After an hour with MCA Inc. chairman Lew Wasserman, a reporter has two options. He can lie down and rest his brain or he can award himself an instantaneous Ph.D. in mass communications.
Wasserman is regarded by most people in the entertainment business as the smartest and most powerful man in Hollywood. He sits in his office in Universal City behind an antique desk that is always devoid of paper.
Things like that impress me. Most of us spend our lives at desks filled with the night soil of paper - unanswered phone messages, long memoranda that lead to meetings where grown men and women sit around making indecisions, and letters that will never be answered and should never been sent.
Wasserman sits behind his desk making decisions and offering his opinions when asked. I had come to his office seeking his reaction to the phenomenon of "Roots."
I asked him what impact "Roots" would have on future patterns of television programming. "Well," he said, "'Roots' is an extension of what happened a year ago with 'Rich Man, Poor Man' (which was produced by MCA Universal/TV).
"It was well done and brilliantly programmed.That, combined with a thing called the weather, developed the largest audience in the history of television." What, I asked, did "RM,PM" and "Roots" tap in the American television audience?
"Well," Wasserman said, "both of them became events that were out of the routine television viewing pattern. Television has evolved greatly in the 30 years it's been around. In the early days, it was almost a carbon copy of radio.
"Then, as events developed in television - the 'Today' show, the 'Tonight' show, color television, movies made for television, the long form of television such as 90-minute programs and then 'RM,PM' - television viewing patterns became much more similar to movies than to radio.
"Therefore, the event on television is going to parallel or exceed, as 'Roots' has, the event in the movie business. If you can have a big blockbuster on television akin to 'The Exorcist' or 'The Sting' or 'Jaws- or 'Towering Inferno' you are going to have that translated into enormous viewing. 'Roots' certainly fits that category. And without taking anything away from ABC, you had people locked in because of the weather."
I asked Wasserman if viewers were now more desirous of continuous narrative rather than the hour or weekly half-hour episodic forms of detective shows or situation comedies.
"I think they may be," he answered, "if you can do it in a continuous form as they did in 'Roots' - namely, every night, so the retention factor does not become a problem. It's much easier to remind people of what was on the previous night than the previous week." But didn't the audience stay with 'RM,PM,' which was done on a weekly basis? "Yes," he said, "but not to the extent that they stayed with 'Roots.'"
Wasserman was asked why this kind of programming had never been done before. "It has been done before, he said, "but not in the dramatic area. Certainly the Olympics became the kind of event I'm describing.
"In addition, what we had here, was that with the Olympics, 'RM,PM' and 'Roots,' you were coming in late in the season; people were ready for a change. And if the weather works for you, you'll get big ratings."
Wasserman brought up the fact that British television was much more flexible with its scheduling than American television, putting on a series for 13 weeks, then taking if off and, as he put it, "resting" it.
Why was that not done on American television? Was it a matter of economics? "No," he said, "we're trying to break out of the mold with Operation Prime Time. (This is an attempt by MCA Universal/TV to sell its own first-run productions to a large number of individual television stations, thus bypassing the networks.) The first production is a six-hour adaption of Taylor Caldwell's best-selling novel, "Testimony of Two Men."
What effect will Operation Prime Time, and other attempts to go outside networks to sell directly to individual stations, have on the long-term position of ABC, CBS and NBC?
"Everyone is writing the networks off. I wouldn't," Wasserman said. "They'll be there. The may not be in quite the same form we see them today. It's very easy to beat up on them, but, by and large, television in the United States is light years away from television in the rest of the world."
Is he against efforts to bust up the networks? "Yes," he said. "I'm too old to fly blind. What will they put in their place?" With that, Wasserman smiled at me and waited for an answer. I simply looked at his antique desk, devoid of any paper.