Before there was Peak TV, there was Steven Bochco. The legendary writer/producer reinvented the network drama in 1981 when he and Michael Kozoll created “Hill Street Blues.” Bochco did it again in 1993, when he and David Milch unveiled “NYPD Blue.”
But that’s not all. His TV legacy was secure with hits such as “L.A. Law” and “Doogie Howser.” And even his misfires, such as “Cop Rock,” are remembered as unique experiments in a career that earned him 10 Primetime Emmys. Bochco died Sunday from leukemia; he was 74.
“NYPD Blue” was perhaps his most audacious series, a show that looked to push the boundaries of sex, language and content in order to tell a realistic story about cops in New York. ABC affiliates, advertisers and religious groups balked — but then the ratings came in, and it was the kind of smash hit that the network couldn’t ignore. Eventually, stations and advertisers were back on board.
“Our industry lost a visionary, a creative force, a risk taker, a witty, urbane story teller with an uncanny ability to know what the world wanted,” Disney CEO Bob Iger — who put “NYPD Blue” on the air while heading up ABC — wrote on Twitter. Wrote “NYPD Blue” star Sharon Lawrence, “It was his vision, style, taste and tenacity that made me love watching TV. It was being on ‘NYPD Blue’ that made me love working on TV.”
Even as he battled leukemia, Bochco remained busy in TV, most recently producing TNT’s “Murder in the First.” At that point, Bochco noted that he didn’t need to still be in the industry — he was using his own money to cover the expenses for his Steven Bochco Productions shingle. But he loved the TV game too much.
In 2014, as he was launching “Murder in the First” and writing his memoirs (which became “Truth is a Total Defense: My Fifty Years in Television”), Bochco shared his thoughts on the rapidly changing business and his career — including how tough it is to be independent today, why he doesn’t watch his old shows, what he’d reboot from his own library, whether “NYPD Blue” would be aired by a broadcast network today, what he thinks of TV binges, and why he’s not on social media.
You were there during the height of the independent producer boom in the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. What do you make of all the changes you’ve seen happen to the business in recent years?
I am playing in the game, and I certainly don’t have to. I think if you want to be in it, if you want to continue to make a contribution to it, which I do, you have to acknowledge that the game has changed. There’s no percentage in railing what it’s become.
When I started in 1966, I went right from college to Universal. I had a job waiting for me. And I spent the first 12 years of my career in a system shockingly like what we have now. Power was concentrated in the hands of three studios. It was an executive-driven business, not a creator-driven business. And the creators really worked for the suits. And we were micromanaged all day long at every level of production.
When I went to MTM in 1978, Grant Tinker was a really unique individual. He loved writers and he empowered writers. And they were already on the half-hour level with “Mary Tyler Moore” and “Rhoda,” this process of empowering the writer/creator. Jim Brooks and all those guys. I went over there and when we did “Hill Street Blues,” the dam broke. That flat out changed the game.
From 1980 until the early 2000s, it was a remarkable time. We had real creative independence; there was a vibrant though shrinking independent television production community. But you could see it changing. The elimination of fin-syn and then vertical integration and consolidation, it chipped away and chipped away at independence and it chipped away at the vibrancy of independent competition within the business. It slowly began to revert back to where it started, when I was a kid in the 1960s. It came full circle. It’s an upside down pyramid again.
It used to be that creative people formed the base of this pyramid, and the executives at the top who owned the networks and studios were there to support this base that fed everything up. Now it’s upside down. And all of the weight is crushing us.
With the rise of streaming media, Netflix, Amazon, do you sense that’s changing again? Is the pendulum swinging back to the creative community?
I’m not sure. None of those entities strike me as small, independent gems. These are huge organizations. It has created more windows of opportunity for creators of content, there’s no question about that.
At least currently, when you look at the big players, there is some additional freedom because it is very competitive. Startups who want to be content-driven are obviously making it attractive. So that’s useful. It remains to be seen. Everything keeps evolving. As technology changes and business changes, other players jump in.
It’s still tough to go it alone. In the 1980s and early 1990s, you could be truly independent.
I think I may be arguably the only genuinely independent production entity left. I have no affiliation with a studio. Nobody pays my overhead, I keep my own doors open, I pay my own salaries.
Nobody’s banging on my door to make a deal, and I don’t want to quit. One of the great luxuries I’ve earned is the ability to keep my doors open, and so I do.
What’s driving you now? Like you said, you don’t have to keep your doors open if you didn’t want to.
