From small screen to big picture: TV helped give American society a shove

The unlikely but now quite possibly inexorable road to the White House for Barack Obama actually might have begun in "Room 222"; for Hillary Clinton, who has given the Illinois senator a run for his money for the Democratic nomination for president, the bumpy road might have started shortly thereafter with "Police Woman."

I mention these two seminal but nowadays largely unseen and unsung TV classics because they helped kick-start the change in thinking about the role of blacks and women in America. This is not at all to take away from the individual efforts of Obama and Clinton to raise themselves up by their bootstraps, as it were, but there is no doubt that the headway made toward women's rights and the acceptance of diversity in our country has quite a bit to do with the images and issues that television tentatively began grappling with 40 years ago.

There might still be lingering racism and inveterate sexism in our society, but we've come a ways: When JFK ran for president in 1960, for heaven's sake, people were hot and bothered over whether a Catholic could get elected.

Thus it was fortuitous that the Paley Center for Media this week — on the very night Obama chalked up enough delegates to wrest the Democratic mantle and take on Republican John McCain — chose to honor one of the pioneers of social realism on the small screen in a salute to producer David Gerber.

Few producers in the late '60s thought all that much about the long-term impact of their shows on the national psyche: It was a less self-reverential time for TV talent, and for his part, Gerber in person comes across as unpretentious and amusing rather than earnest or arrogant. The evening's moderator, News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin, who got his start in the biz with the producer, referred to his mentor as "the Gerbs."

But hearing Gerber and such contemporaries as Bill Self and Herman Rush talk about shows like the two mentioned above, as well as myriad others the honoree produced or greenlighted as a network head — the "George Washington" miniseries in the '80s and "The Lost Battalion" and "Flight 93" just a few years ago — I was struck by three things.

One, it has never been easy to convince network heads to take a chance on difficult subjects (Gerber was adept at pitching but nonetheless hit a wall when he proposed a provocative, race-based story in 1968; he never made it, nor does he think it would get made today). Two, the best things on TV resonate long after they've been canceled, seeping into our collective unconscious even after they've slipped out of the syndication loop. And three, despite the cliche that TV just copycats the things that work, the best creators are instinctively primed to build on pioneering efforts until they become the norm.

As for how hard it is today to do difficult, especially historical, material, Gerber mused that other than, say, HBO (think "John Adams"), there's "a corporate level" at the conglomerates that militates against it. (He sorta stole a sideways glance at Chernin when he said this.) Not to mention, Gerber added, that the networks often confound "edginess," which they are obsessed with since cable is stealing their audiences, with "insightful" or "involving."

But back to Obama and company. We've had Dennis Haysbert as a black president in "24" and Geena Davis as our "Commander in Chief," but we might now be entering an era in which the national zeitgeist is being molded and invigorated not so much by TV fiction but by the actual personalities of politics.

Consider the 15,000 people outside the hall in St. Paul, Minn., where Obama spoke Tuesday night, crooking their ears to hear the loudspeaker and not at home vegging in front of the tube. The interest that this campaign and these larger-than-life candidates have aroused in the public might be unprecedented, and it might last longer than we think. Especially among the young who have been galvanized by Obama via the Internet.

Images of blacks, women and seniors might for a while now be shaped by the words and deeds of a black man, a woman and — give McCain his due — an elder statesman, and not by TV itself.

Elizabeth Guider can be reached at elizabeth.guider@THR.com.