by Lynne Stanko
What makes a television show a classic? Perhaps it has an outstanding ensemble cast. Maybe the story lines and themes masterfully reflect and comment on current events or the political climate of the time. Or, the show could have just appeared at the right time on the right channel and addressed the right audience. For the 1970s sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, all of those events and more transpired in order to eventually elevate the show to “classic” status. The groundbreaking subject matter and sophistication of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is due to the creative team’s unwillingness to collapse under network pressure, changes in network policies and practices, and MTM Enterprises’ high standard of quality.
No part of television is free from a string of causes and effects. Every frame on the screen, word in the script, and extra in the background appears on the show because of the people involved with and the nature of television production. This idea is the center of production context criticism, a critical theory that dissects television programming and observes how workers and decisions at all levels affect every facet of the final product.
When critically analyzing a show using production theory, there are three different levels one can choose from: micro, macro, and mid-range. Micro-level criticism focuses on an individual worker and the daily pressures of his or her job. Mid-range criticism explores how the organizational structure of a company impacts the shows it produces. Macro-level sees the larger picture, looking at how networks interact in the marketplace.
In 2005, James S. McLean of Concordia University conducted a case study of CKCK Television in Regina, Saskatchewan. He compared the operations of the TV newsroom in the 1980s to those in place now (McLean 325). He focused on the employees’ daily work and the institutional rules. McLean was using mid-range criticism to analyze how, or if, journalistic morality was maintained throughout the years.
Production theory also deals with the hierarchy of the television business. Critics analyze this using “power roles,” based on Joe Turrow’s thirteen positions of power in television production. The task for every level of power is “to use resources strategically to gain control over resources needed from others” (Vande Berg, Gronbeck, and Wenner 265).
Anna Zoellner of the Institute of Communications Studies and the University of Leeds studied how power struggles affect the final outcome in British documentaries (Zoellner 503). She also looked at how the decisions made by individuals such as the producer and groups like the production company influence different aspects of the program. Zoellner was using production theory, specifically the idea of power roles, to analyze why certain content made it to air while other scenes did not.
The production theory allows for critical analysis of the minutest parts of television (for example, the janitor who cleans the sound-stage at night) to the largest and most public affairs (like the network wars over Conan O’Brien’s ousting). It examines how one individual can influence a generation of television viewers just by deciding what should get on a show and what shouldn’t. Most importantly, production theory proves the power of media makers, and explains why we must be ethical and responsible in our decision-making.
In order to appreciate the success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one must first understand the key players in the creation of the show, the company that was formed in order to promote and protect the show, and the marketplace and competition for networks at the time. These three scenarios can be analyzed by using the three levels of production context criticism: micro, mid-range, and macro.
On a micro level, a few talented, ambitious individuals made The Mary Tyler Moore Show possible. Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, Grant Tinker, Jim Brooks, and Allan Burns started it all.
Dick Van Dyke was of course Mary’s co-star in The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s (Alley and Brown 1). When that show ended, Mary embarked on new acting ventures (Alley and Brown 1). After a few failed movies and Broadway shows, however, Mary’s career came to a standstill (Alley and Brown 1). Then, in 1969, Mary’s generous friend Dick Van Dyke asked her to star in a CBS special with him entitled Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). Van Dyke more or less handed the show over to Mary allowing her to showcase her acting, dancing, and singing skills (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). The audience was charmed and CBS quickly offered Mary her own series (Tinker and Rukeyser 87).
This is where Grant Tinker and his brilliant mind for television business came in (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). At that time, Tinker had already spent over twenty years in television and was serving as programming executive at 20th Century Fox (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). He was happy working for other people, but was also curious to see if he could succeed in forming and running his own company (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). When CBS offered his wife her own show, he quickly negotiated a series commitment of thirteen episodes (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). While Moore was just happy to have her own show, Tinker recognized the potential for a new business venture (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). Thirteen episodes meant an increased likelihood of the show getting on the air and gaining success, which would decrease the financial risk of Tinker and Moore starting a production company (Tinker and Rukeyser 87). With that, MTM Enterprises, Inc. was born, although Moore thought it should be called GAT, as she knew that Grant Tinker would be running it (Alley and Brown 3).
