule those shows are extremely thin on personal character development.
So will all of these elements change the types of shows ultimately being commissioned?
Everything changes. And you have to embrace that with good spirit. When I was a kid at Universal in my 20s, every afternoon, late afternoon all these great television icons that were on contract there – [Barry] Levinson and Billy Sackheim and on and on, these terrific icons of that era would gather to have a soft drink and cigarette in front of the commissary at Universal. I would go out there, as would Steve [Cannell] — he and I have always been close from our days at Universal — and we’d mouse around the periphery of all those guys and this is what I’d hear: “This business sucks. These SOBs in their black suits, blah blah, this business used to be fun. And it stinks now, it’s no more fun.” All this grousing. I used to say, “I’m having fun. And if you guys aren’t having fun, make room for me and Cannell, because we’re having a great time.” And I always promised myself I I ever became one of those guys I’d walk away. I don’t want to keep doing something that I don’t feel good about. One of the lessons you learn over the long term is that everything changes, generally there’s no going back, it’s a different world, and either you make an adjustment and you find other avenues for doing what you do or you very quietly close up your sample case and move up to Napa and drink more wine. So far, I’m still loving what I do and I’m fortunate to have a few places that are amenable to working with me.