There was an interesting interview with CBS chief Les Moonves in the Sunday NYT. In explaining why he canceled JOAN OF ARCADIA, he revealed his take on what audiences want from a story.
On this particular Thursday, at 11 a.m., Moonves was considering which of the network's current shows to cancel in order to make room for new programs. He had decided to take a once-promising show called ''Joan of Arcadia'' off the air. The show was about a teenager who receives directives and advice straight from God. ''In the beginning, it was a fresh idea and uplifting, and the plot lines were engaging,'' Moonves said, sounding a little sad and frustrated. ''But the show got too dark. I understand why creative people like dark, but American audiences don't like dark. They like story. They do not respond to nervous breakdowns and unhappy episodes that lead nowhere. They like their characters to be a part of the action. They like strength, not weakness, a chance to work out any dilemma. This is a country built on optimism.''
The last point strikes home with me. We like heroes who move the story along...and, ideally, there should actually be a story to move along. That means a story with a beginning, middle and end with clear stakes for the characters. The characters shouldn't be caught up in events, reacting to what happens, they should be driving what happens through their own actions. That's good story-telling, plain and simple.
Moonves has constructed a Bush-like universe (without the politics): in his dramas, there is a continuing battle for order and justice, the team works together and a headstrong boss leads the way. Producers looking to sell shows to CBS either comply with this point of view or take their shows elsewhere.
Curiously, most of CBS's successful dramas -- the three ''C.S.I.'' shows, ''Without a Trace'' and many of the new about-to-be-discussed drama pilots -- revolve around a group of specially trained professionals who work in unison and are headed by a dynamic, attractive middle-aged man. These prime-time-TV teams -- much like Moonves's own -- are determined and work-obsessed. They seem to think of their office as an extended family while, together, they solve crimes.
In a way, it's an old-fashioned model, harkening back to hits like HAWAII FIVE-O and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, but with a new spin (reminds me of how NBC touted LAW AND ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT as ground-breaking show because we'd also see things from the bad guy's pov...I guess no one at NBC had ever seen BARNABY JONES or STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO). Speaking of taking cues from the past, Moonves' plans for revamping the news division sound like he's channeling Fred Silverman.
''The news anchor Andrew wants to use is not surprising,'' Moonves had told me, referring to John Roberts, the chief White House correspondent for CBS and one of Heyward's leading choices. ''That's bothering me. On the one hand, we could have a newscast like 'The Big Breakfast' in England, where women give the news in lingerie. Or there's 'Naked News,' which is on cable in England. I saw a clip of it. It's a woman giving the news as she's getting undressed. And then, on the other hand, you could have two boring people behind a desk. Our newscast has to be somewhere in between.''
The meeting was almost over. ''We have a very interesting six months ahead of us,'' Moonves said as he got up to leave. ''Hopefully, by then, we'll be an independent CBS.'' He paused, smiled and added, ''And with any luck, we'll have a naked news show.''
Jiggle News. It could work. In a way, it leads into what's wrong with CSI:NY and his approach on hwo to fix it.
''This last season I was worried about 'C.S.I.: N.Y.,''' he said as we prepared to leave the restaurant. ''It was way too dark, both in story line and look. The morgue looked like it was five stories below earth, and I said, 'This is not ''Batman.''' 'C.S.I.' is a great franchise, the No. 1 show on TV, and you shouldn't revolutionize it, which is what 'C.S.I.: N.Y.' was trying to do. So I called in Anthony Zuiker, the producer, and I said: 'You know those sets? Burn them.' The morgue on 'C.S.I.: Miami' looks like a restaurant. It may be an odd thing to say, but it looks like a fun place to be. Melina Kanakaredes, the lead of 'C.S.I.: N.Y.' is beautiful. I want to see her face. I want makeup on it.'' Moonves paused. ''Zuiker agreed with me. He realized that he had tried to reinvent the wheel. And it ain't broke.''
I remember a meeting we had with him when he gave us DIAGNOSIS MURDER to run. He made a joke about how the nurses in our E.R. were so old, it looked like the patients should get off their gurneys to help them. We got the message. We peopled the hospital with young background extras, repainted the sets with vibrant colors and changed the music. We also changed our approach to story-telling...no more "a murder, three suspects and Caesar Romero did it." The ratings and demos both shot up and we started getting a lot more promotional support from the network.
Dick Van Dyke wasn't happy about it and, being the gentleman that he is, told us he was going to talk to Les about it. We appreciated being told and we encouraged him to have the meeting. Afterwards, we heard the same story from both Les and Dick: Les told Dick the ratings and demos were up, so the audience obviously liked the changes and that we had his full support. As a sign of respect for Dick, however, we brought back a couple of the elderly extras.