Once Moore and Tinker had a series commitment, Tinker moved to the task of hiring a creative team (Tinker and Rukeyser 88). Instead of picking a safe, seasoned writer, Tinker persuaded James Brooks and Allan Burns to co-create, produce, and write the new series (Feuer 5). Brooks and Burns had worked on the classroom dramedy Room 222, but CBS was still not confident in their ability (Tinker and Rukeyser 89). The network’s distaste of the writers intensified when they pitched the idea of Mary playing a divorcee (Alley and Brown 5). Brooks and Burns wanted to write relevant, truthful, edgy scripts, and they felt that Mary was the best person to give divorce a new face in the media (Alley and Brown 4). The network was horrified; they thought people would think Mary was divorced from Dick Van Dyke (Alley and Brown 4). CBS begged Tinker to fire them and find someone else, but he refused (Alley and Brown 5). Brooks and Burns were caught in a difficult position– they didn’t want to quit and risk damaging the reputation of Moore and Tinker, but they didn’t want to compromise their artistic integrity either (Alley and Brown 5). They decided to stay on the project and brainstorm new ideas that they still found interesting and relevant to the early 1970s (Alley and Brown 5). Finally they came up with the idea of setting the show in a newsroom, based on Brooks’ experience of working in one for years (Tinker and Rukeyser 91). Mary wouldn’t be divorced, but she would be just getting out of a long-term relationship with her live-in boyfriend (Tinker and Rukeyser 91). The twenty-one page written proposal to CBS ended with:
This series will, as we hope you have noted, be comedically populated. But it is clearly about one person living in and coping with the world of the 1970s… tough enough in itself… even tougher when you’re thirty, single, and female… when despite the fact that you’re the antithesis of the career woman, you find yourself the only female in an all-male newsroom. (Tinker and Rukeyser 95)
Before leaving the topic of individuals, it is important to note the power roles being played. Grant Tinker put his marriage, career, reputation, and financial welfare on the line for this show. One aspect of production context theory is Dimmick and Colt’s nine-level hierarchy. Formal hierarchies display normative social influence, meaning one person or group exercises power over another submissive person or group. In this case, even though CBS clearly had more power than Tinker, he defended the show and its creators until the network eventually backed down. It was perhaps due to interpersonal influence, where individuals’ decisions affect the outcome of a show, that these CBS executives accepted the reversal of power and trusted Tinker’s intuition. It would not be the last time that Tinker overrode a network decision. (Vande Berg, Gronbeck, and Wenner 265)
Macro-level issues such as developments in advertising and shifts in demographics benefited The Mary Tyler Moore Show during its first season, allowing it to gain and keep an audience.
In the 1960s, the time of single-sponsor television programs came to an end. Now networks had total control over programming, and were able to sell time slots to different advertisers. However, beginning in 1971, cigarette ads were banned from the airwaves, thus emptying many prime-time commercial slots. The networks panicked as their revenues dropped by $43 million dollars (nearly half) in one year. CBS was forced to lower its rates, reduce programming budgets, and cut the minimum time that advertisers could buy from one minute to thirty seconds. These changes made advertisers flock to the network, spending $100 million dollars in two weeks and prompting CBS to raise its rate by 25%. Then the Prime Time Access Rule of 1970 restricted the amount of network prime time programming to just three hours. The new scarcity of ads made advertisers even more crazed to win a spot, and upped the price of ad time even more. (Kerr 66-67)
The creation of TMTMS also coincided with the second wave of the woman’s movement, and thus attracted many feminists who were happy to see a single career woman at the center of a sitcom. This made advertisers finally recognize working women as consumers instead of just the housewives who bought soap and detergent. CBS capitalized on this idea, publishing a guide entitled “Where the Girls Are,” which detailed the female demographics of each of its programs:
Its cover featured a revolving disk which would reveal at a glance the age distribution of retail buyers of 91 different products bought mainly by women. ‘And the pages inside,’ said the brochure, ‘show you how you can apply this handy information to Nielsen’s new audience reports by age of lady viewer.’ (Kerr 67)
The change in demographic was in large part due to a risky decision made by new CBS Network president Bob Wood. In 1970, CBS was the leading network, but Wood knew that the most popular shows attracted a rural, aging audience. He canceled many high-rated shows like Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Green Acres in order to make room with new programs that would hopefully attract a younger, more urban demographic. In his autobiography, Tinker praises Bob Wood as the best network president ever, citing Wood’s knowledge in sales, respect for creatives, and persuasion with affiliates. The Wood “revolution,” as Tinker called it, might have started with Mary Tyler Moore, but it was driven into full force a year later with All in the Family. Together these shows provided CBS with Saturday night “literate comedy,” which would eventually grow to include M*A*S*H, Bob Newhart, and Carol Burnett, making it possibly the most entertaining and successful lineup in history. (Tinker and Rukeyser 103)
Besides a beloved star, talented writers, and network support, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had one other very important attribute: a production company that strove for enlightened humor and honest entertainment.
