The Death and Rebirth of Television
A few days ago, I was lucky enough to get a little time for a one on one interview with television producer Heather Ferreira and ask her some frank questions about her views on the state of the entertainment industry. This 41-year-old retro TV addict says American television is seriously out of whack, but she and her new NYC-based studio are going to turn it around. You’ve been quoted saying that American television has lost its direction. Tell me what you believe is wrong with TV in the United States today. The baseline answer is that art cannot be mass-produced like a hamburger, but our networks in charge think it can.
I would say a good 40% of male pop songs since 2004 have had almost exactly the same four-chord progression and melody as Tyrone Wells’s single “More”. There’s female versions of it, too. Not to fault the artists – they wouldn’t get signed if they refused to sound like that – but when you have corporate boardrooms deciding what gets played and seen, that’s what you get. Everything starts looking and sounding the same. That’s fine if you manufacture widgets or shoot burgers down a conveyor belt. But music, television, and movies should not be produced that way. The second problem is modern TV has lost touch with the times. Hypersexed, hyperviolent, hyperprofanity-filled shows actually look dated. That’s why Mad Men is doing so well: this is a show that has turned back the clock to an era many Americans wish would return. People are sick of shows being made for teenagers and pumped artificially with juvenile shock value. Even teenagers are sick of it. They aged into their twenties and corporate TV didn’t notice. Shows are still being made for the same Generation Y 19 year old, and he’s 28 now.
Probably the biggest problem facing television in America today is that it has relinquished its job as cultural storyteller and public steam-pressure release valve. There used to be guys like Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear, making network sitcoms that introduced mainstream or white Christian Americans to new ethnic and religious minorities in a gentle, funny way that addressed the mainstream’s concerns but made minorities feel welcome. Those shows were “teaching shows”. People observed in Archie how mainstream fear, unchecked, becomes ugly, but the show also treated Archie and his demographic with respect, and heard him out. Not so anymore. Now all we have are competing 24-hour news channels, producers under the gun to keep eyeballs on the screen on slow news days, and so manufacturing fake outrage has become the way to do it. News programs actually pit American versus American, position red against blue as though politics is a football game, and our entire national discourse has plummeted. All because news producers can’t find enough real news to fill Ted Turner’s misguided 24/7 news channel schedule. It’s impossible: there isn’t enough bad news happening in the world to fill 168 straight hours of airtime.
One of Ted Turner’s ideas from back in the Big Eighties is running our country in 2009. Think about it. A show like All In The Family, The Jeffersons or Maude is vital today to ease down this heightened, polarized religious, ethnic and political atmosphere. Yet you won’t find a single one on any network. Why not? Again, this goes back to who’s in charge. Corporations fear anything potentially controversial. I understand their concern, but good TV is art, art is controversial by nature, and fear is killing every possible avenue for good television. You claim you and your company can fix American television. How do you intend to do that? I don’t know if any single company, especially a small one, can “fix” American TV per se. But we are going to put out some shows that appeal to Americans sick of the way shows are now, and I think we’ll meet some success with that. We have several sitcoms and other shows in development to do that, and are producing two series now. All of these will be DVD. There’s also a forum where viewers can login, make friends with other viewers, chat about the shows and start Meetups where they can all pop in their DVDs at the same time and watch them together, kind of like a virtual TV network airing the show on a prime time schedule.
Where community has been broken, the internet allows us to rebuild. If we were producing a Charlie Brown special, for instance, everybody could put in the DVD at 8:00pm EST, and the cartoon would start in a million homes simultaneously at 8:00. Pop popcorn, drink some Tang, and you’re there. Ultimately the plan is to start a network airing nothing but new shows made to look like TV used to, before MTV and the corporate coup d’etat at all the networks. That network should be up and running by 2011. In the meantime you need shows to fill the schedule, and those are what we’re working on now. Hopefully we’ll do well, and if we do, other networks will copy us. If they do it well, TV will change. But our shows will be better than theirs because we’ll go places they won’t. We’re not afraid of art, and the art is what’s going to make people watch.
If controversy arises because we did something right – showing Muslims as human beings, for instance, in a “Chico & The Man” kind of sitcom; or allowing people to talk and live on TV the way people really do in real life, not the politically correct, nonsmoking fairy tale of social behavior nobody adheres to except the media – then that’s good controversy. Bad controversy is the other stuff intended for shock value, the things networks put into shows to deliberately create online outrage and ratings – we all know examples, and that’s something we won’t be interested in. You’ve created an educational series, “Sunshine Again”, that many viewers say reminds them of 1970’s Sesame Street. Why did you produce this show, and what do you say to people who think what you’re doing is plagiarism? I came up with Sunshine Again as a response to what I saw as The Children’s Television Workshop straying from classic production values they used successfully during the old days when Jim Henson was there. First of all, I’m one of those people who continued watching Sesame Street long after you are supposed to. I noticed the changes happening in and around the show and reacted to them personally. I asked myself, am I just growing out of the show? I realized no, I was witnessing a kid learning to drive a car as he begins losing control of the steering wheel and heading towards a ditch, and him panicking and instead of putting his foot on the brake, stomping the accelerator.
If you love the kid, you yell “No!” and start running towards the car to get inside it and stop him, save his life. It started with phone calls. I called a couple people I knew over at CTW and said, is there someone I can talk to? I’m in Hollywood, blah blah, and I’m a writer at PM Entertainment and I want to make a few suggestions, because I think your show, if you don’t change it soon, is going to lose ratings and eventually crash. I got a call back, things developed, I produced another kids’ show, and got invited to Sesame Workshop where I said all those things in person. But as Frank Oz was told later when he made similar suggestions to the kid behind the steering wheel, I was told thanks but no thanks. As of 2009 the show has crashed into a ditch much like I said it would. Sesame Workshop lost ratings and had to lay off a lot of people. Some of them are working now on Sunshine Again. All agree the right kind of children’s show looks the way we are doing it. To those who say Sunshine Again looks a lot like Sesame Street, I say sure, thank you, but be more specific. To me, it looks a lot like Sesame Street used to, back between 1969 and 1977. Any later than that, I’m not interested in. Sunshine Again also looks a lot like Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo in some places. Other places, it looks like brand new things of its own. One thing you can be certain of, it is meant to evoke children’s TV on PBS before 1977. If it sounds and looks like that era, we did our job effectively. If people feel we’re plagiarizing, they should stay tuned. I’m not here to plagiarize any specific TV show. It’s far broader and more freeing than that. I plan to carbon copy the feel of an entire era.
Trackback from your site.