I don’t know what else I would do. I love what I do. There’s something really thrilling about having an idea and figuring out how to execute it. Finding an interesting way to look at a thematic idea in a fresh way, and telling good stories. Mentoring young talent and all that stuff.
Do you ever go back and watch old episodes of your series, like “NYPD Blue” or “Hill Street Blues”?
No. By the time you finish producing an hour of television, it’s impossible to understand if you haven’t done it how familiar you are with every facet of it. Starting from the writing. As producers of television we never get the thrill that the audience gets of seeing something for the first time. The thrill, such as it is, is when you’re sitting in the room and saying, “What if we did this, or what if we did that?” That’s where you get that rush. Once that’s done, everything else that flows from it simply increases your level of familiarity with the material. By the time it’s done, you are done. All I see are the flaws. I don’t go back, and that’s on the practical level. I don’t tend to look in my rearview mirror. I still love looking forward.
“Hill Street Blues” was really the first show in this modern era. Something about it feels timeless.
It was the first rung on a different ladder, no question about it.
Any shows from your past, or themes, that you’d like to revisit?
I don’t think so. You always feel like there are several that got away, but once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Do you feel that drama now is better than it ever has been?
I do, people are innovating. Partly they’re innovating because technology has changed the medium sufficiently that you can do things that you could never do years ago. It seems that every generation produces one or two remarkable creative innovators. Vince Gilligan. “Breaking Bad” is a once-in-a-generation kind of show. That’s a gifted guy who created something really unique. If he never does anything again, his place in the pantheon of great contributors is set.
These shorter-order series make it a little easier for viewers to stick with a show.
Yeah, but it’s tougher for writers. They’re not making the kind of living that they used to. It’s tough to make a living for producers, writers and directors when everything’s a 10-episode order and things don’t get rerun.
You’ve said before that you didn’t think “NYPD Blue” would make it on TV today. Do you still think that’s true?
Not on broadcast television. No problem on cable, even basic cable. “NYPD Blue” was something of an anomaly.
Did the late-1990s focus on content standards help cable but hurt broadcast? You can do TV-MA stuff on cable but not broadcast.
But we did, and the republic didn’t fall. It’s not that they can’t, they don’t want to. That’s not their business. They carved that niche out for me and ultimately we were very successful. But you could argue that in the real grand scheme of things in broadcast, the reactionary forces won the battle. Because ABC took such a beating in the first several years of that process. Not just financially. But they just got hammered in the media, the religious right. That’s not the business they’re in. They want to sell soap. They don’t want to sell controversy. That doesn’t sell beer.
Did the broadcasters shoot themselves in the foot?
It would be satisfying to say yes. But that’s a very good business they’re in. We’re not holding a bake sale for them. A hit on broadcast still does quite well. They’re not in the business of changing the culture. If they do something that inadvertently changes the culture, that’s great.
How are you watching TV these days? Do you like to binge series?
Yeah, when I’m really interested in something. My wife and I binge watched over the course of three months the entire “Breaking Bad” series, which I had never seen a single episode of. And that was enormously enjoyable.
What’s your take on social media now, and how vocal audiences can be about the process? People can interact with talent and immediately comment. Do you pay attention?
No. That’s a limitation of mine. I’m not comfortable with it. I think I’m too old. I’m not too old to participate in a conversation, but I don’t like participating that way. It’s distracting; it’s also not thoughtful. The cloak of anonymity that shrouds most of social media communication really coarsens the conversation. The things that people say, which are thoughtless and rude as a function of their anonymity, is off-putting.
I remember a million years ago when there was no social media, there was no Internet, there was no email. You got fan letters. I was on “Hill Street Blues” and I got a letter from a woman and she was so insulting about something we had done. I can’t remember what it was. And I wrote her back saying, “Your letter really hurt my feelings. There’s a person on the other end of this missive of yours. And my feelings are hurt!” I went on to try and respond to her letter. Well, I got back a letter with such an abject apology: “Oh my God, I’m so sorry I hurt your feelings. It never occurred to me that Steven Bochco would actually read my letter!” So I realized that most people when they vent, they think they’re writing to a building. To an institution. They don’t realize that we spent two years crafting this from A to Z, and we’re very proud of it, and we’re sensitive to criticism. It doesn’t mean you can’t criticize us, but that mindless “you’re full of shit!” critique, I don’t want to participate in it.
As they frequently say, “Don’t read the comments.”
I don’t even know how to get them. I don’t have Facebook, I don’t have Twitter, I don’t have Instagram. I don’t have any of them. I figure I’ve survived this long.