This mid-range analysis looks at the style of MTM Enterprises, Inc. and the shows it produced. MTM sitcoms had to operate on several levels in order to appeal to a liberal, sophisticated audience as well as the mass audience. To the larger everyman audience, TMTMS was a warm situational comedy that could seem like a family show set in the workplace due to the close relationships of the characters. Yet to the “quality” audience, the show was sharp and self-aware, commenting on social issues and dynamics in work and family life. The ability for TMTMS to play to both crowds meant that the sophisticated audience could enjoy watching an ordinary, popular show without feeling guilty, and the larger section of the audience would be entertained and not talked down to. (Feuer 56)
The idea of a work-family was no doubt inspired by the boom of divorce rates in the 1970s. Until The Mary Tyler Moore Show, most sitcoms were centered on the idealized nuclear family where all problems can be solved by the end of the episode. Now that the traditional family was no longer relevant to many Americans, TMTMS offered a solution: forming bonds with one’s coworkers could fill the void left when relatives deserted, disappointed, or died. (Feuer 57-59)
MTM Enterprises was also determined to represent women in a much more liberated, empowered light than most other production companies. Producer Bob Schiller of All in the Family lamented in 1978 that now that The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Maude were over, television lacked a powerful female lead. The few exceptions to that over the next few years would come mostly from MTM, with strong female characters in Hillstreet Blues, Remington Steele, and St. Elsewhere. Even when the second wave died down– in fact, at a time of intense backlash against feminism– MTM Enterprises was dedicated to showcasing empowered women on the small screen. (Meehan 130-131)
While the timing and surface characteristics of The Mary Tyler Moore Show cause many viewers to believe it to be feminist, the subtext of most episodes and the relationships between characters reveal the show to still be deeply rooted in traditional patriarchal values. Critics have said that while Mary is a career woman, she plays the role of wife, daughter, mother, and sister to her co-workers. This enables men to feel comfortable with a woman in the workplace, as she is still fulfilling traditional roles. In her book Prime Time Feminism, Bonnie J. Dow recounts the plot of the first episode. Mary Richards enters the WJM newsroom in order to interview for a secretarial position, but instead is offered a job as producer. Mary takes the producing job, even though it pays less and her coworker informs her that she was hired to be the “token woman.” Dow explains that this clearly demonstrates Mary’s level of enlightenment: she recognizes the sexism in being hired for her gender instead of ability, and in being paid much less than a man would be paid in the same position; yet she accepts the job and the sexism that comes along with it. (Dow 25-31)
When criticizing the show for its sexism versus its feminism, it is important to note the time period. While in 1970 the woman’s movement was underway, not every woman that would eventually turn feminist had gotten involved yet. To look at this at the micro level, Treva Silverman was hired as the first major writer after Brooks and Burns. Silverman immediately identified with the character of Rhoda, Mary Richards’ underdog sidekick, and wrote most of Rhoda’s lines. In the beginning, Silverman gave Rhoda the same self-deprecating humor that she herself had, always talking about dieting and not dating. However, as the show progressed, both Silverman and Valerie Harper, the actress who played Rhoda, became heavily involved with the woman’s movement, and Rhoda’s lines began to change. Silverman started to take pride in her womanhood, and Rhoda, in turn, began to respect herself more. Suddenly Rhoda was more confident and became enough of a winning character to lead her own spin-off in 1974. The point is that a series cannot be criticized for its political stance or lack thereof just based on the pilot. A show, along with its characters, actors, and writers, needs time to find its audience, voice, and message. (Alley and Brown 41-42)
Ultimately, what makes The Mary Tyler Moore Show a classic is the sum of all its parts: the groundbreaking creative team; the production company, with its dedication to producing quality television; and the sheer luck that a show about a single woman in a big city was developed just as the second wave of feminism was underway, CBS hired a new president who wanted to add urban shows to the network lineup, and advertisers recognized that working women were an untapped group of consumers. The production theory allows one to draws these conclusions based on macro, mid-range, and micro level criticism. Without this analysis, it’s difficult to understand how and why a show is a success. To be a successful media maker and mimic the achievements of classic shows, one has to be able to analyze what made them classics in the first place.
Lynne Stanko is a television writing and producing major at Columbia College Chicago. Her interest in media studies goes back to the discovery of classic television at an early age. She strives to integrate the lessons of the legends that came before her with postmodern ideas. Therefore, it should be no surprise she loves “Mad Men”– as it’s a show set in her favorite era, commenting on the social issues of both then and now. And, it’s damn entertaining.
Alley, Robert S., and Irby B. Brown. Love is All Around: The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. New York: Dell Publishing, 1989. 1-42. Print.
Dow, Bonnie J. Prime Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement since 1970. N.p.: Bonnie J. Dow, 1996. 25-31. Print.
Feuer, Jane, Kerr, Paul, and Vahimagi, Tise, eds. MTM Enterprises: An Overview. By Jane Feuer. London: British Film Institute, 1984. 5. Print.
Feuer, Jane, Kerr, Paul, and Vahimagi, Tise, eds. The Making of (The) MTM (Show). By Paul Kerr. London: British Film Institute, 1984. 56. Print.
Feuer, Jane, Kerr, Paul, and Vahimagi, Tise, eds. The MTM Style. By Jane Feuer. London: British Film Institute, 1984. 56-59. Print.
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