The Oscar winner explains why the networks are in trouble

By Josh Wolk
Updated April 05, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Alison Dyer

For his next project after winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for ”American Beauty,” Alan Ball is returning to his TV roots… kind of. He’s developing a one-hour comedy series for HBO that he says will be similar in tone to ”Beauty.” But he vows he’ll never return to the major networks where he began as a writer for ”Grace Under Fire” and ”Cybill.” After all, they’re what drove him to ”Beauty” in the first place. ”You always get the response, ‘Oh, it’s too dark, too harsh, too unlikable!”’ says Ball, who wrote ”Beauty” during the last season of ”Cybill.” ”So I was loving writing these characters [in ”Beauty”] who to me were very likable but were doing very unlikable things.”

The final nail in the cathode ray tube came for Ball when ABC canceled ”Oh Grow Up,” the sitcom he created last fall, after only 11 episodes aired. ”Did we redefine the form [with the show]? No,” he says. ”But it became my life. It’s your family, it’s your child, and then when it’s canceled it’s just devastating.”

Ball blames the axing on ABC’s desperate impatience to produce an instant hit. ”[The networks] are in such turmoil right now,” he says. ”Shows don’t have a chance to develop and grow the way they used to. I don’t think ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘Cheers’ would last if they premiered now.” He believes execs are so terrified of losing more viewers to cable that they refuse to take creative risks. Consequently, inventive people like Ball, ”Oz”’s Tom Fontana, and ”The Sopranos”’ David Chase are fleeing for cable, making great shows, and luring even more TV watchers away.

But Ball wasn’t the only contender at this year’s Oscars who has seen the mainstream TV business and isn’t going back. Michael Mann, nominated for directing and cowriting ”The Insider,” made his name as the creator of the influential ”Miami Vice” and ”Crime Story” series in the ’80s, and says that he wouldn’t consider making another show for the networks now, at least until the digital revolution is over. ”I don’t think networks know what they’re going to be in three years,” says Mann. ”And everything’s going to change.”

Digital services like Tivo and ReplayTV are already giving people more freedom to watch what they want when they want to, and it won’t be long before viewers can order any programming they desire exactly when they want it — which will make the networks’ current scheduling system irrelevant. ”There’s a lot of content on the air that’s not going to survive,” Mann says of the digital future. ”Someone’s gonna want to watch three half-hours of ‘Friends’ in a row, and that’s what they’ll watch…. It’s gonna become a very hit-driven business, which is always good for people who invent and make content.”

American Beauty

  • Movie
  • R
  • 121 minutes
  • Sam Mendes