How to pitch a TV episode in 1967 - Macleans.ca
 

How to pitch a TV episode in 1967


 

I recently read the book The Studio by John Gregory Dunne, where he followed people around the 20th Century Fox lot for a year and reported on what life was like inside a major studio. The book is a bit thin on insight, but valuable for reasons that the author only vaguely knew about when it was written: it turned out to be about a studio on the brink of disaster (thanks to some of the movies whose production process was described in the book: Dr. Dolittle, Star! and Hello, Dolly! among them) and a whole old-school movie industry trying to carry on as if nothing had changed since the ’30s.

Anyway, though the book is classified as a movie book, Dunne spent a surprising amount of time with Fox’s TV producers – he was a TV fan, as I’ve mentioned before when I wrote about his high opinion of Gunsmoke, and he seemed charmed by the old-fashioned showbiz hucksterism of Fox’s star TV producer at the time, Irwin Allen. In another chapter, he visits with Paul Monash, a writer-producer who developed Peyton Place, U.S. network TV’s first successful prime-time serial. At the time the book was written, Monash was trying to launch another series, a legal procedural (though they didn’t call them that back then) originally called Judd, which wound up lasting two years on the air as Judd For the Defense. It turned out to be a well-reviewed series in the mold of The Defenders (though not as well-reviewed or respected as that very important series), a law show dealing with ripped-from-the-headlines issues.

In the book, Dunne reports on a pitch meeting between Monash and a freelance writer, a respected veteran named William Froug, himself the former producer of a legal drama called Sam Benedict. The meeting is an interesting if brief look at the process of selling a TV drama episode. Some things have changed since then: TV producers are less openly blasé, and less inclined to admit in front of a reporter that they’re engaging in cookie-cutter plotting or recycling of older scripts.

But some things haven’t changed that much. The key thing here is how Monash and the writer instinctively – without network prodding, just based on what they know the network will accept – water down a contemporary, relevant issue until it’s something vague and bland that couldn’t offend anyone. That still happens all the time, or at least that’s what turns up on our screens (issues of the day watered down, or presented in an oblique or allegorical way). Another thing that hasn’t changed is that it’s easier to plot out a TV drama if there’s some crime involved.

The setup is that Monash, who hopes “that his lawyer hero would each week become enmeshed in a controversial case that involved a certain amount of social commentary,” listens a rather convoluted pitch from Froug about an editor actively seeking a lawsuit from an evil police chief.

Monash sucked on the soda bottle. “Why’s the editor write the editorial?” he said.

“Because he wants a libel suit,” Froug said. “He knows the cop will sue him for libel, and he figures if he can get Judd as his defense attorney, Judd can break down the cop in court and prove he was a murderer.”

“I don’t get the chief’s dilemma,” Monash said. He knotted his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling, considering the story.

“You mean the turn in the middle?” Froug said.

“Mmmmm,” Monash mused. “I mean what makes the chief a sadist. Maybe there’s some kind of venal reason.” He kept examining the ceiling. “And I don’t think your editor works. Editors are too careful about libel.”

There was silence in the office as both Monash and Froug contemplated alternative plot possibilities. The only sound was the whirring of the air conditioner.

“How about this?” Monash said finally. “How about a letter to the paper? The editor can publish a disclaimer, ‘the views in the letters column are not the views of the paper,’ some bullshit like that. You see, the editor covers himself, but at the same time he has some inside information he wants out in the open. So he gets a citizen with status in the community to write the letter.”

“Someone with clout,” Froug said.

“Now we need a little motivation,” Monash said. He began snapping his fingers. “Why does a guy get hot pants to get the chief?” He thought for a moment. “Maybe he just wants the excitement.”

Froug looked doubtful.

“Look,” Monash said, “part of the reason I went to the peace march in Century City was because I thought it was going to be exciting. Sure, it mirrored my views, I think the Vietnam war is shit, but I thought I’d get a little jazz out of the march, too.” He stared somewhat enviously at Froug. “You were there, weren’t you beaten up?”

“No, I was just ducking blows,” Froug said. “Quite frankly, that’s how I came up with this idea.”

“Con-tro-ver-sy,” Monash said. He laughed disparagingly.

“That’s right,” Froug said. “I know you want controversial subjects for Judd. Well, you got one in police brutality.” He brightened suddenly. “We could even have a demonstration in this story.”

Monash seemed resigned. “What in TV terms would be an acceptable demonstration?” he said. “We can’t have a peace march, we know that.”

“The only acceptable demonstration in television land is against stamping on dogs,” Froug said.

“I’ve got it,” Monash said suddenly. “Who says we’ve got to say what kind of demonstration? What if we never said what the demonstration was all about? What if we just let the audience fill it in in their own minds?”

Froug considered that. “What about a love-in?” he countered. “I’m very interested in kids. I’m executive director of Community Action for Fact and Freedom and we helped negotiate peace on the Sunset Strip when the kids rioted up there.”

Monash shook his head. “The problem with a love-in is that it’s not mobile enough in camera terms. Look, we don’t have to say the Century Plaza, but that’s what it’s all about.”

“Okay,” Froug said.

“And we’ve got to make the situation with the police chief more venal. Someone should have his hand in the till. We need a crime, because I don’t think the demonstration will fill out much in terms of plot. You get a crime, you get some pressures between Judd and the principals. And crime works in the mytholand of TV.” Monash ran his fingers around the neck of his turtle-neck sweater. “We might even have Judd lose this one.”

“Has he lost one yet?” Froug said.

Monash shook his head. “No, but I think the time has come. We can’t have every case turn on, ‘Yes, Mrs. Mazurki,’ but is this the prescription for your glasses?'”

Froug laughed. “The name of the game today is race riots and police brutality and we’re sitting here doing stories on crooked cops.”

“Don’t fight it,” Monash shrugged. “There’s one more thing. You got any good stories left over from your Sam Benedict days that we could steal? We’re hurting.”

“Sure, no problem,” Froug said. The suggestion did not seem to surprise him.

“You got any, we’ll disguise them,” Monash said. “Change a him to a her, a gun to a knife, you know. But we are really hard up for stories. I just bootlegged a copy of a Defenders script on the M’Naghten Rule to see how they handled it.”

“What’s mine is yours,” Froug said. He stood up and yawned. “I’ll go through the files to see what I have and then I’ll call you in a couple of days about the editor and the police chief.”

I can’t find a description of an episode that corresponds to the one they’re talking about (maybe it wasn’t made), but here’s a clip from an episode that tried to deal with hippies. I’m sure this is not a fair representation of the series, though. TV in the late ’60s was never at its best dealing with hippies.


 
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How to pitch a TV episode in 1967