the medium's technical complexity demands that any television program
is a collective product involving many talents and decision makers,
in American television it is the producer who frequently serves
as the decisive figure in shaping a program. Producers assume direct
responsibility for a show's overall quality and continued viability.
Conventional wisdom in the industry consequently labels television
"the producer's medium"--in contrast to film, where the director
is frequently regarded as the key formative talent in the execution
fact, producers' roles vary dramatically from show to show or organization
to organization. Some highly successful producers, such as Quinn
Martin and Aaron Spelling, are primarily business executives presiding
over several programs. They may take an active role in conceiving
new programs and pitching (presenting them for sale) to networks,
but once a show is accepted they are likely to concentrate on budgets,
contracts, and troubleshooting, handing over day-to-day production
to their staffs, and exercising control only in a final review of
episodes. Other producers are more intimately involved in the details
of each episode, participating actively in screenwriting, set designs,
casting and--like James Burrows--serving as a frequent director
for their programs. Still others serve as enabling mid-managers
who delegate crucial activities to directors, writers, and actors,
but who choose such personnel carefully, and enforce critical standards,
while working to insulate the creative staff from outside pressures.
Many producers dispatch their duties within studio hierarchies,
while others own independent companies, sometimes contracting space,
equipment, and personnel from studios.
scholars consider the producer television's auteur, suggesting that
shows should be considered above all extensions of the producer's
individual, creative sensibility (Marc, 1989; Marc and Thompson,
1992). Rather than creators freely following a vision, however,
producers typically function as orchestrators of television programs,
applying the resources available within an organization to the problem
of mounting a show each week. Those resources--and deeper cultural
presumptions about television's social roles and limits--may shape
the producer's ambitions as much as he shapes them (Gitlin, 1983).
in the mid-1970s, Hollywood embraced an auteurist theory of its
own, when the success of well-written comedies produced by small,
writer-centered independent companies led to the presumption that
the literate writer-producer was the single most indispensable creative
resource for generating new shows attractive to demographically
desirable audiences. Both studios and networks began an escalating
trend of signing promising writer-producers to long-term, concessionary
contracts. The most notorious--and arguably the most successful--was
ABC and 20th Century-Fox's 1988 agreement with Steven Bochco to
underwrite and air the next ten shows he conceived--a decision which
offered Bochco room to experiment, sometimes disastrously, with
shows like Cop Rock, an attempt to bring opera to prime time.
The emphasis on the producer-as-author marked the culmination of
a concerted shift from 1950s industry procedure, which regarded
the networks' relationships with particular studios as the most
decisive aspect in generating new programming. Arguably, the shift
represented a move away from a factory system whose emphases were
standardization and cost containment, and whose most desirable TV
producer was an effective employee or bureaucrat, toward an arts
and crafts model of TV whose emphasis was differentiation and variety,
and whose most desirable producer was a talented visionary with
a track record. (The shift manifests the transformation of filmmaking
from studio-centered Hollywood to the talent packages of the New
expanding syndication market assured that producers--who can negotiate
part-ownership of their shows--could enjoy not only creative scope
but considerable financial reward as well. By the 1990s, observers
within the industry noted that college graduates once eager to become
network executives or studio employees now arrived hoping to become
producers--a shift in the sociology of television production with
potential import to the comparatively new medium.
for producers' creativity, however, did not mitigate Hollywood's
strong inclination to treat producers as specialists in specific
genres. When, for example, the successful action-adventure producer
Steven Cannell tried to diversify into comedy in the early 1980s,
the networks were unreceptive, on the grounds that Cannell had no
demonstrated skill in comedy. As with many commercial artists, then,
the television producer's scope of innovation is generally delimited
by convention, and often amounts to a variation in formula rather
than a dramatic break with practices or expectations held by the
industry or the producer's audiences (Newcomb and Alley, 1983; Selnow
and Gilbert, 1993).
sign that the producer is not an individual auteur is the multiplication
of producer credits seen on American shows since the mid 1980s.
Programs may identify an "executive producer" (sometimes a financial
underwriter, sometimes the conceiver of the show's premise), an
associate producer, a supervising producer (who usually serves as
head writer), a line producer (who oversees day-to-day production),
or list any combination of these titles (which hardly comprise an
exhaustive list), all in addition to the regular "producer." Such
credits may reflect a complex division of labor established by the
organization or packagers producing a show. They can also reflect
the growing negotiating power of participants in a highly successful
show, who, no longer content simply to write or act, wish to have
contractual control over the assembly of entire episodes, and perhaps,
eventually, develop a measure of artistic and financial independence
by forming their own production companies. In any case, the proliferating
credits suggest that "producerly" authority is divisible and negotiable,
not individual and singular--a construction emerging from institutional
pressures and politics (though individual talents and preferences
of course affect how a given person executes any institutionally-defined
first television producers were studio personnel in local stations
across the country. They included advertising agency employees who
put together shows in the years of sponsor controlled programming.
Somewhat later, the Hollywood executives assigned to the first television
divisions of the studios were known as producers (Anderson, 1994).
All, in turn, may have owed elements of their jobs to precursors
in radio (Hilmes, 1990). But the TV producer's definition as a uniquely
creative figure was probably initiated by Desi Arnaz and Lucille
Ball, who, in 1950, formed Desilu expressly to produce I Love
Lucy on their own terms. Their crucial innovation of shooting
shows on film in front of a studio audience combined the excitement
of live performance with the quality control of film, and enabled
reruns and syndication, thus transforming television economics,
as well as the struggle for creative control (Schatz, 1990).
serves as an important example of the simultaneously artistic and
commercial role of the producer. Given the series format of most
television programming, the producer--much more than a film director--is
ultimately faced with operating an economically, logistically, and
theatrically successful assembly line, and so their influence on
a program stems from their entrepreneurial, as well as their formal,
ingenuity. Like so much else about television, the producer's role
combines traditionally conceived realms of "artistic" and "managerial"
decision making into a hybrid activity in which artistic criteria
and commercial calculation impinge on each other.
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Michelle. Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable.
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Richard and William Link. Stay Tuned: An Inside Look at the Making
of Prime-time Television. New York: St. Martin's, 1981.
David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture.
Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.
David, and Robert Thompson. Prime Time Prime Movers. Boston:
Little, Brown Publishers. 1992.
Horace, and Robert Alley. The Producer's Medium: Conversations
With Creators of American TV. New York: Oxford University Press,
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Robert and Gary Burns, editors. Making Television: Authorship
and the Production Process, New York: Praeger, 1993.
Gary, and Richard R. Gilbert. Society's Impact On Television:
How the Viewing Public Shapes Television Programming. Westport,
Connecticut: Praeger, 1993.
in Television; Independent
Production Companies; Lear,
Quinn; Powell, Dick;