Baltimore may have a "Television Hill" and Washington a "Broadcast House" but Los Angeles has a "Television City." That's what CBS calls its major production facility here, but in fact L.A. is television city, because nearly every single prime-time series is produced here.
Thus, "Happy Days" is a ridiculous Los Angeles notion of life in Milwaukee in the '50s and "Good Times" a fairly ridiculous Los Angeles notion of ghetto Chicago in the '70s. "Kojak," set in New York and partially filmed there last season, will be shot entirely in Lost Angeles this year. So much for its gritty New York realism.
Of course, given the rabidly commercial nature of the medium and the large amount of programming required, it's inevitable that most of television's notions of reality would be ridiculous. But how healthy can it be that virtually everything on primetime TV comes out of a creative comunity in which people leave work at 4 o'clock in their Porsche 924s so they can get in a couple of hours at their backyard swimming pools before the sun folds for the day?
Americans may have lingering visions of Hollywood as a wicked place. When you're here, though, it just seems rather silly - a giant, sprawling statement attempting to disprove the existence of middle age. From the cleavages of old rich men, gray hairs their wives beam numbly with faces tanned almost to the breaking point.
These are the people who are giving America a picture of itself every night, when millions plop down before the fun house mirror of television. One wonders if the picture they receive has to be as silly as it is, and whether it wouldn't be more representative if there were other voices than Hollywood's to be heard.
Ben Stein, who left the East and The Wall Street Journal to become a createive consultant at Norman Lear's production company here, has written an ent here, has written an entire book about the L.A. television community for Harper and Row. Though it's still without a title, he expects it to be out this winter. He doesn't find Hollywood's influence over the American mind to be espe cially deplorable, just idiosyncratic and patently false.
"What I do in the book is examine the images of various groups in society as they appear on television - businessmen, orking men, military figures, bureaucrats," says Stein, now on recess from "Fernwood 2night," which is awaiting word on its own renewal. "When you do this, you get a very unusual view of life in this country.'.
L.A. writers and producers create their version of America from life as they know it, and life as they know it is not as it's known in most of the rest of the contry.
"What I found," Stein says, "is that on television businessmen are invariably criminals and murderers, there are virtually no minority group criminals at all, unless you count those who are lackeys of white businessmen. Working people on television lead lives of cornucopian plenty - even seretaries have shiny new Camaros and houses on the beach. Well, in L.A., secretaries do have shiny new Camaros and you can rent a house on the beach relatively cheaply."
Businessmen come off as crooks, Stein thinks, because "In the L.A. producers' and writers' minds, businessmen really are crooks, the concept of businessmen as honest does not exist here - in producers' minds anyway. I talked to about 50 of them and only one said he thought of businessmen as basically honest.
"The reasons for this are, A, they deal with a lot of crooks and , B, they see businessmen as their class enemy. As a powerful social class vying with their own for status."
Millions of American kids may be growing up wondering why there are no palm trees in their backyards, since they see them constantly on television, mostly on filmed cop shows. The image of the policeman given by television, Stein says, is also inaccurate, based as it is on "the California tradition of super neat cops - trim athletic guys who all look like male models. We know that cops don't look like that, but Southern California is where producers get their image of policemen."
The whole concept of working for a living is challenged by the image of work that TV dramas and sitcoms put forward. "On TV, no one ever works, you never see anyone reallyworking except for chasing cars, which is fun, not work. Dr. Hartley (The Bob New-hart Show) doesn't work: he comes through the door and swaps jokes with his patients."
Part of the reason we don't see a lot of working people working on TV is that it's become an escapist medium and viewers who have worked all day do not, presumably, want to come home and watch other people sweating and straining. But Stein thinks the image of work is also distorted because L.A. writers and producers have a nutty concept of what work is themselves.
"I worked in a law office, a dingy law office full of musty books, for years, and I really worked. But I've noticed that the people here in television don't do what we think of as work. They sit in an office with a tap recrder telling jokes to each other. That's how a TV show gets written.
So the so-called news reporters on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" really just sat around all day telling jokes to each other. The staff of that grubby diner on "Alice" doesn't serve up nearly as many griddle cakes as it does wisercracks.
For all of this gross misrepresentation of American life, and of life itself, Stein doesn't think the Los Angeles influence is really that pernicious.
"People in hollywood have quite an optimistic view of life in Hollywood, and enormous faith in human potential and so the characters in television shows dream great dreams; they're all looking for Nirvana. Even poor people on shows are given great dreams. True, they never quite get there, but they have a good time doing it. I think this encourages people at home to think big themselves, to develop enormous ambitions.
But aren't these dreams unrealistic, even pathetic, even corrupt, adn isn't the country being brought up on the value system of a city that prizes status doesn't quite agree, but concedes, "It is bad that people are given an unrealistic idea of the meaterial possessions they are supposed to have and that they are exposed to the idea that you don't have to work for what you want."
We don't know what mass psychological effects all this exposure to the gospel of Hollywood is having on American viewers whose sets are on an average of seven hours a day. Still, the television drift West to what F. Scott Fitzgeral calls the "mining town in Lotus Land," has done anything but abate. Johnny Carson moved to L.A., Tom Snyder followed. CBS recently moved some top programmers westward. Corporate network headquarters remain in New York, but the big braisntorms brew out here.
Mike Nichols once said he make "The Graduate" to try to stem "the Los Angeleszation of the world," Turn on network television any night of the week and you realize how completely he failed.