Truth and Fiction
"Running a company and writing a script are in many ways identical," says television producer Steven Bochco, who does both. "Both require inventiveness, energy, disdain for setbacks. Both require passion." We asked him why.
Without passion you can't do your work in the single specific way that will give it the best chance of succeeding - that is, you can't stay committed to process, as opposed to result. Process is a long-term commitment; it demands unrelenting attention. If you don't love what you're working on, process is too hard.
I've learned, for example, that if I'm passionate about the process as I develop a show, the results will take care of themselves. Always. And I think every business is analogous. You can't fixate on the result. You can't be thinking, Gosh, when we get these tiny tape recorders made, people are going to buy a billion of them and I'm going to make a lot of money. No, instead you focus on the process: How can I make this thing better? What works here? What doesn't?
Process is taking the time to study your project, understand it, and figure out what you want to do with it and the best way to go about it. It's also finding the best people to help you and creating an environment that's conducive to good work. Most important, process is what lets you - and everybody alongside you - be surprised; it lets you discover things you hadn't figured out at the start.
The creation of a script provides the perfect metaphor. When we do our shows right, characters start to do things that were never intended. They surprise us. In "Hill Street Blues" we created a character, John D. Larue, who was so wrapped up in booze and drugs that his police captain, Frank Furillo, ordered him to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. And though we had never imagined this as part of the story or Furillo's past, when we filmed the scene, we realized what was inevitable: that when the camera panned to the crowd at the AA meeting saying, "Hello, John," the last person saying hello would be Furillo.
That was the last shot of the episode, a home-run moment, and we'd never have created it if we hadn't been faithful to the process of following the show's premise and the logic of behavior that unfolds from it - if we hadn't been willing to see something we hadn't preconceived. One of the things that's wrong with most television is that writers start with a result and try to jury-rig the process to accommodate it. They don't allow themselves to make discoveries along the way. And they create nothing new.
CEOs can do the same thing - they can refuse to see when the world doesn't respond to things the way they'd decided in advance that it should. If you don't respect process - if you don't love it - you're pretty unlikely to see the opportunities in surprising turns of events.
Of course, even shows that you love - that flow from the process - may not succeed. But even when a product fails, you're guaranteed to have learned something and built some good relationships, and the failed result becomes an element of a renewed process. In 1978 I developed a show called "Paris" that explored a character in a middle-management law-enforcement job who had to cope with the realities of having a lot of responsibility and very limited authority, plus negotiate some domestic rapids as well. "Paris" flopped.
But in doing that show, I began to understand the potential of personal and workplace politics as the subject for a series. The characters' lives in "Paris" were more interesting than the specifics of any crime situation. So in my next show I focused on the personal interactions of the cops, both in and out of their work environment. That was "Hill Street Blues," and its critical success enabled me to repot that focus into a law-firm setting - an unhierarchical workplace. "L.A. Law" became one of the most successful shows of the past decade. And if not for the failure of "Paris," I may not have done either show.
Process renews itself if you're faithful to it. Paying attention to process is the most long-term approach there is.* * *
Steven Bochco's television creations include "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law." His six-year-old company is called Steven Bochco Productions.
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