Television and movies often astonish us with their simple-mindedness, their repetitiveness and their crudeness. Once in a very great while, they move us or enlighten us as to something in dramatic art. But looked at as indicators of social and emotional conditions on a national scale, they can tell us much. What is on television or in movies--and why--tells us not only about the tiny society that makes movies and TV, but also about the larger society that watches them.
That brings me to Brandon Stoddard, the boyish, 46-year-old executive of ABC. He is the only human being in the mass media who is responsible for production of both theatrical movies at ABC ("Young Doctors in Love" and "National Lampoon's Class Reunion") and movies and mini-series on the ABC network ("Winds of War" and "The Thornbirds"). In this capacity, he sees the broad gulfs of audience--and audience psychology--that separate movies and TV. He also sees, through the research of his network, just what is on the minds of Americans of all kinds.
For example: why are there so many movies that show men having wholesome, happy relationships with prostitutes and unhappy, painful relationships with women who aren't prostitutes.
"It's not really complicated," Stoddard says. "The dominant group of moviegoers in the country is teen-age boys around the age of 16. They are intrigued by sex, but they are deeply scared by the emotions of love and affection surrounding sex. They like stories that offer them the sex first, without raising any fears about feelings. Then, because the boys bring girls to the movies with them, the movies have the relationship deepen into real feelings, which, we find, is what the girls want to see."
Stoddard follows that glimpse into the American psyche with a mirror image about TV. "The reason we put on a show like 'Thornbirds' that has hour after hour of pining and meaningful looks and only one sex act is that the dominant group of TV movie viewers is exactly emotionally opposite to theater movie viewers. On TV, we are aiming for the woman 18 to 49. The teen-agers don't watch much, and the men are brought along by the wives. The wives want to see relationships. They don't care that much for graphic descriptions or showings of sex. They want to show feelings growing.
"For example, in 'Thornbirds', we were giving the women in the audience a perfect proxy for their own lives. Every woman has some man in her life who prefers his work or his pals or his hobby to her. It could even be her husband. We showed that man, and we made him really unavailable--Richard Chamberlain played a Catholic priest--and then we showed that in the end, he succumbled to his feelings for the woman. Teen- age boys wouldn't watch it for five minutes. It got a 60 share on TV."
Why are movies that tend to be big hits often occupied only with the lowest possible level of humor--toilet jokes, sex jokes, school jokes? "It goes back to the same kinds of problems with education that the whole country is talking about," says Stoddard. "The circle of knowledge is growing smaller and smaller in today's youth. We no longer can take for granted that they'll be aware of anything we want to satirize. If we find that they don't know about something in the first place, they won't be able to understand if we're making fun of it in the second place." Stoddard added that in "Young Doctors in Love," which was a satire of medical romances, there was originally mention of a bedpan. "But in our interviews with viewers, we found that the kids had never even heard of a bedpan. So even a rather unsophisticated reference like that didn't work."
Stoddard notes that a similar process is at work in terms of minimizing plot and story in movies. "The model moviegoer wants to see action, lights, movement. He's not that grabbed by plot. He wants the same things that make video games a big hit."
Is this discouraging? After all, don't we usually think of persons who mostly like colored lights and movement as being less civilized than might be desirable? "Well, kids have always been that way," Stoddard says. "I'm sure I was that way," he said. "But anyway, it's all changing, because the moviegoing audience is aging really fast. The teen-age kids who go to the movies now are growing up. They're still going to the movies as they get into their twenties. But now they're wanting to see more story, more relationships. The replacement generation of moviegoers still likes bright lights, but they are a much, much smaller group than the group that's now getting into their twenties. So, movies are inevitably going to grow more plot-oriented as adults eventually dominate the theatergoing market."
(How the children of today will learn to like plot and eschew colored lights is a major unknown, but is assumed by Stoddard to happen as a natural process. "It certainly happened to everyone I know," he says, and he has a point.)
Why do some mini-series catch on and become phenomena and others languish? Why the difference between a "Winds of War" and a "Seventh Avenue," for example. "It really has nothing to do with advertising," Stoddard says. "It has everything to do with how the public picks it up. If the American people see the series as a national event, like the World Series, then viewers tune in just to be part of the national experience. We find that Americans are hungry for events that affirm their community as a people. If we can give those events to them, they can feel a sense of belonging that they can hardly get any other way. That feeling becomes at least as important as what is on the show."
Like a national election or national mobilization? "Very much the same," Stoddard says. "TV in an ongoing series can really pull the country together in a wholesome way, and people really need that."
Stoddard has an infinitude of other well-informed notions about America at his fingertips, thanks to his unique perch overlooking both movies and TV. He uses that mass of data and conceptualizing to earn money for ABC, which is his job. But I wonder if the men and women who work in the West Wing or on Capitol Hill have such a good understanding of the mind of the nation, and I wish they did.