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Norman Lear remade TV, and decades later he still shapes what we watch

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On Wednesday, Norman Lear, one of the most successful men television has ever seen, turned 100. It is difficult to overstate the influence of the producer behind shows such as “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Sanford and Son, ” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons” and more. In fact, in the mid-1970s, Lear produced half of the 10 highest-rated shows on the air — with one estimate putting the cumulative weekly audience at more than 120 million viewers.

Yet Lear’s influence was not just a question of popularity. He also reshaped television entertainment by fostering open conversations about segregation, racism, sexual violence and abortion. In particular, “All in the Family” — the most popular program on television for an unprecedented five seasons — made politicians, activists and advocates take note and strategize how to use the show to promote their own agendas. In short, Lear took advantage of a changing television industry and shifting political landscape to remake both realms.

Lear was not the first producer to tackle hard subjects. In the 1950s, Rod Serling, of “Playhouse 90” and “The Twilight Zone” fame, made a name for himself as television’s “angry young man.” A decade later, brothers Tom and Dick Smothers turned their “Comedy Hour” variety show into a forum for biting satire and antiwar messages. More often than not, however, networks’ standards and practices departments (the industry euphemism for censors) made sure no controversy made it onto prime-time television in the 1950s and 1960s.

During this period, Lear wrote for shows like the “Ford Star Revue,” “The Colgate Comedy Hour” and “The Martha Raye Show.” By the 1960s, he teamed up with Bud Yorkin, a respected television director and producer, to form Tandem Productions and focus on television specials and motion pictures. In 1967, Lear scored an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay for the Yorkin-directed “Divorce American Style.”

When Lear heard about a groundbreaking television show in the United Kingdom called “Till Death Us Do Part,” about a raucous, combative household, he recognized his own experiences growing up. Lear decided to return to television comedy and pitch a sitcom that would eventually be known as “All in the Family.” ABC, the weakest of the three networks, rejected two separate pilots before Lear struck gold when CBS, the No. 1 network, decided to take a chance on the potentially divisive show.

Lear’s pitch came at a fortuitous time, because CBS was just starting to rethink the “least objectionable programming” philosophy that had long shaped television’s business strategy: Avoid offending viewers, the theory went, and a network would succeed. The result? Quiz shows, westerns and escapist comedies about talking horses, flying nuns and the small town-charm of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.

By the dawn of the 1970s, however, advancements in audience research and a new focus on demographics made networks think not just about the largest possible audience, but about the right audience. And so they canceled popular shows with an older and more rural audience, like “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres,” in favor of new shows with younger and more urbane viewers, including “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The new shows, executives at the networks believed, would attract the consumers advertisers wanted to reach.

Government policies were also changing. Frustrated with the vast power wielded by the networks and the bland programming they aired, the Federal Communications Commission sought to level the playing field by passing two new rules in 1970: the prime-time access rule and the financial interest and syndication rules.

Previously, their oligopoly enabled the networks to demand an interest in the shows that they bought from Hollywood studios or small production companies like Lear’s. The result was the networks owning a stake in more than 90 percent of all shows. This meant that production companies carried the risk, often producing shows at a deficit in hope of making a profit in syndication, while the networks shared in any profits. The new fin-syn rules limited the networks’ right to hold an interest in the show, which paved the way for production companies — and, notably, independent ones like Lear’s — to strike it rich in the syndication market. “Without the [fin-syn] rules,” Lear acknowledged years later, “we might never have been able to build the company we built.”

The success of “All in the Family” made Tandem Productions a power player in the television business. The subsequent triumph of a variety of spinoffs, like “The Jeffersons,” strengthened Lear’s position when dealing with the networks — allowing him to push the envelope content wisely. “With the first smell of success,” he recalled later, “they would watch a little more carefully how they treated me and argued with me.”

This is one of Lear’s most significant, but overlooked, legacies: his willingness to challenge the gatekeepers at the networks. From the first pilot of “All in the Family,” Lear fought executives and network censors over his vision of him. He then used his success — and the leverage it created — to spotlight discussions of uncomfortable and political issues that the censors were loath to see on prime-time television.

Crucially, Lear also used this power to diversify television, at the time dominated by White and male producers, writers and directors. I have invited advocates for civil rights and women’s rights to collaborate in the production process and grass-roots activists to voice their concerns. He even hired Virginia Carter, the former head of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, to ensure that his shows portrayed women, minorities and the gay and lesbian community with respect. His ever-increasing number of shows by him gave voice to new figures on prime-time television: Black families on “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons,” single mothers on “One Day at a Time,” middle-aged divorcees on “Maude” and gay men on “Hot L Baltimore.” When nobody wanted to touch his zany soap opera satire “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” the producer bypassed the networks and sold it directly into syndication with independent and affiliate stations across the country.

His willingness to buck the networks even extended to taking them, the National Association of Broadcasters and the FCC to court in 1975 after they adopted the prime-time censorship rule (also known as the “family viewing hour”). Under government pressure over violence and sex on television, the networks agreed to move any content not deemed suitable for a “family audience,” even the most popular show on television, to after nine o’clock. Lear challenged the rule and won.

By the 1980s, when the producer had already left the day-to-day grind of television, cable was remaking television and deregulation was in the air. Under Chairman Mark Fowler, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, the FCC viewed television not as the public airwaves that should serve the common good, but as nothing more than a “toaster with pictures.” Rules like the fairness doctrine and the financial interest and syndication rules were out of favour.

In congressional hearings in 1983, Lear defended the fin-syn rules and concluded that ending them would destroy independent production companies. He was right. It took 10 years for the FCC to rescind the rules, and, soon after, this rule change and the 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed television to move into the era of the media conglomerates.

And yet, even this new era, with little room for independents like Tandem, is still shaped by Lear. Producers behind shows like “South Park,” “Black-ish” and “Parks and Recreation” all cite his influence on their work. “Television can be broken into two parts,” Phil Rosenthal, the producer behind “Everybody Loves Raymond,” remarked. “Before Norman and after Norman.”

By challenging the networks, Lear showed the value of more daring and more diverse content. In the process, he has inspired generations of aspiring writers and producers. As ABC celebrates the legendary producer with a television special, “Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter,” in September, it is celebrating not only a man who made television history, but also a man who remade television itself.

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