Interviews

 

Steven Bochco

Show Creator/Producer

Steven Bochco on the genesis of Hill Street Blues

05:47

The advice I'd have to give producers is take responsibility for what's up there, good or bad. Preferably bad. Always share the responsibility when it's good. Take all the responsibility if it's bad.

About this interview

Steven Bochco, a producer known to "push the envelope" in many of the series he created and produced attests to experiencing as much drama behind-the-scenes as on the screen. On producing Hill Street Blues, he says, "there is something that is truly magical when you catch lightning in a bottle. And here we've got a whole bottle full and you've got to fight very hard. So, every day in my life, I was fighting something. Usually the network, a lot of broadcast standards was a battle. Every day, for five years honest to God." In his six-hour, two-part Archive interview, Bochco talks about his early interest in writing, his college career at Carnegie Mellon and his move to Los Angeles. He then discusses his first job at Universal Studios, which led him into his first professional writing assignments on Bob Hope Presents Chrysler Theatre, Ironside, Columbo, The Name of the Game and his first producing duties on Lieutenant Schuster's Wife.  He discusses his move to MTM Enterprises and the creative freedom he was given. Bochco then discusses at length the creation and production of Hill Street Blues. He then chronicles leaving MTM and developing L.A. Law and then briefly touches on his other shows Doogie Howser, M.D., Hooperman, Cop Rock, Capitol Critters, The Byrds of Paradise, Murder One, Brooklyn South, City of Angels and Philly. He details his work on and the negotiations he went through to push the boundaries of language and nudity on network television. In summing up, he discusses what he sees as the role of a producer. Karen Herman conducted the interview on May 21 and September 12, 2002 in Los Angeles, CA.

The advice I'd have to give producers is take responsibility for what's up there, good or bad. Preferably bad. Always share the responsibility when it's good. Take all the responsibility if it's bad.

Interview Highlights

Embedded thumbnail for Steven Bochco on the genesis of Hill Street Blues

Steven Bochco on the genesis of Hill Street Blues

05:47
Embedded thumbnail for Steven Bochco on the creation of the iconic opening sequence and theme song of Hill Street Blues

Steven Bochco on the creation of the iconic opening sequence and theme song of Hill Street Blues

02:29
Embedded thumbnail for Steven Bochco on creating compelling storytelling on L.A. Law

Steven Bochco on creating compelling storytelling on L.A. Law

00:55
Embedded thumbnail for Steven Bochco on how NYPD Blue almost didn't get on the air 

Steven Bochco on how NYPD Blue almost didn't get on the air 

02:24
Embedded thumbnail for Steven Bochco on the negotiations he had with Capital Cities/ABC executives regarding language and nudity on NYPD Blue

Steven Bochco on the negotiations he had with Capital Cities/ABC executives regarding language and nudity on NYPD Blue

06:01

Related Content

From the Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television:

Steven Bochco has become a brand name for American quality television in the 1980s and 1990s. With a reputation for not contenting himself with given formats or standard practices, Bochco has developed a unique "style," perhaps several unique styles for his work. His firm's logo--a concert violinist playing a short section of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons"--constantly reminds us of Bochco's creative intentions and artistic "higher aims" while at the same time indicating his roots in a more traditional humanistic education. Bochco's father Rudolph was a concert violinist, and his mother, Mimi Bochco, a painter.

He began writing for television after graduating from college. He always considered himself to be a writer, and when, in the 1960s, MCA gave writing grants to theater departments around the country, he jumped at the occasion. As he puts it in a 1988 interview with Michael Winship: "I had an MCA writing fellowship when I was in college, and I used that to sort of con my way into a summer job at Universal Studios between my junior and senior years. They put me in the story department as an assistant to its head, and at the end of that summer, they invited me to come back permanently when I graduated." Mike Ludmer, then head of Universal's story department, made sure everyone on the lot got to know the talented young man with no writing experience at all. Bochco's first writing credit (with Harry Tatelman) came with a segment of the Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater called "A Slow Fade to Black", starring Rod Serling.

Steven Bochco stayed twelve years with Universal, working his way up from writer to story editor (for the Robert Stack segments in the adventure drama series The Name of the Game, which aired from 1968 to 1971, and later for Columbo). He went on to produce, starting with "Lt. Shuster's Wife", a Movie of the Week for ABC, starring Lee Grant. He also had to learn how to handle flops: Griff, made for ABC (1973), was supposed to become a post-Bonanza vehicle for Lorne Greene. The series lasted a only few days into 1974. The same experience occurred with his next series, The Invisible Man, an update of the classical H.G. Wells story for NBC (1975-76). Delvecchio, made for CBS in 1976, bloomed one full season before being canceled in June 1977. Bochco was co-producer and wrote eight of the twenty scripts eventually broadcast. On Delvecchio he met Michael Kozoll, with whom he later co-created and co-wrote Hill Street Blues. Both Charles Haid and Michael Conrad were regulars of the show, and both would later find themselves among the regular cast of Hill Street Blues.

