March 7, 2008
MIT Communications Forum: Prime Time in Transition (1 of 2)

Here are notes from Thursday night's MIT Communications Forum presentation called "Prime Time in Transition", focusing on transformations of narrative storytelling in the last 20 years in light of cultural, social, and political events, as well as the recent writer's strike and changes in the media landscape with the rise of video online. I'm including notes from the presentation itself here, and I will also includes some notes on the Q&A portion of the event tomorrow.

The speaker is John Romano, writer and producer on more than a dozen shows including Hill Street Blues, Party of Five, and Monk as well as creator of Class of '96, Sweet Justice, and Michael Hayes. His screenwriting credits include The Third Miracle, the Coen Bros.'s Intolerable Cruelty, and the forthcoming Nights in Rodanthe. In a previous life, Romano taught English literature at Columbia University and wrote a critical study of the novelist Charles Dickens.

The talk was moderated by David Thorburn, a professor of literature and television at MIT and John Romano's former professor at Yale.

These notes are paraphrased as closely as possible, though not exactly, from the actual talk. You can download the podcast soon from the MIT Communications Forum.

David Thorburn: There are many people who feel that the strike accomplished very little. Do you think they gained anything. Has it fostered a change in the TV industry?

John Romano: I'm sure it signals change -- we live in a time where TV faces a number of changes: downloading TV, mobile media, the way of catching up or watch a show exclusively through DVDs or OnDemand -- these are all things that were not there 20 years ago and in each case there's a financial consequence. And in each case you ask who makes money? It's simply about money. But you have to understand that you wrote the thing and you wrote it to be put on the air and now someone's selling it without the intent of giving you a share. I was never the world's biggest union organizer, but there's a common sense fairness. The studios thought they were going to profit with internet retransmission without sharing it, and that's just common sense unfairness. 0% was probably the wrong number, and the number we ended up with was not that exciting, but now the thought is on the table. We got something valuable. The idea that you can't sell my stuff without giving me something.

David Thorburn: Every Monday, The New York Times lists the movie grosses and top-rated shows. You had to get down to 6 or 7 on the list before you got to a story show. Years ago, they were almost all fiction shows. In the last 5 years or so, there's been a large rise in reality based shows. Does it feel like a permanent change?

John Romano: The quantitative answer is that there are fewer story-based show. But the reality is that there is always an appetite for the next terrific story. What's changed is that on the five networks and closely related cable stations, the notion of what makes a character or story thrilling is more aggressive, less literary. And if you're closer to character-narrative storytelling end of things you'll probably take it to HBO, showtime, and less likely to the big networks, unless you have a big star attached. There are still places, fewer, and you have to take your shots more carefully, but there is still a place for narrative storytelling.

David Thorburn: One thing many people have said is that the events of 9/11 had a profound impact on the content of TV. How do you feel the events have affected programming?

John Romano: Shows like Lost reflect a post-9/11 anxiety, and certainly 9/11 did its share to feed a lot of impulses, not all of which were admirable. In the Cohen Bros No Country for Old Men, you have an evil character who is unplaceable and implacable, non-psychological, non-humanistic evil and expressed fears that are part of the 9/11 world. But these fears help make story as interesting in the real world, where everything can't be answered by a hug (like on Party of Five). The positive impact of 9/11 on storytelling is that it serves a genuinely interesting dilemna is that there's such a thing as evil out there to fight. I'm not saying that it gets characterized with political accuracy, but it's that it suddenly it says that you can't solve it by sitting down in act 4 by being sincere. In 24, Keifer must be a human being where he has to cope with being out of control and being a person and there's a real threat out there that he has to take care of. And the idea of taking that on and not losing touch with his humanity. Those human dilemmas when those human beings have to transcend their politics.

The interesting thing about the proliferation of technology-centered stories is the acknowledgment of complexity, is that you will always have to make decisions about applying it, and that you'll always have to make them a bit blind. The good programs show that technology will not relieve you of those decisions, and no methods will spare you the complexity of those problems.

The moral complexity makes for better stories, and makes the stories truer about the world.

[Plays a clip from 24: first 5 min from first episode]

In this scene, the dialogue and events are the kind of things that would happen in any household, but they're also terms you could hear in his job as a spy. But that's what I'm talking about, the political dimension has a human dimension and visa versa.

David Thorburn: One of the interesting thing about TV in the 80s and 90s, because of the competition of new channels, broadcast TV became in its own way very experimental.

[Plays a clip from Cop Rock, a police musical show]

David Thorburn: The show was a police musical with 5 original shows in every show. A Cop-opera.

John Romano: It has a huge camp following.

David Thorburn: What do you think went wrong?

John Romano: Cops singing. I'll tell you what really went wrong. We had some very good song-writers, but they were being asked to come up with 5 original songs a week. It just wasn't the way musicians work and it was defeated with that premise. Music requires a kind of non-ironic soul, and you can't do that as a writer. They can't all be wisecracks like the clip we saw. All the curses of high modernism was the conditions in which these writers of the great cop shows were formed. These are not the same values that make for great song. You can't have "I love you, but I've got to go."

The informing cultural precepts of that show seemed to belong to the side of post-war writing and art that sort of felt that the more cynical you were the smarter you were, that all great art was fundamentally ironic.

[Extended discussion about high modernist irony as a pervasive logic in TV and film.]

No one has really been able to make a successful show about defense attorneys.

David Thorburn: In the last 25 years.

John Romano: If there was a true yearning in the audience to see criminals defended. No doubt the audience is more in a Law & Order mood.

David Thorburn: I've seen a bit in print of the Yale and Harvard mafia who work in TV.

John Romano: The only important bit is that TV is made by drop-out English majors from good universities. When I got into it in the 80s and 90s, there was a literary inheritence that was always present. I think that ship has sailed. I think now you have a generation of really good, really smart, really talented filmmakers whose visions derive from movies, from graphic media. Their sensibilities are not founded on text. It already comes in visualized for. That being said, boy are they talented. It's a little harder for me to get some of the interesting angles if words aren't centrally in play in your drama. That doesn't mean all television has to look like entreatment, but take away the word, but there's not as much that would claim me. It's not that they're deprived of language, but that the language already comes in visual form. There are limits to what you can do with just word. But there may be some leakage in what we can accomplish when
we are no long logocentric.

It's also image mad. Deadwood is a very verbal show, but it's like a very verbal graphic novel. Juno is a really great literary film. Lars and the Real Girl. Six Feet Under is a very literary show.

Notes from the Q&A session will be posted tomorrow.