Television is high school … with money

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Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s column last week about Andy Griffith’s masterful touch in writing and directing the “Mayberry family” in to a television sphere high above the rest of the crowd resonated mightily.

She paid tribute to Griffith in his obituary by telling how he used his skills as a writer to elevate the lovable characters — Opie, Andy, Barney, Aunt Bee, Gomer, Goober et al — to a status seemingly unreachable for most sit-com charcters.

And in doing so Johnson demonstrated how valuable good writing is to television productions. The hope is that television moguls will give a high priority to writers equal to the cast when putting a series together.

It’s not just the writing that is significant. It’s the attention to detail that only a writer can feel.

Rheta Johnson made the same point in her book about Charles Schultz, creator of Charlie Brown. Schultz concentrated so deeply on his characters that when Schroeder played Beethoven on his piano, he drew real musical notes so readers who knew Beethoven would know it was “real music.”

Johnson did not emphasize this point. I just happened to remember it from the book.

My point is that Johson concentrates on her writing just as thoroughly as her subjects do.

Writing requires a discipline that demands strength in detail. Time and again a writer has to hit the nail on the head. It’s what separates excellence from mediocrity.

Hoping for excellence in television, however, is frustrating in that television simply does not demand excellence because television programs will always make money. Some programs may not make as much money as some others do, but they will always make money, I remember during one of those “late night shuffles” when NBC was making an “arse” of itself, David Letterman of CBS said, “Television is high school … with money.”

What this means to me is that networks can throw shows and people around where ever and when ever they want to, but the networks are not going to lose any money. The only negative is that two networks will not make as much money as the top one.

It’s all a matter of pride.

The real fighting amongst the networks has to do with the battle for top ratings among morning shows, and Sunday shows such as “Meet the Press,” or “Face the Nation.” This to say that it is one thing to lose a prime-time rating battle, and quite another to have “Good Morning, America,” beat out “Today.”

Prime-time battles are between shows with their own production companies. These production companies are making and will make the decisions that will make or break the show.

In the battles between the networks over “Today” and “Good Morning, America,” however, the network executives make the key decisions. It gets personal, and it gets nasty.

But again, in television, no network will lose money. It’s just that one network will make more than the other.

It’s like “high school … with money.”

Gillis Morgan is an associate professor emeritus of journalism at Auburn University and an award-winning columnist. He can be reached at morgarg7@aol.com

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