While at Universal, Steven Bochco wrote episodes for McMillan and Wife and Ironside as well as other series. He was involved in different movie-projects, such as The Counterfeit Killings (1968) and Silent Running (1972), both for theatrical release, and Double Indemnity for ABC (1973). His last project for Universal was Richie Brockelman, Private Eye (NBC, 1978), starring Dennis Dugan, Robert Hogan and Barbara Bosson, Steven Bochco's wife, a short-lived spin-off to Stephen J. Cannell's and Roy Huggins' successful detective drama The Rockford Files.

Bochco left Universal in 1978 for MTM Enterprises. One of the reasons to leave was his apparent wish to break new ground, in and outside the confined world of action-adventure drama series. He also felt there was more to learn about producing than what Universal had to offer. His first venture in the name of the meowing kitten was a Movie of the Week called Vampire, co-written with Michael Kozoll. Then came Paris, a police drama series (for CBS, 1979) which lasted, again, just a few days into 1980. Paris was interesting in terms of quality writing. There were unusual stories, focused on a black police captain moonlighting as a criminology-teacher at a nearby university. The impressive cast was headed by James Earl Jones as Woody Paris. But there was, or so it seemed, just not enough old-fashioned "spice" to attract a larger audience.

In January 1980, NBC asked MTM if Bochco and Kozoll could come up with something for them. Vague ideas about an ensemble piece set in a hotel lobby led nowhere. (The concept would later be developed by Aaron Spelling to become Hotel.) What NBC wanted was a cop melodrama, a cop ensemble piece. Bochco and Kozoll agreed under two conditions: total creative control and a meeting about network standards. The result of that meeting was Hill Street Blues, a cop show setting new rules for almost every aspect of the action-adventure formula. As David Marc and Robert J. Thompson put it, Hill Street Blues set standards for "... multiple centers of audience identification; complicated personal lives; overlapping dialogue; hand-held camera shots; busy, crowded mise-en-scènes." The show also established its own realistic, "dirty" look and defined a fictional world, "the Hill," that could be understood as a metaphorical melting pot, a community (or family) consisting of members of almost any nation and race that had ever set foot in America. These elements could later be recognized, in a more accented and refined matter, in many drama series developed in the 1990s, set in police precincts (NYPD Blue, by Bochco and Hill Street Blues co-writer David Milch) or hospitals or courtrooms.

Hill Street Blues earned its creators several Emmies (for "Outstanding Drama Series" and "Outstanding Writing", among others) and a Golden Globe for "Best Television Drama Series". Still, MTM remained somewhat unhappy about its prestige object, which was very expensive and never made able to pay off financially. Hill Street Blues lasted from 1981 well into 1987; Bochco was fired in 1985, after the disastrous short run of another of his (and MTM's) high-brow series projects, The Bay City Blues (NBC, 1983). Later, for 20th Century Fox, Bochco developed another long-running hit, a legal drama called L.A. Law (NBC, 1986-94). On this project he served as co-producer with Terry Louise Fischer. As often noted, L.A. Law looked very similar to Hill Street Blues set in a fancy law office, with many characters and stories intertwined in each episode. Bochco himself pointed out the differences between the two shows, however, describing L.A. Law as "... populated by people who are infinitely more successful. They make more money, they drive nicer cars, they have prettier girlfriends, they're possibly smarter, and they win more." But the series maintained its "bluesy" feeling, a certain notion of the world being a much too complicated and absurd place to live in, with rules no one would ever really understand.

Besides crime and courtroom dramas (Civil Wars, dealing with divorce cases lasted from 1991 to 1993) Bochco developed one quite successful half-hour comedy drama, together with David Kelley. Doogie Howser, M.D. (ABC, 1989-93) told the improbable story of perhaps the youngest doctor ever to do medical examinations on-screen. The mild-mannered youngster was only sixteen when his professional career began. Bochco wouldn't be Bochco without at least one taboo being broken: Here, Neil Patrick Harris hit the news when his character lost his virginity, in one of the later episodes of the series

The wish to break new ground on prime time, in terms of content as well as in aesthetic matters, has become even more apparent in Bochco's television productions for the 1990s. Some of these attempts were flops. The infamous experiment attempting to combine the cop show with a musical in Cop Rock (ABC, 1990) lasted for only a few weeks.

