PASADENA, CALIF. — Ask Aaron Spelling when he didn't have a show on television, and he's likely to shrug. As far as this child of immigrant parents is concerned, he's always been in TV, from his childhood years of watching through the window of an appliance store to fretting over a script for one of his eight shows currently on the air.
This veteran has had his hand in virtually every decade of television, from "Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater" to "Charlie's Angels" (the show that earned him the title he dislikes most, creator of "jiggle" TV) on up through "Melrose Place," "Beverly Hills, 90210," and the new "Rescue 77," "Charmed," and "7th Heaven." For a time in the 1980s, people were calling ABC "Aaron's Broadcasting Network."
Mr. Spelling has been excoriated for celebrating a decadent beach-bunny lifestyle and possessing an uncanny knack for pandering to the public's lowest tastes.
But nobody denies that his shows have managed to pick up on a certain Zeitgeist for every decade. Many of his series, such as "Dynasty," are among the longest-running on the air. And Spelling was behind the critically acclaimed "Family," as well as two Emmy award-winning TV movies, "And the Band Played On" and "Day One," achievements that he often says are overlooked by his detractors.
It has escaped the view of few industry observers, however, that one of the oldest men in TV now has captured the eyes of that coveted youthful demographic, the 18-to-34-year-olds, with "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place" (the show will go off the air this year after nine seasons).
After nearly half a century in the industry, the diminutive producer, by all accounts a shy, private person with a personal passion for TV, is back on top again, with no fewer than 15 new shows in development.
What drives a man to stay in a business that is notorious for exhausting talent and time?
"I love entertaining people," says Spelling with a laugh. "It's like you're pitching baseball, you don't just pitch for three or four years," he muses, adding, "I can't imagine what I'd do with my life except go back and [only] write scripts."
As for what he perceives to be the ongoing criticism of his shows, "We have a rule - we don't make shows for the Bel-Air, Beverly Hills circuit. We make shows for our fans."
In many ways, Spelling embodies the evolution of TV, both the good and the bad, observes Robert Thompson, head of the center for the study of popular TV at Syracuse University. "He always understood TV's role as entertainment," adds Mr. Thompson, but never lost sight of its ability to seduce with both the sleazy and the silly in every era.
Spelling prides himself on his ability to adapt to changing times. While he doesn't deny that his shows trade on vixens and babes, he maintains that he is also a supporter of strong women who make a conscious effort to develop scripts. He also points to the firewoman in his new show, "Rescue 77," saying that he's "fed up with shows about cops without women, with this [show] without women or that show without women."
The father of "Beverly Hills, 90210" actress Tori Spelling says that while TV has changed since he began 50 years ago, the fundamentals of communicating with an audience have not.
"I love the fans. I'm the only idiot in the world who goes outside his house to talk to the people in the tour buses." Referring to his Beverly Hills estate, "they built that house and made my career."
To which Professor Thompson adds this postscript: "He understands the medium in a way few have, for good and bad. In many ways, the history of TV is a history of Aaron Spelling."