The television creator Steven Bochco attempted many innovations that have become standard on TV: messy human characters (“Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue”), half-hour dramedies (“Hooperman”), season-long mysteries (“Murder One”), even prime-time musicals (“Cop Rock”).
But the creative trailblazer, who died Sunday at 74, designed shows that were a lot less-watched than that influence might suggest.
And that makes Bochco an industry pioneer, too. Because when it came to the matter of viewers and ratings, he showed a new way of doing business that didn’t rely on mass audiences — a way Netflix and modern television rely heavily on today.
Many of Bochco’s series garnered niche audiences, at best. “Hooperman,” “Cop Rock” and “Murder One” were so little-seen that they were canceled after their second seasons. (“Cop Rock” didn’t make it past its 11th episode.)
Even his hits were seldom audience juggernauts. “Hill Street Blues,” arguably the most influential of the bunch, was middling by Nielsen standards. It failed to land in the top 30 in the majority of its seven seasons — and never finished in the top 20.
“L.A. Law,” Bochco’s vintage 1980s series that paved the way for a host of law-firm dramas (“The Practice,” “The Good Wife,” Boston Legal”), never finished in the top 10 and ended up outside the top 20 for the majority of its eight seasons.
And the provocative “NYPD Blue,” his most highly ranked Nielsen show, finished better than 10th only once in its 12 seasons.
That suggests a storyteller ahead of his time — the descendants of many of Bochco’s shows became bigger hits in their time than the original shows were in theirs. Unlike “L.A. Law,” “The Practice” cracked Nielsen’s top 10, and “Glee” became a phenomenon after “Cop Rock” was a laughingstock.
But Bochco was also blazing a trail in another way — by showing you don’t need the largest possible audience to have a worthwhile show or a long-running career.
That idea would become common several decades later, as shows like “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire” enjoyed fruitful runs, kept alive by advertisers that liked hyper-engaged viewers (for a basic-cable series like AMC’s “Mad Men”) or subscribers excited enough to shell out monthly fees (for a pay-cable series like HBO’s “Boardwalk”).
When Bochco began his life in TV there were basically three networks. Shows stayed on them by attracting as many viewers as possible. Bochco showed another way, by garnering acclaim and devotion. “Blues” stayed on the air for seven seasons despite its ratings struggles because it also racked up Emmy nominations — 98 in total. For Bochco shows, acclaim was as important as audience. You didn’t need everybody if you had engagement.
In 1987, after “Hill Street” wound down, ABC paid Bochco a then-unheard-of $10 million to create 10 series for it. Long before anyone was commoditizing buzz — heck, long before Twitter and other tools were even available to measure it — Bochco persuaded network executives it could be valuable.
In fact, entire companies now base their model on what might be called the Bochco School — basically, the idea of a narrow phenomenon.
Netflix series like “Stranger Things” or Hulu award-winners like “The Handmaid’s Tale” don’t measure their success in total audience numbers; we don’t even know what those numbers are. No matter. Doing something bold makes a small group of people care passionately. And that’s enough for these subscriber-based companies, which require devoted niches more than they need mass audiences. Bochco created shows that work perfectly for today’s business. It just took awhile for the business to catch up.
Who knows how long “Hooperman” or “Murder One” might have survived if they’d come along in the era of FX or Netflix? (We’ll leave “Cop Rock” out of it.) For fans of those series, victims of early timing, that might seem tragic. But viewed another way, it only enhances Bochco’s legacy: He offered not only new ways for writers to tell stories but also a template for the rest of the television business.