NYPD Blue (ABC 1993--), however, earned its cast and crew six Emmies in 1994 alone. It was basically another ensemble piece, set in a police precinct right in Bochco's childhood home, New York. With NYPD Blue Bochco tried to expand the limits of network standards even further, experimenting with gritty realism, or documentarism, filmed in a highly stylized, self-reflexive manner. The show was controversial even before its appearance on the schedule because Bochco had announced that he would include far coarser language and some nudity in his move toward realism.

Steven Bochco has earned himself a reputation for re-inventing the formula of the cop-show with Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. He certainly has introduced a new understanding of television realism, complete with partial nudity and four-letter words, into prime time--despite network Standards and Practices and actual boycotts of advertisers and network affiliates around the country in the case of NYPD Blue. Thanks to him the term "teamwork" has taken on new meaning in television producing: It means quality writing, and it means intriguing, interesting stories of human bonding and struggle which drive the actors, individually and again collectively, to give their best. Bochco has thus succeeded in integrating different aspects and perspectives into what seems (or seemed) to be one and the same story.

New projects in the post-O.J.Simpson-era continue his tendency toward innovation in the area of narrative structure. A new courtroom drama, Murder One (1995-1997), followed a single murder trial for an entire season, interweaving personal and professional lives of a large cast of characters.

-Ursula Ganz-Blattler

 

STEVEN BOCHCO. Born in New York City, New York, U.S., 16 December 1943. Attended High School of Music and Art, Manhattan, New York; New York University, Manhattan; Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University), B.F.A. in Theater 1966. Married Barbara Bosson, 1969; children: Jeffrey and Melissa. Assistant to head of story department, Universal Television, 1966; and subsequent writer of various other Universal television series; joined MTM Enterprises as writer-producer, 1978; formed Steven Bochco Productions and entered into production deal with Twentieth-Century Fox and ABC, 1987. Awards: Emmy Awards: 1971, 1972, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1989.

TELEVISION SERIES

1967-75 Ironside (writer)
1968-72 The Name of the Game (writer)
1971 Columbo (story editor)
1971-76 McMillan and Wife (writer)
1974 Griff (writer-producer)
1976-77 Delvecchio (writer)
1978 Richie Brockelman (writer)
1979 Turnabout (writer)
1979-80 Paris (executive-producer, writer)
1981 Hill Street Blues (executive-producer, writer)
1983 Bay City Blues (executive-producer, writer)
1986 L.A. Law (executive-producer, writer)
1987 Hooperman (executive-producer, writer)
1989 Doogie Howser, M.D. (executive-producer, writer)
1990 Cop Rock (executive-producer, writer)
1991 Civil Wars (executive-producer, writer)
1993 N.Y.P.D. Blue (executive-producer, writer)
1995- Murder One (executive-producer, writer)

PUBLICATIONS

"Steven Bochco." (interview), American Film (Washington, D.C.), July-August 1988.

"Steven Bochco: Taking Risks with Television." (interview), Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 6 May 1991.

FURTHER READING

Christensen, Mark. "Bochco's Law." Rolling Stone (New York), 21 April 1988.

Coe, Steve, and Harry A. Jessel. "'NYPD Blue': Rocky Start, On a Roll." (includes interview with Steven Bochco), Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 1 November 1993.

Feuer, Jane, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, editors. MTM. Quality Television. London: British Film Institute, 1984.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime-Time. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Levinson, Richard, and William Link. Off Camera. Conversations with the Makers of Prime-Time Television. New York: New American Library, 1986.

Marc, David, and Robert Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy to L.A. Law--America's Greatest TV Shows and The People Who Create Them. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1992.

Rensin, David. "Hitmaker Steven Bochco Defends Adult Drama." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 14-20 April 1993.

Selnow, Gary W., and Richard R. Gilbert. Society's Impact on Television. How the Viewing Public Shapes Television Programming. London: Westport, 1993.

Span, Paula. "Bochco On the Edge." Esquire (New York), May 1990.

Stempel, Tom. Storytellers to the Nation. A History of American Television Writing. New York: Continuum 1992.

"Steven Bochco." Esquire (New York), June 1988.

"20th Century's Bochco: Selling the Cerebral." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 30 May 1988.

Zoglin, Richard. "Changing the Face of Prime Time: Trendsetting Producer Steven Bochco Turns Out Hits by Rocking the Boat." Time (New York), 2 May 1988.

_______________. "Bochco Under Fire." Time (New York), 27 September 1993.

 

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