David M. Davis memo, 1958: ‘This will not be just another television program’

David M. Davis, an early TV production executive at Boston’s WGBH, pushes his producers to excel in a 1958 memo. He later became a major grantmaker for the Ford Foundation and chief exec of PBS’s longrunning drama showcase, American Playhouse.

Memorandum July 23, 1958

To: Tv producer-directors
From: David M. Davis
Subject: Creativity

I have a great concern that we are not all utilizing the creative imagination that we have to make our programs interesting, stimulating, and even exciting. It seems to me that many of us are in a rather deep rut on stock format types of programs, and that real attempt at creation is not taking place.

I think that the lifestyle series which will be assigned to each producer on a rotating basis during the coming season will be very helpful in this regard since each producer will have an opportunity to develop his own program in the direction in which he wishes to go. However, on our standard programs and general regular assignments I think we have much to be desired. Also, I don’t believe this is purely a matter of time, personnel, facilities, and money; I think it is a matter of the way you approach the problem. Think of your new assignments this way: You have a given program and a given time slot. Our decision on scheduling this program and putting it in the time slot is based on an audience need for the program, that it is worthwhile to put on the air, that it has the potential to attract and hold an audience, that we have (we hope) the right talent for the program, and that all in all it should be done. The thing that the producer must now do, taking the above elements into account, is to determine in his own mind exactly what the purpose of the program is. Think it through yourself and then talk that point over with Bob Larsen or myself. Talk it over with your colleagues, too: utilize their thoughts and ideas. Then make a basic decision: decide that this will not be just another television program, but that it will be a unique experience for the viewer and that this will be the best television program that you are capable of producing and directing under the conditions under which you will be working. To make the point very obvious, please stop automatically deciding that this program should be done with a man in front of a demonstration table with a blackboard. Utilize the creative talent that is available to you.

I feel that we are certainly not utilizing the talents available in matters of setting, staging, and art work. Peter Prodan is more than available to help on the creative aspects of set, design, and construction. We will also be using David Robertson, who is essentially employed as a lighting man, but is a qualified designer to help with this work. On art work, instead of deciding precisely what you want in terms of a camera card or slide or what-have-you, go to the art department and discuss with these visual experts the concept that you are going to try to present. We have highly talented people in these departments and they can contribute much to your total production if you make an effort to utilize their talents. Think carefully about the competitive aspects of the medium that we are in. We are presenting good programs, but we are not in many cases delivering those programs to the people who really want them because of the way in which we are presenting them. Even though we are programming for special audiences in all cases, we are still in a highly competitive medium, and we must successfully get the person who wants our kind of program to look at it. We must remember that one of our basic public responsibilities is to provide programs that will attract ever increasing numbers of those people who will benefit most from the programs that we offer.

I have mentioned certain creative people who are available to you in terms of art and design, but I also suggest to y ou that you have bull sessions with people like Moscone, Vento, Hallock, and Valtz on yor programs themselves. What ideas do these people who are also creative artists have about what you are doing or what you plan to do? Make every effort to stop is from being dull and pedestrian and to make us exciting.

On the content side, you have certain responsibilities unique to educational television. In almost all cases, you are working with an educator (or group) who is the content expert and talent for your show. However, this degree of expertness does not make this man an expert in the field of television. He must be guided, produced and directed in a way which will guarantee the presentation of his material, in this medium, in a successful way. Remember that you, as a producer, are responsible for all of the show, and that no amount of a great setting, lighting, staging, etc., will make a good show unless the content itself, and the delivery of the content, is good. Therefore, you must take charge much more than many of you have been doing. You must also give the talent sufficient and proper direction. This can not be done during camera rehearsal; you must schedule dry rehearsals for this purpose. If you make clear to the performer in the right way that pre-planning and rehearsals are for his benefit, to help him to look good and to be good, he will cooperate.

All of us involved, station staff and performers, are interested in but one thing: delivering to the home receivers programs which are going to successfully achieve their aim. You, as the producer-director, are the key man in meeting this objective.

DMD/sd
cc. all staff including B.U. crew

Please disregard copyright date below

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