Time to Take Hollywood to the Woodshed, by Brian Bird

Brian Bird first posted this piece on his blog three weeks ago and seemed to have stirred up a few hornets. It resulted in several national radio interviews and he was even invited to take his opinions on this topic to Washington, D.C., where he met with a dozen members of Congress and their staffs to search for some solutions. It also ‘outed’ him as a sort of industry whistleblower. He asked if we would repost his original comments here.

Nobody asks us what we want to watch on TV. A tiny cabal of people in Hollywood just decide what they are going to offer us and hope we get addicted.

by Brian Bird • TV Writer-Producer

Host-Jimmy-Kimmel-onstage-005
“None of the four major networks were nominated in the [Emmy] drama category. The Academy is sending a pretty clear message and that message is… Show us your boobs.” -Jimmy Kimmel
I woke up this morning to find this Hollywood Reporter article in my in-box.  I thought I had stumbled onto a porn site.  I actually won’t even repeat the headline. You can read it for yourself.  But suffice to say, it’s time to take my own industry to the woodshed.

Apparently some of the broadcast TV networks and writer-producers have so much HBO envy that there are no envelopes they aren’t willing to push anymore. At Emmy time, the pay-cable networks seem take home most of the hardware for their public taste-challenging content. Remember, HBO’s branding slogan: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Well, for a lot of the executives, buyers and content creators on broadcast TV, the way to cure your Envy-Green is go to Blue.

“This season, broadcast TV isn’t for the prudish. Nearly two months into the fall, it’s clear that explicit jokes and boundary-pushing storylines are changing the definition of what sexual content is acceptable in prime­time.”

– Tim Winter, President, Parents Television Council

This is happening on the networks (CBS, NBC, Disney-owed ABC, and FOX) that people use to receive for free on their rabbit ears over the public airwaves, the same networks that used to be regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. But now, because we pay a few cents or dollars for their feeds on our cable or satellite bills every month, they are now considered Pay-TV. Hence, virtually no FCC oversight. That’s the marketplace at work. These very same broadcasters used to have robust “Standards and Practices” departments, sort of public interest firewalls which would encourage restraint and discretion on the parts of the writers, producers and production companies so as not to ambush family sensibilities. Apparently, these S & P execs, right along with the feeble FCC, have now gone AWOL.

The Frog in the Beaker 

Okay, call me a prude. I’ve worked on family-themed films and TV shows for most of my career, including such series as Touched By An Angel, Step By Step and Evening Shade, and Michael Landon Jr. and I have a family-friendly series called When Calls the Heart currently in production of Season 2. I’ll wear the prude tag like a badge of honor because what we’re producing is not vanilla or “soft” as some in the industry might call it. It’s actually radical, revolutionary, counter-programming because very few others are actually producing content like this these days. Not that many years ago, all of the big networks competed with each other to put family-themed programming on TV every day of the week, but that’s not the case anymore. In fact, most people I know can’t name 10 shows on TV any longer that they can actually, safely watch with their families.

“I have no intention of changing what’s happening on Scandal… I look forward to being censored.” -Shondra Rhimes, Executive Producer

Remember the high school biology experiment where you put a frog in a beaker of room temperature water and then slowly heat up the brew over a Bunsen burner? The frog splashes about as it acclimates to the rising temperature.

Until it boils to death.

As the networks seem to be chasing pay-cable over the cliff into dark, depraved and perverse, could it be that we’re all boiling to death and we don’t even realize it?

The Big Cop Out 

I’ve had conversations with some of my peers who work on what used to be called “10 o’clock programming” but which now pretty much rules the airwaves at all times of the day and night. They say they are just reflecting culture when they drop language bombs or feature ever-increasing sexual explicitness in their programs.

In my opinion, that’s horse-(language bomb) and an extraordinary cop out. They are not just reflecting culture; they are shaping it and leading it… right over that cliff. Media occasionally reflects, but it mostly teaches. And if that’s not so, how come advertisers spend 20 bazillion dollars a year to try to teach us to buy their products? If media doesn’t teach, persuade, shape or influence our behavior, that money would never be spent. Media creates culture.

