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About the Author
Dean Batali is executive producer of Fox's That '70s Show. He also wrote for the initial two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB).
 
Book

Behind the Screen

Paperback: 216 pages
Baker Books
November 2005
ISBN: 080106547X

 
Related Link
More book excerpts and author interviews on CBN.com
 
ENTERTAINMENT

Changing the Channels

By Dean Batali

CBN.com – Christians are always telling me that they don’t watch TV. Some of them proudly boast that they have unplugged their television sets. A few even claim to have thrown their sets into the garbage.

You know what I think they should do?

Dig the thing out of the trash. Plug it back in. Watch more.

I will admit to a certain level of prejudice on this issue, since I’ve been making my living as a television writer for nearly ten years. If too many people stop watching, I’ll be out of a job, and then what is my mother going to tell her friends?

But I would like television watchers—especially those who are Christians—to speak up more. Let Hollywood know what you want to see on TV. Let them know when you see something you don’t like, and send them praise when they deserve it.

As it is, the ones who have gotten rid of their TVs or simply do not watch because “there’s nothing good on” are, essentially, just looking the other way. And you can ask the guy bleeding on the side of the road to Jericho how much good that does.

***

People ask me, “How come TV is so bad?” But not enough of them ask, “What can I do to make it better?”

Well, thanks for asking.

The first step is to understand that TV is just a delivery system for ads. The only programming that really matters to those in power is the commercials (except on pay cable channels like HBO, where nothing matters except how many people subscribe). The success of a show is not measured by how good it is, or who says they loved it, or even how many people watch. A show is a success if the people who watched it go and buy the products that were advertised during the commercials. It is all about what is being sold and (just as important) who is doing the buying.

This is why a show like 7th Heaven—which was the highest-rated show on the WB network for years—was never considered as much of a success as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dawson’s Creek, two lower-rated shows on the same network. The perception was that the audience for the latter two shows had more money to spend, so advertising rates were higher, and therefore the shows were more profitable. It might not seem fair, but viewers need to understand that the most-watched shows aren’t always considered the most financially successful. Certain kinds of audiences are perceived as being more desirable—that is, have more money to spend—and certain kinds of audiences are hardly desirable at all.

Guess where Christians fit in.

A few years ago, I sat with my (now former) agent and told him I wanted to write shows about people who believe in God. His first response? “Well, that’s going to be a tough sell.” This was before The Passion of the Christ broke box office records. But remember, before that film made several wineskins full of money, it was considered a tough sell too.

That same year, Will and Grace was one of the highest-rated sitcoms on TV, and Queer as Folk and Sex and the City were two of the biggest things on cable. But shows about people who believe in God—that would appeal to the vast majority of Americans who believe in God—were going to be a “tough sell.”

“Television is broadcasting,” my agent explained, as if I needed some sort of Schoolhouse Rock education. “They are trying to reach the greatest common denominator.”

“There are one hundred million people in America who go to church every week,” I said. “Isn’t that ‘broad’ enough to ‘cast’ for?”

“Well,” he said, “the thing is, Christians don’t consume the way everybody else does.”

I nearly dropped my Coke on my Nikes.

My agent explained that, in the eyes of advertisers, Christians are a homogeneous group hanging out somewhere in the South who don’t watch TV. And even if they did watch TV, they still wouldn’t spend that much money.

My agent had a point (though I didn’t tell him at the time). Christians may spend just as much as everybody else on toothpaste and toilet paper, but we probably don’t spend as much on beer and movies and luxury cars—and those are three industries that drive the advertising market. A case could be made that the average Christian household does not have as much disposable income as other households. Christian homes are more likely to be single-income—with one parent at home caring for the kids.

(Oh, and let’s not let this secret out: Christians, if they are truly faithful, are going to be consuming 10 percent less than their neighbors down the street, because that’s how much we should be giving to the church.)

This exchange with my agent (did I mention he’s now my former agent?) made me realize that Christians need to let Hollywood know that we are just as “broad” as the next guy and that they should start “casting” to us.

How do we do this? First, Christian viewers need to discover that a few things on TV are quite good. You just have to look hard to find them. Consider this: broadcast TV (that is, the main networks—the channels you can get for free with an antenna or through basic cable) airs about ninety hours of programming a week. That doesn’t even take into account the shows on cable TV. Now, a lot of these shows aren’t very good. But most of the art and entertainment produced throughout history hasn’t been very good. (If you were forced to listen to every song ever written or look at every painting ever painted, imagine how much garbage you’d have to sift through.) A few television programs, however, are quite good—consistently better than most movies, books, or plays. You just have to know where to look.

