HT Talks To . . . Stephen J. Cannell

Televisionary: Writer/producer Stephen J. Cannell looks back at nearly four decades of top-flight programming.

You might known him best as a wildly successful producer with as many as six shows on the air at once. To others, he's a prolific writer who created or elevated many of television's most beloved series. Or you might just recognize him as that guy who yanks the page out of the typewriter at the end of The A-Team. With the release of his feature films Demon Hunter and It Waits on DVD from Anchor Bay, Stephen J. Cannell gave us more than a TV hour (that's 45 minutes to you and me) to discuss his extensive legacy.

Did you watch a lot of TV, growing up?

I watched as much as my parents would let me. Back when we first got TV in the late '50s, there were strict rules in most households about when a child could watch—after homework, only on weekends. We were an only-on-weekends family. After I got into college, I watched a lot, and certainly on through the early years of my career.

Do you watch much now? How do you think TV has changed over the years?

I watch as much as I can. However, my writing schedule begins with a 4:30 a.m. workout in my gym, and then I'm at the keyboard by 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. That means I don't stay up as late as most of you. TiVo is a help, but finding time is still a problem. TV has changed a good deal since I first started watching. An hour of TV is shorter. Now there is only around 45 minutes of filmed show; the rest is commercials. Also, the pace of the story and the editing are quicker. We can thank MTV and the multitasking X and Y generations with short attention spans for this. The old shows tended to be morality tales: good guys in white hats, bad guys in black. Now you have many heroes who are gray—Vic Mackey on The Shield, for example. In my opinion, this change has enriched the characters on TV. Audiences are the same, but the target audience is vastly different. In the beginning, it was just share alone that measured success—how many homes are using TV, and what your percentage of that audience is. Now we have shows that are targeted to demographic segments of the audience, 18 to 24 being a prime target. Viewers older than 50 have no value for the advertisers.

How has the business of television changed?

The business is very different. There is a complicated reason for this, but the short answer is that, in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, studios and networks were broadcasters. The network was prohibited by federal law from owning or distributing their own shows. With the FCC's repeal of the financial-interest syndication rules in 1995, all of that changed. You now have giant conglomerates that control the whole process. Disney, for instance, owns Touchstone Television and ABC. You are better served by starting at Disney if you want to get on ABC. But this change has eliminated voices—like mine—from the mix, and, therefore, if you see a certain sameness in the programming today, it's because fewer people are making the decisions.

Your shows always seemed to have a social conscience, with people always trying to do good. Is that missing today in a more cynical world?

Everything in life evolves—our society, language, and, of course, television. Is that good or bad? I don't know. That depends on the category. I think much of today's television is very edgy and interesting. Shows like CSI and Law & Order tend to focus on the crime more than the characters. But NYPD Blue went the other way. You pick and choose.

How did you get your start?

My first script was for It Takes a Thief on ABC, in the late '60s. Then I wrote two episodes of Ironside. All of this was as a freelance writer. Then I wrote an Adam-12 episode, and, after that one script, they made me the head writer on the show. It put me on the inside. It was a huge break.

My boss remains a hard-core Rockford Files fan, and she wanted me to find out if it's true that James Garner invented the Rockford Reverse 180.

I think so. I'd never seen it before Jim did it in our pilot. By the way, Jim did all of his own stunt driving. He was great. He could fly down a street at 70, hit the binders, and brodie that Firebird to a stop right on his camera marks.

What is it like when a show really strikes a chord with audiences?

It's like taking a ride in a rocket. I remember writing an episode of The A-Team called "The Taxi Cab Wars." In this show, Murdock thinks he's a superhero called Captain Cab. He takes off his sock and turns it into a hand puppet named Socky. Socky keeps saying stuff like, "Captain Cab, you're my hero!" B.A. [Mr. T] would yell, "Put that sock back on yer foot, sucka!" A week after the show aired, I was watching the Texas-Tennessee football game. At halftime, while the Texas band played the A-Team theme song, the student body all took off their socks, made puppets, and screamed, "Beat Tennessee!" Beat that, CSI!

Was there ever an idea for a show that just didn't fly? Either the network wouldn't pick it up, or it never got to the pilot stage?

Probably. But the ones I lament the most are shows that I actually got programmed but didn't survive the first year, despite, in my opinion, being excellent. [This includes] such shows as Tenspeed and Brown Shoe (ABC), The Hat Squad (CBS), and Profit (Fox).

Did you once say that you could teach someone to write for TV in just a few hours?

I don't believe I ever said that, because it doesn't reflect my belief. Also, it denigrates writers, which I would never do. What I have said is, I could teach writers how to plot or how to construct a three-act play, because those rules are pretty concrete and can be easily learned. Nobody can teach a writer how to write inspired dialogue. You're born with that tool.

Do you think of yourself as a writer, first and foremost?

Yes, I write just about every day for five hours. I publish a new novel every year, plus I write several screenplays. I also produce and act, but writing is definitely my day job.

It's unusual for a writer to go on to become a mogul—for lack of a better word—isn't it?

I guess, if you say so. Of course, there is Aaron Spelling.

And, with Demon Hunter and It Waits, now on DVD, you're venturing into feature films?

That's correct. We made five genre films last year. I also have big studio productions in the works: The A-Team (Fox), 21 Jump Street (Sony), The Greatest American Hero, plus several of my novels are in development.

What's different about feature films, versus television?

You are writing a concept and a set of characters that don't have to reappear 100 times. You can tell stories that are one-ofs, even kill the hero in the end if you aren't interested in sequels.

Last question: In this age of e-mail and Microsoft Word, do you miss ripping that page out of the typewriter?

I still work on a Selectric, so I'm still out here ripping like crazy.

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