Assessing the modern state of television these days inspires producer Barney Rosenzweig to sound as if he’s reciting a song from “Gigi"--the one Maurice Chevalier croons expressing relief that he’s not young anymore.
For Rosenzweig--who won an Emmy for producing “Cagney & Lacey,” parlaying that success into two well-regarded if short-lived CBS shows, “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill” and “Christy"--network TV is now best viewed from the home in Fisher Island, off the coast of Miami, to which he and wife, “Cagney” and “Rosie” star Sharon Gless, fled a few years ago.
Yet after a period of “dormancy,” as he put it, Rosenzweig is again happily plying his trade--not at CBS, mind you, but rather Pax TV, a one-time home-shopping channel that, under the stewardship of former CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky, markets “family-friendly” programming as a sort-of seventh broadcast network, attracting audiences that make the major outlets--indeed, even WB and UPN--look like Gulliver lording over the Lilliputians.
Still, Rosenzweig maintains he wouldn’t trade his situation for “ER’s” ratings if it meant working under the rules that govern the TV business, where a few behemoths produce and control practically every program that makes it onto the screen.
Rosenzweig, 61, is currently responsible for “Twice in a Lifetime"--an anthology series that essentially melds “The Twilight Zone” with “Touched by an Angel,” in which people receive a second chance at a key moment in their life from a “celestial guardian” named Mr. Jones. Sagansky romanced him, he says, into overseeing the project, and while Rosenzweig’s plan of hiring friends and relatives didn’t pan out (for cost-saving reasons the show shoots in Canada), he’s proud of the finished product.
Rosenzweig stresses he’s not Lear (for those who spend too much time watching TV, that would be King, not Norman) raging against the elements but simply prefers not to play anymore in a game where the networks increasingly demand ownership of the programs they broadcast.
“There was no reason being in business any longer unless I wanted to be an employee, and I’ve been there and done that, thank you very much,” he said. “I had been an owner. . . . To go back to being a servant, it was onerous to continue.”
For producers like Rosenzweig, the landscape fundamentally shifted in the mid-1990s, when the Federal Communications Commission phased out rules that constrained the networks’ roles as producers and syndicators. Elimination of those guidelines was quickly followed by a flurry of mergers, which has for the most part forced producers into relationships with networks or the studios that own them if they want to get on the air.
“The Congress saw it as an argument between millionaires,” Rosenzweig said. “They didn’t see that there were small businesses at risk.”
Rosenzweig concedes this is not an issue that resonates much with the public, but he suggests concentration of the media into so few hands does raise public-interest concerns.
Among the visible results of the present state of affairs, he said, is “a certain homogeneousness among the shows that’s even worse than it was a few years ago.” He also cited a more insidious aspect of media consolidation as these vast companies keep acquiring TV and radio stations, affording them greater clout in their dealings with elected officials.
“CBS owns the station in Green Bay, and [politicians] know it,” he observed. “They understand that they have to get on the 6 o’clock news if they want to be reelected.”
In terms of how this relates to TV production, proven “show runners” find themselves grappling with studio and network brass over details they were once trusted to manage. In short, that “producer” title ain’t what it used to be.
“They should be calling up people of my venerability and say, ‘Barney, 9 o’clock Wednesday, we need an hour drama, no westerns, we’ve got too many of those.’ And that’s it, until I fail,” he said.
Instead, he contends, with the network holding the financial purse strings, “If I have creative control, and I say it’s pink, and the financial control person says it’s blue, then it’s blue. It’s not a conspiracy. They just don’t care. They’ve got a multinational conglomerate they’re running. I’ve got one show.
“In a world where the Justice Department slumbers, this is what’s going to happen. It’s not good for people like me, but it doesn’t impact on me that much, because I’m 61, not 41. I’ve had my shot. I got in a little late . . . [but] I had a taste of it. I have a sense of what it’s all been about.
“I wouldn’t want to be 32 years old now. This pendulum has shifted, and it will not come back in my lifetime. I know when I’m beat.”
Gifted with a flair for gab as well as promotion, Rosenzweig doesn’t sound beat as he talks about his series, which he calls a success by Pax’s standards, noting, “Everything’s relative. If I’m a hit to them, I’m a hit.” He has been able to book guest stars such as Donna Mills, Susan Blakely and Julia Duffy and was even able to schedule production Sunday through Thursday during the fall, freeing him Saturdays to pursue another passion: following USC’s football team around.
Rosenzweig insists he’s equally content viewing the big-time wheeling and dealing of TV from the sidelines, especially with the rush of mergers and technological advancements that seem destined to reshape the business through the coming decade.
“My father was born in 1917, and he died last year,” Rosenzweig explained. “All his life there were automobiles on the highways and airplanes in the sky. They changed shape, and they changed speed, but basically, the world was familiar.
“My grandfather, on the other hand, had to make a transition from horse and buggy, from no radio, to the modern age. . . . On that level, I’m going to have more in common with my grandfather than I did with my father. I will live just long enough to see these apocalyptic changes that are going to have an impact on us all.”
As for the fact that few people of his “venerability” and experience are employed to help navigate these fast-moving waters, Rosenzweig wryly observes that waste is nothing new to the television industry.
“They give you dinners when you’re 80 years old and you can no longer compete with them,” he said. “But that’s about it.”
* “Twice in a Lifetime” airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Pax TV.
Brian Lowry’s column appears on Tuesdays. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.