When I met Steven Bochco in 1991, he was already one of the most successful producers in television history. Having made one fortune already, he would go on to make several more. Steven’s father, Rudolph, was a violinist with the NBC orchestra, and he played under the demanding and irascible Maestro Arturo Toscanini; his mother, Mimi, was a painter. Once in a story conference when a preppy writer asked him what economic class he came from, Steven grimaced. “The artist class.”
Steven’s principal artistic expression was in his work as a producer. A TV show is a living thing, and the story is an interactive dynamic of considerable complexity that Steven conducted with absolute aplomb and authority. People who attempted to override Steven inevitably found he had anticipated their actions. When one of the studios attempted to sell one of Steven’s shows to itself, his lawsuit was already prepared and was filed the same day. I’d estimate that saved him around $100 million. The owner of the studio was so disturbed by this show of ingratitude he rearranged seating in the commissary so as not to ever again see Steven. The incident and his victory made Steven a hero to the artist class in a way conventional success does not.
The studios were and are a crooked business, i.e., what you’d expect in an industry founded by men who ran away to California to avoid enforcement of Thomas Edison’s patent monopoly on motion pictures. Gutsy entrepreneurs, you might say, since their bet that California courts would refuse to recognize the legal process emanating from the East paid off, big time. Big in laughs, too, because the New York and New Jersey courts were held to be corrupt by the bought-and-paid-for California bench. All part of the glorious human pageant that we in Hollywood make our stories out of.
Steven Bochco and Stephen J. Cannell were two of the first writer-producers to become production houses, and to make very substantial fortunes. Both had started at Universal Studios, which Lew Wasserman ran with partners from Chicago.
There were three broadcast networks in 1991, and the Fox proto-network had programming three nights a week. Statistically, the largest number of people watched television for a few hours after dinner every night—a period known as “prime time.” After prime time was 10 o’clock, which was held to be after prime time, which it wasn’t. Because the kids were in bed, “more adult” programming might be safely aired.
There was no binge watching, no DVRs; TiVo wasn’t introduced until 1999. The way television worked was simple. A producer would be assigned a time slot of 10 o’clock Tuesday on ABC. With it came the job of altering people’s regular viewing habits, which, once established, were resistant to change. A producer who mishandled relations with the network risked winding up in a death slot, up against Monday Night Football or facing rival networks’ mega-hits in their dramatic prime.
Some of the most fascinating conversations I recall with Steven and David Milch concerned how the initial “pilot” episode could appeal to a viewer’s unconscious using polysemic symbolic language. Polysemy refers to a symbol’s capacity to carry multiple meanings. Some linguistic theorists believe that a given symbol’s multiple meanings converge on a central meaning that we may not consciously recognize. Unconsciously, it becomes part of a psychic process that produces a desired effect.
One day we were talking about people in our business we had worked for. Steven said he wasn’t afraid of anyone, but there was one gentleman who gave him the jim-jams. “I don’t know why that is,” Steven mused. I reminded him that the man in question was famous for sodomizing young men and beating them senseless in a chain-festooned dungeon. “That might be it,” Steven agreed.
Steven understood people, he understood the world, and he was willing to show the world as much of itself as the world could stand to see. Short of jeopardizing his treasury of “on-air commitments,” of course. On-air commitments—the gold bullion of the land of bullshit. Steven had more of them than anyone.
One thing you could do with a mega-corrupt system in a TV drama was to show the good parts of the system, the honorable parts of a rotten whole, as in NYPD Blue, a show I wrote for with David Milch under Steven’s banner. TV shows like that raise a town like New York up. When you can’t speak freely about corruption, and you usually can’t, another way in is to make it a musical. If we’re going to have thugs running things, let ’em sing and dance like they did in the 1930s. Cop Rock was the hallucinatory musical show Steven produced, to what we must concede was widespread derision.
A few years earlier Steven had produced an animated show where Jewish mice were gassed underground and the survivors moved to Washington, D.C. People were aghast. Steven was undeterred.
The Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely, both psychologists and behavioral economists, have written extensively about the unconscious component of our minds and its profound influence on our choices, and how unaware most of us are of the very existence of an unconscious self. A blunter assessment came from Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon back in the 1980s. “In order to have anything like a complete theory of human rationality, we have to understand what role emotion plays in it,” he said in his book Reason in Human Affairs. Or as David Milch would say, “Don’t listen to what people say, watch what they do.”
Steven conceived of the relationship between the viewer and the drama as an intimate familial one, tightly bound up with one’s idea of the self. To succeed, a new TV show must convince a viewer to break existing habits, to sever a longstanding relationship with another TV show. The emotional dynamic was the same as a sexual seduction. You were breaking up a marriage. The seduction, after all, is only the first phase; then there’s guilt. The viewer will feel guilty about dumping their current show, which they have formed a bond with, a bond which Steven stressed must be respected. Having won the viewer’s heart, you must now earn their trust. The easiest way to do that is to be worthy of that trust. You did not do that explicitly or directly, but in subtext and symbols configured to address the viewer’s unconscious.
Anyone who denies or fails to recognize the power of a symbol and its effect on the unconscious is to that degree, and in proportion to, under the influence. Some people can see and read symbolic languages, and talk about the twilight language. That is quite different, part of hermetic mystical tradition. Dramatic artists work with images and symbols empirically and in living relation to the characters. Later, to the characters and the actors playing the characters. The unconscious mind perceives and interprets symbols and patterns, meanings that elude conscious recognition and operate below the level of our conscious awareness.
Steven was not above using a small dog to evoke emotion, a melodramatic convention that appalled David. This allowed Steven in turn to whisper faux-confidentially, “That’s why I have a jet and he doesn’t.”
Steven made many legendary deals in Hollywood. After signing one, Steven took the head of the studio to lunch. Afterwards the studio boss said, “Thanks for lunch.” “Thanks for the 90 million,” said Steven.
We had lunch in Beverly Hills a couple years ago. Steven had just been successfully treated for blood cancer and had received a bone-marrow transplant from an anonymous young donor he looked forward to thanking, if the young donor elected to waive anonymity. I never mentioned I was writing a story on corruption at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. That was the last time I saw him.
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Ted Mann is an Emmy award-winning writer who worked on NYPD Blue, Deadwood, Hatfield McCoy, and Homeland.