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Inside Prime Time Paperback – January 2, 2000
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"This is very likely the most concentratedly intelligent book yet written about television. Gitlin immersed himself in the industry and yet somehow managed to preserve an independent, thoughtful viewpoint. The result is a delightfully concrete account of recent production from the inside which does not become captive of the usual trade assumptions."--Ernest Callenbach, "Film Quarterly"
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However, its perhaps unfair to condemn this book for making a few incorrect predictions. Afterall, hindsight is 20/20 and certainly, its easy to forget just how much of a mystery Reagan and conservatives in general were back when the '80s were just beginning. The book's true value remains in its two most interesting chapters. Since these chapters are both histories as opposed to analysis, one can simply focus on Gitlin's lively and witty writing style and enjoy the way he makes even the most mundane details seem like pivotal moments of human drama. The first of these chapters tells the story of American Dream, a forgotten, one-hour drama that lasted for only a few episodes in the late '70s. American Dream, produced by future Cagney and Lacey producer Barney Rosenzweig (who is widely quoted in the chapter and becomes a vivid character as a result; one is torn between sympathy for his obviously sincere artistic intentions and disgust by his banal attempts at self-promotion), was the story of a white man who decides to move his family to a widely black section of Chicago in order to teach his kids what real life is like. It sounds like a typical '70s television show and, despite Gitlin's claims to the contrary, it also sounds like a rather annoying, typically elitist example of '70s liberal chic (while many people are quoted in the chapter saying that the show had to be toned down to appeal to the widest possible audience, nobody seems to wonder what the point is of making a "realistic" television show about life in a black ghetto where all the main characters are white). Anyway, what were told about the show and the scripts make it all sound terribly banal and the chapter, despite Gitlin's intentions, becomes a rather compelling look at how entertainment insiders often delude themselves about the value of their product. Beyond that, however, the detailed stories of the conflicts that doomed the show (from the miscasting of Ned Beatty as the lead to the firing of the head writer and the eventual forcing out of producer Rosenzweig) make for interesting reading and should serve as a strong cautionary tale for anyone who wants to make it in the industry.
The other chapter deals with the creation of Hill Street Blues and remains the most important and detailed analysis of what made that show ground breaking television. Drawing from revealing interviews with men like Steven Bochco and Brandon Tartikoff (at the time, neither was as well known as they'd become), Gitlin reveals how sometimes the insider politics of the tv industry somehow conspire to create something special and groundbreaking and its rather inspiring. After the discouraging portrait painted by the failure of American Dream, Gitlin's analyis of Hill Street Blues is a nice reminder that sometimes, somehow, things actually do work the way they should. Though Gitlin admits that he felt Hill Street Blues eventually sold itself out in the name of ratings, he still shows why the success of that show proves that television actually can play an important and positive role in the American culture it has so often been accused of corrupting.
Inside Prime Time isn't perfect but its must reading for anyone planning on pursuing a career behind-the-scenes entertainment or who occasionally watches the flicking onscreen images and wonders what chaos raged behind-the-scenes to create the slick world they're now viewing.