Saturday, August 21, 2010

Desperate Networks (2006)

by Bill Carter
389 pages

My dreams and goals in life have always pointed me towards television. I feel like actively disclosing that fact, because it kept me glued to "Desperate Networks" in an outsider-hoping-to-be-insider-looking-in vain. Your mileage will almost certainly vary depending on your curiosity with the industry.

Bill Carter is your author, media reporter for the New York Times, whose calling card was the 1994 book "The Late Shift," which later became a pay cable TV movie. That book took us behind the curtain as Jay Leno and David Letterman angled for "The Tonight Show."

This book takes us through the halls of the major networks' headquarters, as the big wigs reluctantly greenlight current smash hits, and walk ass backwards into huge profits, receiving all the congratulations of somebody who planned it since birth. Carter chronicles, for instance, which networks had the chance to grab "Survivor" and "American Idol" before they found their current TV homes. The book is largely about the years 2000 through 2005.

Style choices do become obstacles, however. When we meet a new character, we're often taken out of the linear story and given a mini-bio. This can feel like an unnecessary detour when more exciting developments are happening at the macro level. Parenthetical information about certain executives is nastily forced into sentences where it doesn't belong. I probably had to backtrack and reframe information for myself ten times through the reading of this book.

Where the book succeeds, it really succeeds. The brief portion discussing the sudden end of Peter Jennings' life and career was especially emotional. I knew the basic A-to-B version. But with the perspectives inside ABC News that Carter can provide, it's tough to get through without getting caught up in it.


"Desperate Networks" is a fine piece of narrative journalism. While it has its problems, they don't keep it from being a fascinating read for somebody aspiring to be in television, or just very interested in it. Given how both the television and book businesses work, "Networks" can only provide a snapshot, rather than analysis. There's essentially no ending, because the war is continually being fought. Certain parts - namely the comeback of "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry - can be used to start a larger thought process on how it all works, and how lives can be altered by a silly little box. Or, these days, a flat rectangle.

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