That means you have to read reviews—in newspapers and magazines or on the Internet—and actually watch the shows the critics say are good. Of course, the critics aren’t always right, but they can often point you in the right direction. The sad reality is that many of the best-reviewed shows of the past few years never found an audience. “There’s nothing good on TV,” I often hear people say. “Really?” I want to respond. “Have you seen everything?”

I sympathize with viewers who are disgusted with the foul language and sexual content on many television shows. That’s one of the reasons I came to Hollywood—to try to influence the content of TV shows. But viewers who never tuned into NYPD Blue because of the controversy over its subject matter missed out on one of the most redemptive (and specifically Christian) story lines on TV. Think of the impact that could have been made if ABC and the producers of the show had received as many compliments for that story line as they did negative letters and threats of boycotts when the show first came on the air.

Another show, Boomtown, came and went with critical acclaim, having never found an audience. If Christians had been paying attention to certain episodes, they would have seen a main character praying and living out her Christian faith and another rediscovering his relationship with God and returning to church.

And there’s nothing good on television?

As it is, Hollywood has assumed that Christians either aren’t watching (because they rarely hear from Christians who have anything positive to say) or aren’t offended enough by the bad stuff that is regularly on TV to do anything about it.

A network executive who knew my faith once asked me if I thought Christians would be offended by a certain joke in the script we were filming that week. “No,” I mused, “but they might be offended by the pervasive drug use and rampant promiscuity on our show.” He had stopped evaluating that aspect, because he was under the directive to give the audience what they want. And he admitted that, at least at this network, they assumed that the people tuning in knew what they were in for, and if they wanted other kinds of programming, they would be watching another channel.

In other words, to the people at that network, Christians didn’t exist, and if they did, they were watching something else. (I’m not sure what they think we are watching, or why it doesn’t occur to somebody to put something on the air that Christians might actually want to watch, but that discussion is for another fall season.)

The economic reality for the networks is that there are plenty of people who want to watch what they are airing, so why air anything else? There are millions of people who tune in to the networks every night, so the networks are just “giving the people what they want,” right?

Not so fast. On any given week, the number-one show in America is watched by approximately thirty million people. That seems like a lot, but do the math. That means that more than two hundred million Americans are doing something else. Some were watching different shows; nearly half didn’t even have the TV on.

Many of those who don’t have the TV on are Christians. They probably have much better things to do with their lives, like complain about how bad television is. But if they sought out shows that reflected their values instead, Hollywood would have to take note. Somebody has to buy their toothpaste and toilet paper, and it might as well be us.

***

It’s going to take time for things to change, mostly because the people in Hollywood have become so isolated from people of faith. I have worked with more than fifty-five writers in my career, and only three regularly attended church. Of those three, none would admit to being especially religious. Hollywood is a highly secular industry, and there is a huge disconnect between the people who make television and the people in the churches who might watch if only there were something better on.

As it is, TV programming reflects the worldview of the people writing it—and that worldview rarely includes God. (There are a few notable exceptions, like Joan of Arcadia and Touched by an Angel. But notice that those two prime-time network shows had to create supernatural fantasies in order for God to exist.)

I remember an episode of ER that began with four different couples in separate homes waking up in bed together. None of the couples were married, and one of the couples consisted of two lesbian women. The implication was that all of that behavior was morally acceptable, and I’m certain that’s what the writer felt. His values trickle down into our culture, and simply turning off the TV doesn’t stop the flow.

Essentially, writers write what they know. Too many of the writers I have met only know Christians as judgmental, narrow-minded, and hypocritical. The Christian characters we see on TV simply reflect that.

A writer I worked with once said to me, “I’m so glad I know you, because now I know that not all Christians are freaks.” I just smiled and tried not to say anything that would make her change her mind.

(A few Christians have expressed similar sentiments after meeting me, since I put to rest their previous assumption that everybody who worked in Hollywood was a heathen freak. I tell them I’m not a heathen, but they should get to know me better before assuming I’m not a freak.)

I want to take this opportunity to encourage Christians to learn the craft of TV writing and come to Los Angeles to help make a difference. Or perhaps I should put it this way: PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!

(I’m really lonely.)

But if becoming the next Rob Petrie isn’t in the cards, there are some simple, specific things you can do if you want to see shows that reflect your values on TV. And the most effective thing you can do is actually refreshingly old-fashioned: write letters. Then, get them into the hands of the people who matter.

This will take some homework, but most of what you need to know can be found on the Internet or by calling information in Los Angeles. You can send letters directly to the writers of a show by mailing them to the production office of the show. You can also send a letter care of the network, but it will take longer to get there—if it gets there at all. But you can pick any show, call the network on which it airs, and ask for the mailing address of the production office (or the phone number, so you can call the place yourself).

I have received only a few letters from viewers over the past ten years, but I have been in the room plenty of times when other writers have received them. We love it. And if the letter writer has a valid point of view presented in a polite way, it might make a difference in how we write in the future.

