August 19, 1999
It’s Just Business
"Do they all have to be Italian?"
This is the question the network executive asked the creator of "Everybody Loves Raymond" as they were casting Ray Romano's family. A dumb question? If what was going on here was finding the best possible cast for a particular show, then, yeah, it would be a dumb question. But this is network television, where the marketing department has as much, if not more, to say about which shows will get on the air as the creative department. In order to deliver viewers, the network will do anything it can to avoid alienating the majority of Americans, who happen to be white Protestants. And conventional wisdom dictates that these people want to see themselves reflected on TV. So maybe asking whether all the Romanos have to be Italian was not such a dumb question, after all.
There's been a lot of angry and disappointed reaction to the new TV shows for fall. The NAACP is protesting this television season's all-white look. Hispanics and Asians are absent in leading roles, just like they usually are. And are there any Jews this year? I can't think of one.
While I personally think this situation is deplorable from an aesthetic and cultural point of view, I honestly don't believe the decision-makers at the networks are sitting around, wondering how they can keep ethnic groups off television. What they are sitting around and thinking about is money. Their own and the corporation's, which, of course, are intimately connected. Millions, no, make that billions, of American advertising dollars ride on a hit TV show, and a hit TV show rides on only one thing: the numbers. If this is starting to sound more like a Vegas crap shoot than electronic theater, you're following perfectly.
For the corporation to make money, those networks have got to sell commercial time, and the more viewers they can deliver, the more they can charge for that commercial time. See, it's not politics; it's math.
Since we're talking about economics, remember the "trickle down theory?" Here's how it works in TV: As a producer and writer of network television shows, I want to keep my checks rolling in, so I've got to deliver what my boss wants. I can start out creating a Jewish character, but by the time it's on the air, she'll be a white Protestant.
I created a character named Cassandra Kaplan. She lived on the Upper West Side of New York and was a literary agent in the publishing business. Could you get more Jewish? This was a pilot script -- i.e. a template episode for a potential show. CBS liked it and wanted to shoot it. The network M.O. that year was to only develop shows that had a star in the lead role. This was not because Les Moonves, the president of the network, wanted to create jobs for out-of-work stars. No, he believed that the most reliable way to get people to tune in was to give them a familiar product, someone they already knew and loved.
OK, if we want the Cassandra Kaplan project to move forward, we need a star. Fran Drescher: already got a show. Bette Midler: developing her own project. Barbra Streisand: Get real. She's not gonna do episodic TV. I think we're out of Jewish stars. What's annoying is that it's self-perpetuating. Few obviously Jewish actresses are cast in leading roles; therefore, few have the opportunity to become stars. So then when you need a star, you haven't got a Jewish one, and you have to go with someone who's not. We cast Kathy Baker, the Emmy-winning star of "Picket Fences." The network was happy; the project moved forward.
Kathy is a wonderful actress, and we were lucky to get her. She brought warmth and depth and humor to the role, but she certainly isn't Jewish. So Kaplan became Cassidy, and that, as they say, is show business. Jewish writers, Jewish producers, Jewish network executives, but the audience is not Jewish. Nothing personal, just business.
When I was growing up, my father had a jewelry store in Sioux City, Iowa. He was Jewish and half the people who worked in the store were Jewish and a lot of the companies that supplied him with merchandise were run by Jews, but come December, he didn't sell Chanukah gifts; he sold Christmas gifts because he was running a business and that's where the money was. Well, TV is a business, no different then my Dad's jewelry store, except the grosses are a whole lot bigger.
For the past two years, Ellen Sandler has been co-executive producer of "Everybody Loves Raymond," which airs Monday nights on CBS.