Is Anybody Out There Watching? Volume 3, Number 4 (June 1977)

Is Anybody Out There Watching?
Personal Essay
Orma Claire Whitaker
North Hollywood, California 

I write for television.  Often when I tell people that they look vague and embarrassed and say something like, “Oh really?  I never watch.”  Never Watching is very fashionable, and I am amazed that, given the great numbers of people who regard tv as a plague of the brain, there is a job for me at all.  Surely somewhere between Los Angeles and New York City there is someone else to whom tv is as illuminating as it has been to me.

During the early 1950’s when my five children were small we made our home in Heber Valley, Utah, so close to the Wasatch Mountains that the television signal out of Salt Lake City would soar unheeding over us, remote and inaccessible as the contrail of a coast-bound jet.  Never-Watchers would no doubt consider that an advantage, but in a town of seven hundred people isolated from cultural stimulation by distance and financial need and long, harsh winters fence-deep in drifts of snow, we were ready to welcome any outside esthetic source.  After all, it is impossible to read a ballet, and Ibsen resounds far more eloquently on stage than on paper. 

So when Roy Loertscher eventually jeeped up Wilson Peak with equipment and installed a translator that brought two channels into our lives, it was like double doors opening onto the other side of the mountain.  Liberace thumped and glittered beside his candelabra, Perry Mason made those staggering courtroom deductions, and in between there was dance and opera and Shakespeare—occasional perhaps, but with far more frequency than life in a dairy town had previously afforded.  From the day those flickering images first shaped themselves on our ten-inch screen, I knew I would never feel out of touch again.  It was a fascination that carried me into a full-time career and, although I am often rattled by moments of frustration and disillusionments, I have never lost faith in the potential of television as conveyor of dreams and ideas.

From the Wasatch Mountains to Hollywood was a long journey taken in small steps.  Since college, my only writing experience had been for local newspapers; now I went to work part-time writing copy for a Salt Lake advertising agency.  Since the agency was located below a television studio, I would slip upstairs to watch my mini-dramas promoting diaper services and drugstores played out over Channel Two.  At Brigham Young University I freelanced educational and church films, discovering the heady joy of developing story and character largely through dialogue.  I could actually communicate to an audience by having my characters communicate with each other!

In a writer’s magazine I found a list of west coast agents and fired off letters to each one requesting advice on breaking into television.  I received exactly two replies—one suggesting I stick to raising children, the other only slightly less brusque.  I decided to look up Less Brusque in person.

The hard-bitten old-timer I cornered in a Sunset Boulevard office had once been an actors’ agent, and it was to my advantage that he remembered with special good feelings several Mormon clients.  He was amused and intrigued that a Mormon lady with five children had made her way down out of the mountains and was seeking, prim and white-gloved, a place in the strident, male-dominated world of television.  Miraculously, before I went home he agreed to represent me.

A move to Los Angeles followed, under circumstances natural and convenient to the whole family and not entirely rooted in my own ambitions.  As a matter of fact, after so much progress, the move turned out to be the inevitable step backwards.  It is one thing to dream of writing for television from a dining room table in Midway, Utah; to air-mail storylines from a safe distance and hope that good new will eventually arrive at the post office; it is quite another to find yourself sucked along a freeway to the cold black tower where tv shows are born, and face a bored producer who makes you feel like you want to curl up and hide forever in the safety of an apron.  To say I was intimidated is to put it mildly—I was the least assertive of women in a town which has little room for humility or soft-spokenness.  I trembled in offices from Burbank to Culver City; I stammered out stories and fled down elevators and for months I simply gave up and withdrew.

But my need to communicate in the way I felt most comfortable won out.  In spite of my insecurity, I sold.  And sold again.  And Gradually as the credits began to pile up—“Death Valley Days,” “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color,” “Emergency,” a few shows that didn’t last the season—my confidence too came down out of the mountains.  Limping my way to success, I began to learn little about television and a lot about myself.

Up close, tv turned out to be not a compliant as I had hoped.  Like a husband you plan to improve once the honeymoon is over, season after season it has remained untouched by my early romantic idealism.  Grudgingly I have given up certain delusions and learned to accept a hard fact: tv is an industry, not an art.  The products it manufactures—drama, variety shows, sporting events, newscasts and features—are first of all designed to sell the advertisers’ wares; taste and quality and craftsmanship are of secondary importance.  Nevertheless, and contrary to what Never-Watchers may contend, it is astonishing how often heroic individual efforts manage to rise above assembly-line production techniques and deadlines to pump works of undeniable quality into the relentless, round-the-clock flow of commercial tv programming.  Last year, for instance, gave us “Sybil” and “21 Hours at Munich” and “Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys” and “I Will Fight No More Forever” and “Eleanor and Franklin,” not to mention “The Family and Other Living Things.”  Some of the most painfully honest writing in television has come out of situation comedies, and if you know where to look—and bother looking—you will find dramatic series studded with moving moments. 

These days I write with my husband, Rod Peterson.  It is a joyously frictional collaboration which provides our professional and private lives with a vital dimension.  AS a tv writing team we hire ourselves out to various series for one or two shows a year.  Like carpenters building a house from blueprints and restricted to the use of certain materials, we are craftspersons operating within the specifications of each assignment.  We must erect a script on a foundation of established characters in a framework with clearly-defined limits.  We may chafe at those limits, but our responsibility is to function as best we can within them.

Because we abhor it on television as in real life, we refuse to write for shows that exploit violence.  We are happier and more at home in the so-called “family market,” where we can work with situations and characters we recognize.  The Bionic Woman is not for us.  On the other hand, the Walton family are the neighbors I remember from Heber Valley, good people struggling to get along in a world which is not always easy.  They allow us to reflect positive values and share the common human experience in a way that Charlie’s Angels do not.

While the nature of series television does not often allow us to communicate deeply, its enormous audience permits us to touch or enliven or disturb many millions in a single hour.  So that when Olivia Walton, worried about her adult offspring, says, “It’s funny—you never stop being a parent, even when they stop being children…” we know that we are reflecting a small truth that will be recognized by families from coast to coast.  And when a letter comes from an old woman in a rest home saying, “Thank you for helping me to remember something I though I would never forget,” we are deeply grateful to have been able to move her.

I do not subscribe to the belief, held by certain network executives, that Watchers are an amorphous mass with a twelve-year-old mind.  I communicate with people, not with numbers.  An audience is made up of aware, sensitive individuals ready to reach out and respond to feelings and ideas.  Somewhere beyond my typewriter are others like me, hungry for a sharing of perceptions and experiences, eager to narrow the gap that separates one human being from another.  Like the gasoline engine, tv is capable of polluting; used with discretion it is a valuable tool, reflecting contemporary life, hammering away at prejudice and misunderstanding, prodding us to think and feel and grow.