Seven exec Bevan Lee hopes “the new media does not give rise to an elitist snobbery”, says he doesn’t even watch the kind of TV he writes
Channel Seven network executive and creator of Packed to the Rafters Bevan Lee has stated that TV's increasing engagement with new media makes his "blood run cold" and that writers are no longer "paying their dues". Wires & Lights explores why, in a world of shrinking ratings and more great TV than ever, Lee's perspective is as hypocritical as it is embarrassingly outmoded.
Hypocrisy is a funny thing, mostly because it’s the verbal equivalent of watching someone trip in the street. Mumbrellahas reported the comments of Seven network script executive Bevan Lee on a panel at a Google event in Sydney, and they’re as hilariously oblivious as you might expect from a network executive:
What I see as one of the biggest problems is when I hear things about facilitating the audience talking to each other throughout the program.
“It makes my blood run cold because there is a creator and you owe him the duty of coming to his creativity and your choice is to like it or not like it.”
He pointed to the finale of hit US drama Dexter where some of the audience complained they did not get the ending they wanted. “What the audience seems to want to do with this new media is hijack the creator,” he added.
“My response was ‘bugger you’. You came with the creator, you stayed with him right to the end and even if you didn’t like it, he didn’t let you down, you let him down by not trying to come with him.”
Oh boy. There’s more:
On people wanting to make shows without having “paid their dues” in the industry he pointed to the example of Lena Dunham’s acclaimed series Girls, saying: “In Girls, for every one scene that I think works, I see three scenes that I think would be better if she had written them ten years down the track. That is what I fear of the loss of the concept of craft skills.”
But my favourite line, the one that completely destroys any legitimacy held by his previous comments, is this one:
“I do not write stuff I watch, I write stuff because it’s what comes out of [me] for a broad audience. I’m good at what I do because I instinctively stay with my roots and I hope the new media does not give rise to an elitist snobbery.”
So, to wit: “I hope new media doesn’t create some kind of snobbery because maybe then people will stop watching the bland, generic pap I churn out for the masses! What? Oh, I don’t watch the kind of thing I write either. What a ludicrous proposition! Oh, Jeeves dear, would you be so kind as to give the dog another bowl of Dom Perignon?”
Let’s go from the start. Lee seems to think that audiences are wrong for thinking something is bad. Apparently, the universally negative reaction of people to the insipid ending of Dexter is because the audiences weren’t willing to go along with what the creator wanted. They put in seven seasons worth of effort — committed hours and hours to the show — and somehow they’re in the wrong for hating an ending which failed to close to the series’ central plot thread and used a string of idiotic narrative contrivances in order to end on an ambiguous note the show never earned. But screw you, audience, you let the creator down “by not trying to come with him.”
Aside from the spurious privileging of authorial intent, Lee’s insistence that social media is ruining everything is an embarrassing death rattle from an old media in its death throes. TV networks are desperate to capture the attention of social media users — they’re a largely young market whose willingness to engage with TV on multiple levels shows a monetisable dedication that functions as secondary marketing.
I guess it makes sense that Lee wouldn’t much care for the likes of Facebook and Twitter though. His shows — Packed to the Rafters, Home & Away, Marshall Law, City Homicide — are the kind of distinctive, auteurist works which defy social media engagement. Or maybe they’re just mediocre soaps and procedurals with completely sanded edges. Or maybe it’s because Rebecca Gibney looking bemusedly at Erik Thomson for the eighth time an episode because their rafters are just SO PACKED simply isn’t hashtaggable material?
Lee’s citation of Girls is a bizarre one; its writer-director-creator-star Lena Dunham had made a well-received independent feature film before she landed her show at HBO, which has since been praised and rewarded with Emmys and become something of a cultural phenomenon. Funnily, Girls‘ broadcast ratings are quite low but it has significant success on — you guessed it — new media such as streaming platforms and iTunes.
It’s fine if he thinks there are aspects of Girls that don’t work — I’d agree with him there, particularly in its second season. But to put it down to Dunham’s youth and supposed ineptitude is unfair, and seems to be a pretty obvious extension of the oft-posited nepotism argument against Dunham. Perhaps he would have a point if Dunham were the rule and not an exception.
Lee’s issues with “niche programming” such as The Walking Dead (yeah, super niche dude, what with its 16 million viewers and fourth season premiere becoming the most-watched in US cable TV history) and Breaking Bad (a ratings hit in its final season) seem to be that people watching high-profile international television decreases the likelihood of people watching his less adventurous shows. New media has made great TV more accessible than ever, so of course the network script executive of an older-skewing network like Seven would be fearful of change.
He says, “there’s a certain attitude in this country in particular which is when a show is popular you wonder about its cultural worth,” and he’s right. His shows are popular, but they are also inoffensive, unchallenging, adequate. And those shows serve their purpose; they’re entertaining, often warm, and familiar. And Lee is too good to even watch them, apparently; he just spews forth what he assumes a broad audience will watch. Maybe if that audience knew Lee’s attitude towards them they would be less inclined to do so. People don’t wonder about the cultural worth of Always Greener because most people have forgotten it even exists.
But Lee might notice that Australian TV isn’t exactly churning out high-rating niche programming either. For all of the ABC’s great work with scripted shows recently, they’re not proving to be massive commercial successes, but they capture an audience and are much-discussed on social media. That said, it’s shows like Rake and Please Like Me that are getting attention outside of Australia whether in the form of remake or rebroadcast respectively.
Packed to the Rafters was… what it was, Home & Away was always the inferior soap to Neighbours (come at me, Summer Bay proponents), and Lee’s boldest show in years, A Place to Call Home, was poorly-scripted and safe. Plenty of people watch or watched those shows, though, so why the hell is he whingeing?
If Lee wants to complain about and reject new media, he best be prepared for the fact that his world is on the verge of usurpation. Blindly shouting “elitist snobbery!” because people on Twitter don’t care that much about your shows just makes you look petulant. People engaging in a conversation during a show makes Lee’s “blood run cold” because apparently he doesn’t know that people watch TV together or how conversation works.
Most TV fans will tell you that the sheer amount of great TV these days is overwhelming. Venerable critic Alan Sepinwall recently wrote an article entitled ‘How much good TV is too much?’ in which he described the difficulty of keeping up with an ever-ballooning amount of original programming all over the world. There are American shows, Scandinavian shows, Australian shows, British shows, Israeli shows, and French series The Returned is the newest international series to make waves abroad.
So it’s no surprise that Lee is scared. As television audiences continue to stratify and ratings decrease, niche programming is going to become the norm. Shows are going to capitalise on new media approaches as Breaking Bad did to the point where it briefly became a hit. A show like Scandal rode a wave of social media success to become a major hit and cultural phenomenon in the US. Maybe Lee shouldn’t knock it until he tries it?