You should also write to the network that airs the show, and—to be most effective—address the letter to the president of the network (again, consult the Internet for this info, or call information in L.A.)

Here is how not to write a letter:

Dear Writer/Network President,

After watching last week’s episode, I will never watch your sin-filled show/network again.

Have you no soul, you pervert?

Love in Christ,
A Former Viewer

By admitting that you’re never going to watch again, you are essentially letting the writer or executive know that you don’t matter. Why should they change if you’re not going to watch anyway?

Instead, begin your letter by praising the show. Tell them you are a fan of their work (or of other shows on the network). Then, express your disappointment in the subject matter or style of an episode. Let them know you want to remain a faithful viewer, but if there are many more episodes like the one that offended you, you may quit watching. If you express yourself in this manner, you will give the writers and the network incentive to do things differently.

And if you want to have an even bigger impact, send a copy of the letter to two or three of the advertisers on the show. Find the address of Coca-Cola or McDonald’s or Procter & Gamble and address it to “Consumer Relations.” You will almost certainly get a response, and you might even get a coupon for a free soda or a bar of soap.

Another faulty tactic is sending pre-written postcards or form letters. These are ignored—even if there is a campaign to send in hundreds or thousands. Save your stamps.

An episode of a show I worked on dealt with some graphic sexual behavior and carried a warning about “mature content.” The network was concerned that there would be an outcry from viewers who found the show objectionable. They braced themselves for the onslaught of letters and calls. The show aired, and . . . nothing. Crickets. A rusty sign squeaking in front of an empty saloon as sagebrush blows across the desert.

Then, a little while later, they received a number of postcards from some organization protesting the content of our show. I’m not sure how many came in—a few dozen, at least—but I know the impact it had . . .

Cue those crickets again.

Organized protests mean almost nothing to the networks, but individuals who take the time to make a call or write and stamp a letter mean very much. If each of those people who had felt they were doing such good by sending a postcard had taken the extra few minutes to compose a short letter, and then the network started receiving letters from various corners of the nation—even if the total number was barely a dozen—it would have meant a lot.

Suppose you see something on TV that offends your sensibilities. You write a brief note and send it to the network and the writer and/or the executive producer and an advertiser or two. And suppose you could find three or four friends or relatives around the nation who saw the same show and agreed with your point of view. Suddenly the network is hearing from California and Colorado and New Jersey and Tennessee, and somebody is going to start paying attention. And if the letter writers present themselves as Christians, the people at the networks might gradually realize that there are people who believe in God who live in California and New Jersey and not just Tennessee and Colorado.

And here’s how to have an even bigger impact: do the same thing when you see something you like.

***

All this, of course, means you have to become an informed viewer. Watch a few minutes of a show here and there. Start talking with friends and family about what they have been watching. Certainly not all shows are worth watching. Some are harmful. And most of the time there are better things you could be doing than watching TV. But if you’re concerned enough about the culture to have read this far, then you are probably looking for ways to change the culture. That means becoming informed.

I was having breakfast with an acquaintance from church who was complaining about the content of movies and dismissively waved a hand toward a nearby multiplex, saying, “I’m sure all of those movies have a sex scene in them.” Actually, most of them did not, but he was too uninformed to know it. I suggested he subscribe to a weekly entertainment magazine, read reviews, and check out websites to learn more about what is out there before he complains. Otherwise, when the good stuff does come along, he’s going to miss it.

Last time I checked, a lot of good stuff had come along. He missed it.

If we’re not careful, Hollywood is going to assume there’s no one out there who wants to see the good stuff. Let them know you’re out there.

This is going to be a gradual journey. It seems absurd that Christians in America need to remind Hollywood that we exist, but that’s the current state of things. Communicate with friends and relatives, seek out entertainment that elevates and edifies, and let the networks and studios know how much you love it. Then, the next time someone like me pitches a show to a network executive that is even more faith-affirming, that executive might remember the letter they got from Colorado, and the other one from New Jersey... . And eventually they’re going to end up selling a lot of toothpaste and toilet paper.

In the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who, the tiny world of Who-ville—no bigger than a speck of dust—is about to be boiled in a vat of scalding water by uninformed skeptics who don’t believe Who-ville exists. All of the Whos join together and shout “We are here, we are here, we are here!” and are heard just in the nick of time, saving their world.

You think our culture is boiling over? Maybe we should all try shouting a little bit louder. But, you know, politely. And we probably don’t really need to shout. Unless there’s something really good on TV.

Imagine that.


Dean Batali is executive producer of Fox's That '70s Show. He also wrote for the initial two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB).

Excerpted from Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture, Edited by Spencer Lewerenz and Barbara Nicolosi, Copyright 2005. Published by Baker Books. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

 

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