Bill Carter is a TV writer on the New York Times who previously wrote a book called The Late Shift which detailed the events surrounding the battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman to take over The Tonight Show on NBC. Obviously, this didn’t have an exactly massive impact in the UK, although the TV movie based on the book gets late night airings on TV once in a while.
This books takes a look at whats been happening at the four major US networks over the last few years, with plenty of firsthand testimony from the major players. How American Idol only made it onto Fox thanks to an intervention from Rupert Murdoch himself. How Lost, Desperate Housewives and Greys Anatomy have turned around ABC in one single season. How Les Moonves have overseen the renaissance of CBS with shows like CSI and Survivor. And how NBC hasn’t managed to replenish hit sitcoms like Friends, Seinfeld and Frasier.
Some of this stuff you’ll know about, and some you won’t. The book’s written in a very chatty style, and could quite easily be read chapter by chapter in a completely random order, since we’re reminded of information we’ve already learnt as though we’d skipped three previous chapters. I must admit that this irritated me a little. It’s not as though anyone’s going to be struggling to get through this book for weeks and weeks.
The process by which hit shows reach the air in America just seems ever more random, with one or two people being basically responsible. If they personally don’t like the show, then it doesn’t reach the airwaves. And of course if it does and is a hit, then success has many fathers. The reverse can be true – the guy who effectively created Lost, lost his job before the show hit the airwaves.
If you want to learn more about the creation factory that is American TV then this is the book for you. The only thing I’d say was missing was a look at some of the really creative stuff that’s emerged on cable over the last few years – not just HBO stuff like The Sopranos, but all those FX shows like The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me, and Sci-Fi’s Battlestar Galactica. Between them, they’re as good, if not better than most of the network fare.