A lot has happened to television in the last few years, and all of it, down to a description of reality-show impresario Mark Burnett’s “fit butt,” makes it into New York Times reporter Bill Carter’s new book, Desperate Networks.
What else has befallen our favorite medium of late? Janet Jackson’s left breast, for one thing. For others: Two groups of people were marooned on desert islands (the casts of CBS’s Survivor and ABC’s Lost) and made their respective networks mints in the process; NBC was marooned in broadcasting, losing Katie Couric, Friends, Frasier, a billion dollars and its grip on Thursday nights; CBS News screwed up big time, a few times; the anchors of all the major-network newscasts left their chairs, none particularly of his own volition; Fox got American Idol; NBC president Jeff Zucker got promoted, and promoted, and promoted; CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves got Julie Chen and half of Viacom.
Mr. Carter breaks no big news in Desperate Networks, and what little nuggets he offers have already been picked over by the blogosphere or rendered obsolete by the passage of time. We could probably do without the sections on Katie Couric’s mental dalliance with the prospect of becoming—get this—the anchor of the CBS Evening News. But such are the challenges of media writing. Television itself is ephemeral, and daily journalism about television has all the longevity of a gnat. A book full of daily journalism about television, therefore, might as well be printed on sand.
There’s no greater evidence of this than Mr. Carter’s titular allusion to—and obvious fascination with—a little show called Desperate Housewives. He uses the boffo Sunday-night soap opera as a prime example of the vagaries of the TV business—which is a business, make no mistake, that he loves. Before it was picked up by ABC, every network, including Lifetime, passed on Desperate Housewives. Along the way, Marc Cherry, the creator, was duped by his agent, humiliated by the industry and insulted by everyone, including his mom. Then, as has happened many times in the industry (and so likewise in the book), a prescient executive had the good sense to champion his cause. Teri Hatcher signed on and the show made it to air, drew 25 million viewers for its first-season finale, lost its buzz and faded into the background—all before copies of Desperate Networks hit the shelves. It must have seemed like a really cool, relevant title when Mr. Carter came up with it, though.
So why write, publish, buy or read a book like this in the first place?
A recent Nielsen study of television viewership—about as trustworthy as a General Mills study of cereal adoration—suggested that the average American household watches eight hours of TV a day. A day! What else do Americans spend that much time doing? Not working, not eating, not going to movies, certainly not reading newspapers, not exercising, not praying, not shopping, not attending political rallies, not balancing checkbooks, not yammering on cell phones, not contemplating the meaning of life. Television is a pre-eminent cultural force: our most ubiquitous medium, certainly, and our most influential.
But much of it is so bad, you object. Exactly!
All of which is to say that television deserves good journalism. This is the implicit message of Desperate Networks, which as far as I can tell contains no explicit message other than “It’s difficult to find a hit show” (which it is—really difficult—and that’s why the networks are “desperate”). Mr. Carter is not a defender of the medium he’s covered for so long; nor an extoller, like some, of its innumerable virtues. He writes about television for the same reason most of us watch it: because it’s full of beautiful people, eccentric characters, exorbitant sums of money, familiar plotlines, canned humor, suspense, betrayal, sex. All the good stuff.
A longtime TV reporter for The Times and the author of The Late Shift (1994)—a book about how Jay Leno maneuvered his way into hosting the Tonight show that was turned into a grotesque HBO film—Mr. Carter has more access to television people, and probably cares more about television itself, than anyone in the industry. A network executive—who’s quoted favorably, anonymously and at length in the book—once told me that what separates Mr. Carter from all the other reporters on the beat is that he’s actually seen every single show on every network schedule. While some reporters may deign to watch a screener of whatever pap is coming up on the WB, Mr. Carter typically has favorite characters, an opinion about the sound editing and concerns with particular plot points.
He plainly respects TV people and TV, even in its seediest forms, and this is why his work is valuable. He devotes, for example, many studious, deferential pages of Desperate Networks to one Mike Darnell, the stringy-haired Fox executive who created Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? and a thousand other cringe-inducing programs in which fame-seeking morons sacrifice most of their dignity or nearly their lives. Mr. Carter loves Mike Darnell. He loves everyone, really, especially Leslie Moonves. One of the few television people who haven’t yet torn through a galley of the book asked me recently who its villains are. I’ve only found two: the cast of Friends, who are greedy jerks, and the corporate overlords of Disney, who are cheap.
Otherwise, according to Bill Carter, it’s a business full of smart, aspirational, creative, occasionally vicious but generally well-meaning individuals forever at the mercy of timing and luck. The networks may be desperate, but the people who run them and the shows they produce are reflections of America itself—full of enterprise, optimism and populist spunk. And if not, as Jeff Zucker used to say in the control room of the Today show, “Who gives a shit? It’s only television.”
Rebecca Dana writes NYTV for The Observer.