Nobody asks us what we want to watch on TV. A tiny cabal of people in Hollywood just decide what they are going to offer us and hope we get addicted. The only measurement is how many eyeballs they can attract and hold onto week after week. It’s completely utilitarian thinking. The bottom line is money, and people’s values be damned. The question of whether or not it is good for culture is no longer a concern because the audience gets to decide what it likes or doesn’t like. What’s the difference between that and handing out crack cocaine on a street corner and then saying it’s up to us to be responsible crack-users?

Don’t get me wrong.  I have watched and enjoyed many programs that I would never purposely invite my kids to watch. Some of the story telling, production values and insights into the human condition are phenomenal and worthy of viewing.

But where is the balance? With wall-to-wall adult-oriented programming and nothing for families, I fear for the future of our culture. I fear for my kids and the next generation, which is facing an unprecedented tsunami of desensitizing, over-sexualized, violent content.

What can we do about it? You can watch my show, When Calls the Heart, and if you enjoy it, let the powers that be know you want more family programming.

And if nothing else, at least take my Family TV Challenge: Name 10 current “scripted” shows on TV you can watch with your entire family (real estate, gardening and cooking shows don’t count). If you can name 10, them I’ll concede I’m just tilting at windmills. But if you can’t, I urge you to share your strong feelings with the switchboards at the networks and the advertisers who are spending a great deal money trying to lure your eyeballs.

The water is heating up all around us.

See also

Opening Doors for Others: An Interview with Writer-Producer & Mentor Brian Bird

Learning from the Best (Brian Bird): An Interview with TV and Screenwriter, Chris Easterly

Brian Bird is Executive Producer of When Calls the Heart (Hallmark Channel) and a prolific writer-producer whose TV credits include more than 250 episodes of Touched By an Angel, Evening ShadeStep by Step, and The Family Man, as well as numerous TV and feature films, including Tri-Star’s Not Easily Broken

 

Opening Doors for Others: An Interview with Writer-Producer & Mentor Brian Bird

Brian’s latest project ‘The Shunning’ premiers this Saturday.

Prolific writer-producer Brian Bird is co-founder of Believe Pictures (with Michael Landon, Jr.) with the mission of developing and producing “high quality, entertaining, and life-and-faith-affirming, films and television depicting positive images and compelling moral stories.” Bird and Landon wrote and produced two novel inspired films for Fox and they are currently writing and/or producing three films: When Calls the Heart, Deep in the Heart, and The Shunning (Premiering this Saturday, April 16, on the Hallmark Channel at 9pm/8pm Central).

Brian also writing a separate screenplay for the Fox Searchlight film, Captive, the true story of Ashley Smith and the Atlanta hostage crisis from 2005. He will also produce the film along with Ken Wales and Ralph Winter.

Brian’s credits include more than 250 episodes of the hit CBS series ‘Touched By an Angel’

Previously, Bird served as Co-Executive Producer and senior writer for four seasons on the series Touched By An Angel and his TV writing/producing credits include more than 250 episodes of Touched By an Angel, Evening Shade, Step by Step, and The Family Man, as well as numerous TV and feature films. His script Call Me Claus was the highest rated cable film of 2002. Brian also wrote and co-produced Tri-Star’s 2009 film Not Easily Broken.

On a more personal note, I have met few Hollywood filmmakers with as great a commitment to personal mentoring as Brian. As an official mentor in the Act One program and the Visual Story Network, as well as an unofficial mentor throughout the industry, Brian has distinguished himself in his willingness to invest in the lives of young writers and producers.

In celebration of the premier of The Shunning this Saturday (Hallmark, 9pm/ 8pm CDT), I asked Brian a few questions about the film, about the greatest influencers in his life, and about origin of his incredible commitment to mentoring.

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Interview with Writer-Producer Brian Bird

GDS: What excites you most about the film?

Brian Bird: One reason is because I think we have very faithfully recreated both the world of the Amish, and one of Beverly Lewis‘ most important novels.

Brian worked with T.D. Jakes to adapt ‘Not Easily Broken’ for the big screen.

GDS: Do you think people will relate to a film set in such an “other” world?

BB: Absolutely, even though the storytelling is set among the Amish, I think it’s a very universal tale that all families can relate to because it deals with how we try to pass along our values to our children, and how they have to choose the values they are going to live with.

GDS: Any personal stake in the film?

BB: Well, The Shunning makes a very important statement about the theme of adoption — which is very significant to me as an adoptive father of two daughters. That statement is this: love is thicker than blood when it comes to our family relationships.

