Norman Lear, whose TV screen cred goes back to the beginning of the medium as well as encompassing his own landmark shows, has said on more than one occasion he believes the Golden Age of television is right now, not during the heyday of his shows All in the Family and Maude nor lost amidst the initial, dazzling creativity in the 1950s. The range of choices, the improved technology, the freedom for writers and performers to explore just about any topic are all remarkable now. I have to agree, but with one significant hesitation: Where are the extraordinary presentations of great American plays that used to appear, infrequently but powerfully, on network television? I saw Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones, and a number of other landmark plays for the first time on ABC, NBC and CBS.
I know times, tastes and business models change, but consider: these golden treasures of American theater weren’t telecast to reap great financial profits — Sticks and Bones, part of a Vietnam trilogy that aired during that war, was so controversial many CBS affiliates refused to carry it — but rather as civic events somewhere between a public service effort and an expression of pride in American cultural accomplishment. The most gifted actors, writers and directors offered, often for scale wages, profound American works of art to their fellow citizens. And this was when there were only three broadcast networks. Now with the digital revolution and our four round-the-clock networks, there are more possible video streams flowing into every household than anyone can keep track of. Is there no way to offer a vast national audience — many of whom have no local access to theater of any kind — a dramatic crust of bread?
I’d like to offer this proposal: presidents of the networks Reilly, Moonves, Sweeney and Zucker: no matter how hard you work and what choices you make, at least one (and more) of your hour-long dramas will get poor ratings, debut and stay in the bottom 20 rated shows. You can cancel it and drop something else in there, but really, what’s going to change? Not to name names, butDollhouse (FOX), Miami Medical (CBS), Happy Town (ABC), and after a stellar run Law & Order (NBC) ate ratings pavement in the 2009-2010 season. So why not stop looking for a new twist to a cop/lawyer/doctor/weird town drama, make a deal with the Center Theatre Group or the Geffen Playhouse or the Public Theater, give ’em that hour every week, expect miserable ad sales for it, and let them fill it with something rich and powerful, something emotionally and culturally provident: dramatic gold from the past and present of the American theater. Compress some plays if necessary, use one-acts, split How I Learned to Drive or The Piano Lesson over two weeks.
Your network will probably wind up with some additional Emmys, Golden Globes and Peabodys and personally, maybe you’ll find life a little sweeter because there’s one less hour to worry about finding content for in your weekly program schedule.
Ladies and gentlemen, would it be so hard to bring a little more shine to this Golden Age?