Dialogue: David Gerber
The veteran producer discusses the state of longform, emerging technologies and lowest-common-denominator television.In a producing career that has spanned five decades -- from the Emmy-winning '60s series "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" to last year's Emmy-honored telefilm "Flight 93," David Gerber has been a constant in an ever-changing industry. Still very much in the game, the spry octogenarian recently took a rare timeout to chat with Michael Rechtshaffen for The Hollywood Reporter about the state of his favorite medium.
The Hollywood Reporter: How different would it have been if you were starting out today as a producer?
David Gerber: First of all, longforms are gone, so that makes it tough. Situation comedies today are also struggling. If I was starting out now, it might be OK to do these hours because cable is doing against-the-grain programming. But I think they've swung over too much in the other direction (with adult-themed material). We've gone too far to excite or attract people (with short attention spans).
THR: A number of your productions would be considered challenging or provocative, but they were never about shocking people.
Gerber: I shocked people in some ways with the reality of the situation, but I always believed in humankind, that we'll persevere, we'll survive. That's what we've done throughout history.
THR: Overall, do you think TV audiences are more sophisticated today?
Gerber: I think they're pretty sharp. I don't go for that lowest-common-denominator business. I think sometimes we outsmart ourselves in trying to figure out what viewers want. They know what they're doing. You say to yourself they'll never watch (serials) because they don't have the time today, but they're watching (Fox's) "24" and (ABC's) "Lost."
THR: What about reality television?
Gerber: I never thought (CBS') "Survivor" would survive a year. (Reality series) will be around, but not at the expense of a good hour. Look at (NBC's) "Heroes." It's a sophisticated comic book, but it's done well, and even I like the damn thing. I like (ABC's "The Nine") even though I know it's going to go. It's a little heavy. But look at what's out there now. You've got (CBS') "Cold Case," (CBS') "Without a Trace," "Lost," (ABC's) "Desperate Housewives," (CBS') "CSI" (franchise) and (NBC's) "Law & Order" (franchise). They're pretty good shows. I like (ABC's) "Brothers & Sisters." I like (NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"). Even look at something like (NBC's) "Deal or No Deal." It's so simple, but it's fun. On cable, you've got marvelous shows -- even if some of them are pushing the envelope a little too hard. But there are always going to be people doing crazy things. There's always going to be that (element) of desperate people for desperate times.
THR: What, from your considerable experience, constitutes great television?
Gerber: It should excite you. It should agitate you. But most of all, it should stay with the audience. I tried to do that. I was also always interested in production values. I made sure that nothing looked phony.
THR: From a behind-the-scenes perspective, what do you miss most about the earlier years?
Gerber: Now, there's no fun. Corporate puts pressure on the people underneath, and they put pressure on the people below them, and there's this panic. You used to walk into a room, and there'd be two or three people. We were casting for one young lady on a show recently, and there were 20 people there. Not only were the casting people there, but the head of the network was televised into the meeting. It's all by committee now. Even when your productions are successful, corporate says, "What have you done for me?" We used to argue in those days, but we had fun, and I'd critique my shows harder than the people they had. They liked that attitude, and if I asked for money, they'd give it to me.
THR: How much importance did you place on focus groups when you were a studio executive?
Gerber: Overall, I don't find them important. It's another tool. With a focus group, the production is interpreted by people who wish to see things their own way; you've got to go with your own gut instinct.
THR: Judging from your career, it seems like you never took the word "no" for an answer.
Gerber: When people said no, I tried to find other ways I could do it. It forced me to be creative. I just kept trying to do whatever my creative instincts led me (to do) all my life. I don't think I ever started out with something that I didn't believe in. I worked two to three years (on the 1984 miniseries) "George Washington." We took Washington off the monument and made him a human being. We won a Peabody Award and all kinds of awards from universities. We got letters from little old ladies saying, "You made me so proud -- the first thing I did the next morning was to go out and put my flag up in my front lawn." Letters like that come in, and they're like your Emmys.
THR: Since the word "retirement" also doesn't seem to be a part of your vocabulary, do you have any dream projects that you're still hoping to get produced?
Gerber: I have a feature. I haven't done features, but I've always wanted to do one before I shuffle off this mortal coil. It's a personal story about my experiences in the war and Stalag 17, so I worked on the treatment. Some of the stuff that went on -- I can't believe I'm still alive talking to people about it.
THR: And what about on the TV side?
Gerber: I have something called "Deluge," about global warming, written by Nevin Schreiner, who wrote "Flight 93." It's a big story set 20 years in the future about snowcaps melting and the Northeast being taken out. There have been a lot of disaster movies, and most of them get critically attacked because of the dialogue, but they're popular. We felt we had an imaginative cautionary tale to tell, but so far nobody's fighting for it, even after (Paramount Vantage's) "An Inconvenient Truth." But that's the story I want to tell.
THR: So, you'll keep fighting the good fight.
Gerber: Of course. Then with Jim Carabatsos, who wrote (the 2001 telefilm) "The Lost Batallion," I want to do a four-hour cable miniseries about the Bonus March of 1932, which was when thousands of soldiers -- who were promised a bonus and didn't get it -- walked to Washington from all over the country. The U.S. Army came out and pushed them back and burned their shelters. It's a powerful story and again, it's apropos for today. I haven't even taken it out yet.
THR: Lately, we've been seeing how emerging technologies have been impacting viewing habits. Could television be an endangered species?
Gerber: Emerging technology always changes things. Right now, television is still going strong because it can deliver the most people to advertisers. You hear talk about broadband and cell phones -- that's fine, but I don't think anybody really wants to see drama or real stories that way. Information like news and sports is one thing, but people still want to see things on the screen. They want to be surrounded by the image. It gives them a chance to leave their world for a while and go into another. A lot of people enjoy watching these series because they like the actors or the characters and they want to follow them. They're familiar. It's a different experience from a movie, but nevertheless an experience.
THR: So, you don't think television will be going away anytime soon.
Gerber: Maybe the methods of distribution will change. Pay-per-view is going to be very important, but you still have to make the films. Television is comfortable, and you're talking about 300 million people. So, even if you take away a lot of them, there's still going to be a hell of an audience.