Tom Fontana is the creator or co-creator of such diverse dramas as OZ, THE JURY, TATTINGER'S, THE BEAT, and THE BEDFORD DIARIES. He was an Executive Producer on HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET. He began his TV career as a writer and producer on ST. ELSEWHERE. All his shows are crafted (and crafty) character dramas with evolving story lines. He was gracious enough to spend an hour on the phone with me answering a dozen or so arcane questions about his craft and his medium. Hopefully, I didn't ask him too many questions he's heard before.
Crafty TV: How much TV do you watch? What shows? Do you watch shows you enjoy, or shows you may not like but are popular, or shows that you feel are stretching the form in an interesting way?
TF: I'm fifty-five, so I grew up with television. There was a television set on in our house from the moment they brought me home from the hospital, and it was not turned off in all the years that I lived in my parents' house. I watched a lot of television up to high school. After that, I didn't really watch much for a while. I have a huge gap in my knowledge of seventies TV. Then when I started writing television, I started watching watching everything. Not just shows where I admired the writing. Shows like LOU GRANT or HILL STREET BLUES. Even the crap. I thought I should know what everyone else was doing.
By the time ST. ELSEWHERE went off the air, my viewing had burned out. When I moved back to New York, I didn't even own a television set. For a year. I had O.D.'d on it.
Now, even though I do watch TV, I don't watch it regularly. There are a number of shows that if I'm home, and they're on, I'll watch. It depends on how good the writing is. How good the cast is.
I've never seen a reality show, not because I'm snobby, but because I'm terrified I might become addicted and become a part of the segment of this country that obsesses on them.
I watch hour dramas primarily ... well written shows, like SOPRANOS, THE WEST WING, DEADWOOD. David Milch's work is always exciting. 24 is clever. The problem is I can never watch the show consistently enough to know what hour it is. The same with LOST. NIP/TUCK I find very well written and well done. And HUFF is terrific.
What I've started doing is waiting for the DVD's to come out, then watching the WHOLE season of a show in a clump....
CRAFTY TV: Which brings up the question: more viewers are using technology to skip commercials, or download pirated episodes. What do you think is the future of dramatic TV? Will we move to a subscription model?
TF: I'm not smart enough, certainly not technologically, to answer that question, except to say that in the same way that the legitimate theater shifted when the motion picture came about, then the movies shifted when sound came about, then shifted again when television came about, the market will have to shift again. Television is on the precipice of an enormous re-evaluation, of how shows are made, how much they cost, who's watching and how they're watching. I think in the next five to ten years, television, as we know it, will have ceased to exist.
CRAFTY TV: Then what about a subscription model, where, say, you tell people, "We're thinking of doing another season of OZ, are you willing to pay $20, and if we get enough people we'll take your $20 and everybody else's $20 and we'll make the season."
TF: Well, but how are you doing to do the first season?
CRAFTY TV: You can say, "Tom Fontana is doing a new show..."
TF: Then how do you get new showrunners?
I think that this is something everyone is trying to figure out. What the studios need is for somebody to tell them, "here's how you're going to make your money back." They shoot the shows for the networks at a deficit. If you put in permanent downloads, you eliminate all the other revenue streams. There's no chance for the studios to make their money back. So there's the problem. Anybody who thinks they can tell you now how this is going to work is an idiot. No one knows. No one at the studios, no one at the networks, there is no writer/producer who has a clear sense. We're in virgin territory. It's going to take time to settle down. What do we do? Do we go back to making TV for as little as possible, with paper sets, and no locations? The public won't accept that. There's a very real problem here. I'm not clever enough to come up with a solution. But I'm fascinated to see what happens.