Spring 2011

The Wonder Years

Fred Silverman, former president of ABC and longtime network executive, reflects on TV in its early days, the move to the West Coast, and how the medium grew up.

Steven Ross 1. When you went to grad school in broadcasting in the early '60s, were you thinking of becoming a director?

Yes, I was. I thought I would be a good director, but my adviser there said, 'You're never going to be Elia Kazan.' And he said, 'You ought to think of going into programming, which is creative and also takes advantage of your research and theater background.' If I went the other route, I probably would have directed for about a year and
ended up selling suits at Barneys.

2. Your master's thesis was on the growth of ABC between 1953 and 1959. How did changes there affect the overall development of TV?

It enormously influenced the development of TV. The network started with the merger of ABC with United Paramount Theatres engineered by ABC founder and first president Leonard Goldenson in 1953. Goldenson came from the theatrical exhibition business and was the first person to realize the value of Hollywood and the studio system to television. He made a historic deal with Walt Disney that partially financed Disneyland and was responsible for two shows—Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, which turned primetime upside down, and also the first really successful network kids' strip, The Mickey Mouse Club. And on the basis of that success they went on to make a deal with Jack Warner, who became a prolific supplier of programming to ABC. All the networks and studios followed suit. It was during that period through the end of the decade that the business really turned from the East Coast to the West Coast, and mostly on film, and mostly hour shows.

3. Did the move to the West Coast affect who was getting to direct TV?

I think it did because in the early days of television, the live drama shows, and there were a dozen of them—The Philco Playhouse, Kraft Television Theatre, The United States Steel Hour—attracted different kinds of directors. There were very young directors who were a couple of years out of film school and found their directing chops on live television. And then there were some very successful directors who came from the East Coast theater. TV was then really a medium where the creative was shared between the producer and the director. The director had a very strong voice in those anthology shows. It was during that period that directors such as John Frankenheimer and many others cut their teeth. And those directors made the move with television to the West Coast. But from that point on, most of the directors really came from a film orientation and not a live theater background.

4. How did the job of directing TV evolve?

Well, the East Coast directors were used to dealing with shows that were being done live. They believed they were directing plays and there was no going back [for shots]. They would do a table reading, then they would do a rehearsal, then they'd do a dress, and they went on the air. And before they had tape, they did the show twice. They would do it for the East Coast and Central time zones, and then three hours later, they would repeat the show for the West Coast, just like they did in the old days of radio. But from that point on, when the business moved to the West Coast, I think most of the directors came from a film orientation. It was a different medium. In a live broadcast you had a lot of people in the control room that weren't really necessary in doing a film. And they had three or four cameras instead of one camera. It was just a different style of production.

5. The Guild is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year by recognizing directors of game-changing TV shows. One was All in the Family, which you worked on. How did that revolutionize TV?

All in the Family revolutionized TV because of its content. In terms of production it was actually an old-fashioned show. It was no different than The Honeymooners. There was an audience, three or four cameras, and they shot it. But the content was just unbelievably realistic. In terms of language and subject matter, it covered things that were unheard of. Norman Lear was fearless. And John Rich was as good as they come as a director and he did most of the shows.

6. How important to a show's success was it having the continuity of one director doing all the episodes?

Very important. Because they lived with those characters and knew every nuance. From the shooting draft of the script until what was actually taped, I think the directors then contributed immeasurably to the success of the individual shows. Because they really knew how these characters acted and reacted and would make it up on stage, right up until the final taping. And like Rich, Jay Sandrich did all The Mary Tyler Moore shows. All the major shows usually had one director. The audience shows did; I'm not talking about [single camera] shows like M*A*S*H—that was a little different.

7. On M*A*S*H Gene Reynolds was a key part of the creative team as a director and a producer. How important was his contribution?

Gene and Larry Gelbart were really the guiding lights and I think they worked hand in hand. It was almost like they were joined at the hip. And I think they combined talents; they complemented each other beautifully. They were willing to try a lot of new things. I believe they did one show in black and white. I thought it was a landmark show.

8. Another game-changing program you did later at ABC was Hill Street Blues. Was the director's role important in that series?

Oh, enormous, because that was really the first true ensemble show and led the way for so many shows to follow. The St. Elsewheres and L.A. Laws and now almost all shows are patterned after that: ensemble casts, multiple stories, and continuing story arcs. It was shot like a film, not a TV show. It had a cinematic feeling to it, like cinéma vérité, I guess you'd say. It used handheld cameras for the first time in TV. The show looked like a movie, it didn't look like the fl at-lit television that you saw coming out of Universal Studios or 20th. It was also the first show that mixed comedy and drama. It was really innovative and the audience didn't know what to make of it. So the directors obviously played a big part in that.

9. Movies for television were a very active genre when you were at the networks.

When I look back at some of the achievements in long form in the movie of the week area, they're amazing. Going back to Steven Spielberg and Duel (1971), which was a tour de force. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) directed by John Korty, a really terrific show. Sam O'Steen's Queen of the Stardust Ballroom (1975) with Maureen Stapleton. And then more topical things like Lamont Johnson's The Execution of Private Slovik (1974), and John Erman's An Early Frost (1985). The list of really great long forms just goes on and on. And most of them were produced in the late '60s, '70s, and going into the '80s. And then the bean counters kind of took control and they said, well, these things don't repeat very well, and we can make more money by doing series, so the movie of the weeks kind of died a slow death. And it's too bad, because the really good movies of the week carried on the tradition of the live dramas that were done in the '50s on the East Coast.

10. With the fragmentation of channels and Internet delivery of programming, where do you think TV is headed today?

I think there's still going to be half-hour comedies and hour dramas and occasional movies. The only thing that's going to change is the distribution platforms and the road each of these things takes to get to the viewers' screens. Now the product is usually made for a network and goes from the network either onto cable or syndication or some combination of both. But that may change in the future. You may add a component of on-demand where a couple of major multiple system operators will get together and they'll fund a series of movies and then it goes first to the cable operators, and then the networks or the syndicators. The other thing that you are ultimately going to have is the Internet and television as part of the same receiver. Technology is just moving so fast you can't keep up with the distribution. But the truth is, a close-up is still a close-up, and a camera dolly is still a camera dolly. You've still got to light the sets. The basic elements of directing haven't really changed since the very beginning. From the time that Sergei Eisenstein wrote his treatise on the cinema, nothing has really changed that much. It really hasn't.

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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