A TV Pioneer Says the Industry Has Lost Its Way

NORMAN LEAR has participated in 40 of television's 50 years of history. He's best known as the producer of such acclaimed series as ''All in the Family,'' ''Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,'' and ''Maude.'' Here are excerpts from a Monitor interview and his remarks last January to the National Association of Television Program Executives.

The ratings chase

We live in a world dominated by numerical judgments. We define ourselves, our values, and our aspirations by SAT scores, box-office grosses, ratings, quarterly profits, bottom lines, and polls, polls, polls -- all of which exert an iron grip on our sense of the possible.... We have become a numbers-oriented culture that places its faith in what we can ... count, and is suspicious of the unquantifiable, the intuitive, the mysterious.

A culture that becomes a stranger to its own inner human needs -- which are, for better or worse, unquantifiable, intuitive, and mysterious -- is a culture that has lost touch with the best of its humanity.

TV as scapegoat

Television gets the rap for so many problems if only because it is so visible, so ubiquitous. The fact is that America -- which happens to include business, government, and nonprofits as well as television -- is failing its promise.

The Great American Viewing Audience will be far better served the day television decisonmakers decide to drop the numbers-driven mental maps that lay claim to them now in favor of developing those programs that flow solely from their tastes and sensibilities, from their capacities for awe and wonder and mystery, from their humanity and compassion, and from the voice within that may be saying even now, ''This is right, this is right.''

Failed potential

The ambition that we all had for television at the beginning has lost its force and greatness. And our aims for television have certainly become quieter and less aspiring. All this has happened while TV's influence on the culture has correspondingly grown. Without ever seeking it, television has come to have a profound influence upon our culture; yet it has responded to this development with a steadily shrinking ambition -- a paltriness of aim.

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