Norman Lear, the greatest TV comedy producer of all time, can’t get a series made these days, he says. The Producer’s Guild of America may have named its episodic comedy award after Lear, but good luck getting a Lear-made episodic comedy on the air now. In a TV-transforming run through the 1970s, Lear tackled the most controversial issues of the time – including racism, abortion, sexism and so much else – but he says the only time he’s ever been censored is today.
Lear, now almost 92 and reflecting on his legendary career in a packed session at the PGA’s Produced By conference, said no one ever told him, “You can’t do that,” while he was producing ground-breaking shows such as All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons. But today, when he pitches a comedy that’s set in a retirement village, nobody wants to hear about it.
“They don’t want to touch the demographic,”he said. Apparently, he said, there’s only room for one old person (that would be another comedy veteran, Betty White, who actually is a few months older than Lear) on network television today.
The name of the show Lear has been pitching is Guess Who’s Dead?, a title that got a huge laugh from the audience. It is particularly ironic that Lear, whose People for the American Way organization long has fought for free speech and civil rights, isn’t free to speak to a wider audience than the one gathered Sunday on the Warner Brothers lot, because what he has to say about “the foolishness of the human condition” is as timeless as it is wise and funny.
Moderator and Modern Family producer Steve Levitan, who has won more PGA Norman Lear Awards than anyone, asked if there was any subject that Lear believes is too controversial for a TV show to explore. Lear shot back, “I never did anything that I thought would make a state secede from the Union.”
Lear said the greatest lesson he could pass on came from Jean Stapleton, the late co-star of All in the Family. “She’s always where she is,” he said, very Zen-like. “Always be where you are.”
In contrast to Lear’s humor and humanity, the under-forty speakers at the next panel on ‘Emerging Majors’ oozed techno jargon and youth-minded obsession. Fittingly, those in attendance were urged to follow Lear’s example to “be where you are” and turn off their cell phones.
Three panelists said they don’t even watch network television–that they get their news and entertainment from their mobile devices. Each mentioned the word “young” or “younger” at least once. Subtitled “New possibilities for scripted storytelling,” the panelists discussed storytelling as if they were meat packagers.
“For us, platform is everything,”said Laura Allen, head of production for Yahoo!
“Getting content prepared,” was how Eric Opeka, Cinedigm’s EVP, Digital Networks, described the writing process. “Is this a property we can use to drive consumers to our paid services?”
“Brand integration” is the key, said John P. Roberts, who is Endemol USA’s SVP digital media. “If a product doesn’t hit that brand filter, we don’t do it.”
A success matrix for a no-budget film of a girl putting lipstick on in her bedroom is hard to measure, the panelists agreed, but if it has a high likelihood of being shared and clicked on through social media, those are good indicators of “micro-budget programming” with a chance of success.
“Producing content for almost nothing is also important,” Allen said, noting that this is “a huge opportunity for young writers who don’t have any credits.”