Richard Levinson and William Link wrote the first TV drama on the subject of television violence, but their little misadventures in getting it on the air may say more about the issue and about network operations than the program does.
The plot of "The Storyteller," a two-hour NBC movie on Channel 4 at 9 o'clock tonight, finds a middle-aged TV writer jolted by guilt when a TV movie he wrote triggers and disturbed kid into setting fire to his school. The boy dies in the fire, and the writer feels responsible.
When Levinson and Link, who wrote such landmark TV problem dramas as "My Sweet Charlie" and "That Certain Summer," first took their idea to an executive at another network, the executive suggested a few changes.
"He said it would only work if we opened with the kid committing a murder and then had a trial scene where the kid stands up and says "I accuse television."" Levison recalls.
It was also suggested along the way that the program at least open with the schoolhouse ablaze, but the writers didn't want to do it that way. They never even show the fire in the finished film, nor the boy's death.
Indeed, they have been so careful that, "The Storyteller" almost carefuls itself into a coma. All the pro and con arguments aobut the effects on TV violence are put into characters' mouths as dialogue, and the program suffers from a lack of, let's say, "movement."
It might have been better, come to think of it, to open with the fire - at least so far as dramatic values are concerned. But of course that would have compromised the show's stately pose of noble intentions.
At the end of the film, the rumpled old writer, played by the king of rumples, Martin Balsam, vows not to write any more TV shows involing "gun shots or vehicular mayhem" and is told by a producer that he is having "an attack of conscience just when it is fashionable." The same charge might be applied to Levinson and Link, but they also deserve the praise that goes to those with the guts to be first.
Unfortunately, even they know that television is facing up to the violence issue very late in the debate.
"The network wasn't concerned to much about the violence issue in this film," says Levinson, "because in their mind, that's dead."
"They cleaned up their act," says Link.
"The network position," says Levinson," is that television was never violent, but if it was it no longer is. So the subject matter didn't disturb them. What disturbed them was, they said. 'You're not going to get numbers (high rankings) with this show, but you want to do it, so do it."
It is very likely, in fact, that, "The Storyteller" will do miserably in the ratings: the network isn't exactly promoting it with gusto, either. Why put it on at all then? "Don't you know that when a network executive goes to Washington" says Levinson, "he'd love to point to a script like this and say, 'You see? We put these criticisms of ourselves on the air.' They'd put this on the air even if it was a diatribe against them. They're not afraid of criticism by insiders. They're afraid of the PTA."
The PTA, among other groups, has launched a drive to heighten parent awareness of violence in TV shows and to pressure networks and sponsors to phase out even more of it than they have already.
Over the years, Levinson and Link have watched a decline in the number of suggestions from producers that they juice up their TV scripts with more "action," which means violence. They are proud that "Columbo," a series they created, is a crime show without car chases, bops on the noggin or bloody killings.
"Columbo doesn't even carry a gun," says Link. "He hasn't even been hit over the head!"
"Columbo has one murder every week, which is an Agatha Christie, country-house type murder," Levinson says.
"And it's always implicit, it's antiseptic," says Link. "Usually we cut away we don't even show the murder."
However, when they wrote "The Execution of Private Slovik," a widely praised TV movie a few seasons ago, they felt the climatic execution itself should be shown rather graphically, and were surprised when a network executive asked them to tone it down.
"They guy said, he couldn't take it, the execution, he thought it was too much." Levinson recalls. 'This was the same guy who said two years earlier that we should put some more violence in 'Columbo' - some more 'action' in it."
Nevertheless, the Levinson-Link version of the TV business in "Storyteller" makes everybody in it look pretty benign. The producers are reasonable men. The writer is a very reasonable man. They are all reasonable men. About the only unreasonable person is the mother of the little boy who died.
The writers insist this version of the TV business is accurate. "The picture of the television industry in this movie is what we've lived with for 20 years," says Link. "It's rather mundane at times, and there are a lot of people with gray motivations - not black and white."
"If you don't like network television," Levinson says, "it's much more subtle and pernicious and fascinating if you see the men who run it not as villains but as decent men who have a rationale for their behavior."
Part of the problem with "Storyteller" as entertainment is the dusty-dry direction of Robert Markowitz, who did the similarly deadly "Deadlicst Season" for CBS last year. By avoiding any hint of melo-dramatic jazziness, Markowitz made the program practically inert. Still, viewers who see it through will get a few privileged glimpses into the world of bigtime TV - including a visit to Preview House, the Hollywood testing center where guinea pig audiences rate programs before they are shown on the air.
In the film, the audience is shown reacting positively to a car chase scene (actually a clip from the defunct "Delvecchio"), a race over roof-tops (from Levinson and Link's own extinct "Ellery Queen") and the sight of a gun being aimed at a tennis player (from "Switch"). They react by turning little dials away from "dull" and "very dull," toward "good" and "very good."
The point of the scene is that viewers must like violence or there wouldn't be any of it on television.
There's at least one other small insight into the TV game. At one point in the film the Balsam character, a successful TV writer, takes grateful note of his $10,000 swimming pool" and his "$200,000 house."
Levinson and Link, successful writers themselves, are asked if those figures are true to life.
"Yes," says Levinson.
"That's true," says Link.
"Absolutely," says Levinson. "The men who make television make a lot of money."