Horton Foote’s screenwriting taught Brian to default from plot to character whenever you can.

GDS: Let’s talk about people who have influenced who you are and your career as a filmmaker.  First, an easy one, what films have influenced you most?

BB: I’d have to say The Mission, Cinema Paradiso, and Tender Mercies.

GDS: How ‘bout screenwriters?

BB: Let’s see, Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird)—whose screenplays taught me that plot and character are intertwined and always default to character if you have a choice. William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)—whose body of work as a screenwriter taught me that you have to know the rules in order to break them.

Also, Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons)—whose screenplay taught me about striving to be epic in my writing. And then there’s Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity series)—whose screenplays taught me to strive to be taut in my writing.

GDS: Any other kinds of writers influence you?

“Tony Gilroy’s screenplays taught me to strive to be ‘taut’ in my writing.”

BB: Well, C.S. Lewis was formidable in shaping my worldview, and Francis Schaeffer formidable in shaping my ideas about art and its influence on culture.  Oh, and also Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, who helped me understand that great literature should take the reader’s breath away. Of course, there is also the Bible, which has been an uber-influencer for me.

GDS: Any others?

BB: I’ve had some very significant mentors.

GDS: Like who?

BB: Well, in no particular order, there is Ted Smythe, Mass Media Professor Cal State University, Fullerton, who told me not to be afraid of ideas outside my worldview because in the marketplace of ideas, truth always rises to the top.

“Morgan Freeman …told me that there is only one race of people — the human race — and two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.”

Don Ingalls, legendary TV writer-producer, great-uncle, who gave me my first network TV writing assignment and told me nepotism can open a door, but skills have to keep it open.

Morgan Freeman, legendary actor who directed my first feature film (Bopha), told me that there is only one race of people — the human race — and two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.

Rick Warren, my pastor, who told me not to preach in my writing, but just to ask great questions.

Michael Warren, legendary TV writer-producer who gave me my first TV staff writing job, told me he was leaving the door open for me as long as I would promise to leave it open for others. (See, Michael Warren’s Greatest Influences.)

GDS: Did any of them influence how you approached The Shunning?

TV legend and mentor Michael Warren launched Brian’s career by opening the door for him on a CBS one season wonder, ‘The Family Man’ (above). It was all that Brian needed to prove himself.

BB: (Laughs) All of them, but maybe especially Michael Warren, because of what I just mentioned. When he gave me one of my first opportunities in show business he made me promise to leave the door open for others behind me.

GDS: How did you do that in The Shunning?

BB: I chose to give a newer, younger writer an opportunity to write this film rather than writing it myself.  We hired Chris Easterly—a graduate of Act One’s screenwriting program who had served faithfully as a writer’s assistant on Touched By An Angel—to write the teleplay for this film, and he knocked it out of the park.

GDS: Isn’t that taking quite a risk on behalf of a younger “unproven” writer?

BB: It wasn’t charity on our part. We needed somebody with some real writing chops to do this work, and Chris showed himself approved. I left the door open for a very gifted young man in the same way Michael Warren left the door open for me in 1990.

GDS: So you’re leaving a legacy?

BB: That is certainly my intention. And I know that Chris will do the same thing for somebody else when he comes into his Showbiz kingdom.

THW

Don’t miss The Shunning: Saturday (April 16): The Hallmark Channel at 9pm (8pm Central).

Follow Brian: On his blog: BrianBird.net: The Art of Story, The Craft of Screenwriting and More, or on Twitter: @brbird.

Other Two Handed Warrior TV Writer and Filmmakers:

Sheryl J. Anderson (Charmed, Flash Gordon, Dave’ World)

Dean Batali (That 70’s Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hope and Gloria)

Brian Bird (Touched by an Angel, The Shunning, Not Easily Broken)

Kevin Chesley (The Hard Times of RJ Berger)

Chris Easterly (Unnatural History, The Shunning)

Jessica Rieder (Leverage, Hawaii Five-O)

Monica Macer (Lost, Prison Break, Teen Wolf)

Korey Scott Pollard (Rizzoli and Isles, Lie to Me, Monk, House, Grey’s Anatomy)

Kurt Schemper (Emmy Award winner for Intervention)

Michael Warren (Happy Days, Family Matters, Two of a Kind, Step by Step, Perfect Strangers).