PRODUCER IN TELEVISION

Although 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 of movie.

In 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.

Some 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).

Beginning 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 Hollywood.)

The 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.

Respect 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).

 

One 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 role).

The 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).

Desilu 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.

-Michael Saen

FURTHER READING

Cantor, Muriel G., and Joel Cantor. The Hollywood TV Producer: His Work and His Audience. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction, 1988.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Hilmes, Michelle. Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Levinson, Richard and William Link. Stay Tuned: An Inside Look at the Making of Prime-time Television. New York: St. Martin's, 1981.

Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

Marc, David, and Robert Thompson. Prime Time Prime Movers. Boston: Little, Brown Publishers. 1992.

Newcomb, Horace, and Robert Alley. The Producer's Medium: Conversations With Creators of American TV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Schatz, Thomas. "Desilu, I Love Lucy, and the Rise of Network TV." In Thompson, Robert and Gary Burns, editors. Making Television: Authorship and the Production Process, New York: Praeger, 1993.

Selnow, Gary, and Richard R. Gilbert. Society's Impact On Television: How the Viewing Public Shapes Television Programming. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1993.

 

See also Director in Television; Independent Production Companies; Lear, Norman; Link, William; Levinson, Richaard; Martin, Quinn; Powell, Dick; Writer in Television