March 8, 2008
MIT Communications Forum: Prime Time in Transition (2 of 2)

Questions from the Audience

Question: Given the rich spectrum of human drama that's available, I've always thought that cops and robbers as the least common denominator. Is the obsession with crime drama a feature of the TV industry, the audience, or some combo of the two?

John Romano: I think it's hardwired in the human being. The question of whether or not you're breaking the law is central to Antigone. Prof. David Thorburn told my class at Yale that a cop stands at the junction of social forces, and yet has to go home and be a person. The great foundational works of narrative fiction found cops very interesting, and the odd social place they occupy as perfect for a narrative exploration for our social issues. The fundamental question of how we can stand each other, how we can live with each other.

David Thorburn: One other thing to say from an academic or historical perspective: because these genres are so stable, it makes the cop show an incredibly interesting angle on the movement of American social history. The social pathology of crime becomes a subject in the 70s and then constricting again in the Regan years.

John Romano: There is such a thing as being reactionary, but if you're a good writer, you have to be aware of what people are afraid of that's causing the reaction.

Question: Late night TV seems to have more true crime mysteries. Why is it that they're on late night?

John Romano: These shows fit a voyeuristic urge, and preying on people's late night fears. They're just titillating our worst 4am sleepless anxieties. They're just giving people a kind of vicarious thrill. My warning to people who are putting money behind those shows is that the internet is doing it better. You cannot keep up with what the internet can provide. Because no matter how permissive the FCC gets, they're never going to permit what you can get online.

Question: Question about royalties and libraries. Do you think down the road the legal issue will prohibit libraries' ability to provide digital content?

John Romano: I know there's a lot of unpredictable aspects and I don't think anyone can predict right now what will make the right arrangement. I like the studios and networks that think there's money to be made in human stories and I don't want to de-incentivize the studio execs from the pennies they think they'll make. But everyone knows the internet is a place to get TV content, and there's ad revenue, and we just want a part of that.

Question: How do you think DVD will change the show forms, when you're expected to keep huge multi-hour narratives.

John Romano: I think that we're trying to keep up and trying to figure it out. Are there 3 minute scenes to lead people into the show? Are there extra scenes on the web that we didn't have room for in the show. You can follow rivulets off the main, and they won't have any definite length.

David Thorburn: A further theoretical implication is that it continues a process of destabilizing the text that's fundamentally altering the landscape of this kind of narrative. One caveat that's crucial -- we're living in an era that platforms go obsolete so quickly. There's no stability for these experiments to develop.

Question: Dickens is a great serial writer, and I was wondering if you see any relation between that and TV writing.

David Thorburn: That's where the form was really predicted. Not only were they serial, but you'd read it to the family. Not only that, but it came with commercials, advertisements in the margins. And Dickens watched the sales and changed the stories accordingly. There's a kind of appetite for audience. The most profound link was the sentimentality, the drama in very ordinary teenaged lives.

With watching TV on your computer, greater intimacy. It reminds me of listening to the radio as a kid.

Question: Has anyone realized that the point of marketing video software is to sell hardware?

John Romano: I can say yes to this extent. We are terrified about the kind of think you're talking about. Should we be?

Question: It would make your market wider. You could circumvent the studios by going to a hardware maker and make an agreement to put your show and market it on a PC.

John Romano: But if someone has all my shows on their PC when they buy it, they will never have to go and buy it.

David Thorburn: It's hard to take this a serious business model, because the computer is a great form of communication. Why would you buy a harddrive with video already on it, when you could pick and choose and download from the Internet.

Question: Question about product placement in TV.

John Romano: We had an executive producer who kept the show on the air by going directly to advertisers. But I found it very boring. We have enough to worry about without having to worry about the reference to Captain Crunch. But it's there. It's not something writers like doing.

[Shows clip from Hill Street Blues]

J: This was written by two guys who don't look too much unlike those two guys. We wrote it one line at a time, building until we were crazy with laughing.

D: I was hoping you would talk about the relationship between a cop and his snitch.

J: The relationship between cops and their informants is very steep, psychological territory. There's a kind of sense that we're both at each other's mercy, but you're fundamentally a cop and you're fundamentally a criminal. We built over a years a relationship between these two that's very knotted -- I'm sure queer theory would have a ball -- but they live with each other, they love each other. TV is very good at conveying that we don't get to play out the dramatic moments of our life without mundane interruptions.

But that's history -- we should look forward to what TV and movies might be. I see a generation of filmmakers making movies that have a lot of heart, great story telling, great narrative, great human truth. It's a bad time for the big hollywood movies and a bad time for the big hits. There will always be a lot of crap, but there's always little corners where people are doing something new. So they aren't coming out of literature and theater, but there's always stories to tell.