Inside Prime Time

by

Todd Gitlin’s Inside Prime Time (1982) closely examines the culture industry’s often-sticky relationship between the production, business, and management triad of network television. Gitlin’s text attempts to answer – or at least adds clarity – to one of our course’s main discussion points: how does the bottom line affect aesthetics, in this case, of television production.

The first unit, “Nothing Succeeds Like Success”, details how programmers fill in their prime-time grids. Through his numerous interviews with industry professionals, Gitlin discovers how taking a creative risk means taking an economic risk. Networks rely on past formulas to develop seemingly-new premises because they’re safe. One notable observation is how inductive reasoning was often favored over research and audience studies. These gut instincts ultimately limited the scope of new ideas brought to the silver screen.

The struggle between a program’s content and marketability emerged as one of the central themes of the second unit, “The Television-Industrial Complex”. In a medium where the audience is the commodity and reaching its targeted demo group is the goal, advertising appeal is vital. In chapter nine, ‘Movies of the Week’, Gitlin digs into the questions and issues behind commercial appeal. Why do some social issues translate to television gold, while others don’t? Why are shows featuring ethnic characters never a sure sell? When advertisers are spooked by a controversial actor or topic, how does a network respond? This brief education of television as a “living-room advertising medium” (pg. 192) leaves no doubt where programs and commercials rank in the hierarchy.

The case study of Hill Street Blues offers a thorough account of the typical push-pull, pick-it-apart tussle between production and management. According to Gitlin, creators Stephen Bochco and Michael Kozoll had  developed a show which broke the mold by employing never-before-seen production techniques and complex storylines. At first, the team was promised artistic freedom and the show flourished. Then, despite its critical acclaim and growing ratings, the show’s groundbreaking ways soon reverted back to the same predictable formulas, due in part to network pressures. Viewers have certain expectations, network executives argued, so why mess with a good thing? The text speaks to anyone who has suffered from the obstacles of stifled creativity in a very relatable way. In the fight between capitalism and creativity, money usually wins.

The viewer experience has evolved greatly over the past thirty years. Cable television and subscription services (Netflix) have given us more options, while high-definition television has offered us a whole new look. How have these changes impacted program content? Recycled programs like Hawaii Five-O, and a bundle of American Idol rip-offs make one point clear: the more things change, the more they (very predictably) stay the same.

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