Peyton Place, Or: The State of Television History Upon the Demise of the Publishing Industry

May 10, 2011

James Rosin has a cottage industry of episode guides going.  Since 2007, Rosin has published slim companion volumes for seven classic television series: Route 66, Naked City, Adventures in Paradise, Wagon Train, The Invaders, Peyton Place, and Quincy, M.E. (on which Jim worked briefly as an actor and a writer).  He has excellent taste – every one of those shows are worth remembering – and a prolificity that I frankly envy.

However, I haven’t written about Jim (who’s also a really nice guy) until now because I have had some reservations about his approach.  All of Rosin’s books begin with a brief production history, and draw upon his own interviews with at least a few of the creative people involved in each series.  But the bulk of each book is devoted to plot summaries.  I’ve never understood why writers of television episode guides do that.  Episode recaps may be useful for reference, but they aren’t readable for pleasure.  I mean, if you have seen the episode, you don’t need to read a plot summary, and if you haven’t, you won’t want to “spoil” it, right?  Like Martin Grams, Jr., about whose massive Twilight Zone book I had mixed feelings, Rosin declines to editorialize at all about the content of the shows.

It’s not that Rosin’s work was subpar, but when I read his books (full disclosure: all of which he generously supplied to me at no charge) I was left wanting more.  Most of those shows, especially Naked City and Route 66, deserve – no, require – a much more exhaustive account of their making.

However, when Jim sent me Peyton Place: The Television Series last year, I was relieved that I could recommend one of his books without many misgivings.  Peyton Place was a young show – most of the principal cast and many of the writers were in their twenties or early thirties during its production – and therefore there more of the creative staff are still with us than would be the case for a typical sixties series.  Rosin has interviewed about twenty-five of those survivors and assembled their collected testimony into a breezy, informative oral history.  This introductory chapter comprises fewer than fifty pages, but it covers all the essential rollercoaster events in the making of this smash hit-turned-midseason cancellation.  The abrupt shearing of Mia Farrow’s hair in late 1965 was the great Rashomon moment of sixties television – everyone who was there remembers it, but differently – and I knew it would be my test of the book’s value.  Rosin quotes four people on the subject: passing grade.

I also like the way Rosin handles the intricate serialized storyline of Peyton Place.  Around the time I launched the Classic TV History website, I was thinking of tackling a thorough history of Peyton Place, and I began to interview some of the same people Rosin spoke to for his book.  But I could never figure out how to structure an episode guide.  It seemed that Peyton Place, with its 514 plot-choked episodes, would require an encyclopedia of story information.  Instead, Rosin has assembled a very accessible plot summary for each of the show’s five “seasons” (since Peyton Place aired without summer reruns, those divisions would have been apparent only to the production staff, not to viewers), without worrying about entries for each individual episode.  Preceding that is a roughly chronological listing of the hundred or so series regulars and semi-regulars.  It works, and probably better than whatever jumble I would have come up with.

Finally, Rosin includes a center section of terrific publicity and behind-the-scenes stills, along with a few key production documents.  My favorite is the one reproduced below, which depicts the show’s 1965 writing staff standing around a Peyton Place signpost prop.

In my research on television writers of this era, I made the acquaintance of six of the eleven people in that photo.  Being able to see what they looked like at a moment in time that I discussed with each of them means a lot to me.  It’s very rare to find a photograph of the assembled writers for a sixties television series (even for a show that used an in-house staff, rather than freelancers).  It’s fortunate, and appropriate, that Rosin has found one for Peyton Place, since this underrated melodrama was one of the best – if not the best – written American television show of its day.  Peyton Place also celebrated writers and writing within its narrative: Constance owned a bookstore; Allison was an aspiring storyteller; Elliot became a novice newspaperman late in life; and so on.  It may be unique in that emphasis, at least among sixties television series, and that’s one of the many reasons I love Peyton Place.

*

James Rosin’s books are self-published, and so are many of Martin Grams’s.  From what I can tell, both of them travel the circuit of film, book, and nostalgia conventions – of which there are a surprising number, in third- as well as first-tier cities – where they can interact with fans as well as sell and sign copies of their books.

I assume that works for them, but it wouldn’t work for me.  For one thing, I don’t know how to drive a car, and for another, I suppose I could be called “reclusive.”

When I first started doing research on television and film history in the late nineties, while I was still in college, it dawned on me that if nothing else, I could publish on the then new-fangled internet.  That was a huge relief.  A decade earlier, if a scholar was doing work too esoteric to find a real publisher, no one would have read it.  Having the internet out there as a backup felt empowering, and it appealed to my perfectionism.  I decided that I would not work with small presses whose existing catalogs were poorly proofread and edited.  I would give my work away for free on the internet before I would sell it to a small press that wouldn’t distribute it properly, that would put an $85 cover price on it and never get it on the shelves in bookstores.

So, here you have it: I’m giving it away for free on the internet.

Of course, when I was in college, there were still major and semi-major presses that published books about old television shows and biographies of pop culture figures who were not household names.  There still had bookstores back then, too.  So it seemed possible, if not likely, that I could con a “real” publisher into doing a book about some TV show or personality that nobody had ever heard of.

Today, that gravy train is over.  I have no idea how Stephen Battaglio managed to get St. Martin’s to publish his David Susskind biography, or how David Bianculli sold his recent Smothers Brothers book to Simon & Schuster, because I see fewer and fewer works of that type coming out these days.  That’s a huge loss.  Battaglio and Bianculli are experienced journalists, working with pr editors, and it shows.  Writers like Rosin and Grams (and myself), who don’t have that kind of professional training, have to fend for ourselves, and that shows, too.  Enthusiasm doesn’t always cut it.  Even though I can recommend Jim’s Peyton Place book, I can’t pretend that it is a vital piece of scholarship in the way that Battaglio’s and Bianculli’s books are.  There was a moment in the eighties and early nineties where a TV episode guide – I’m thinking of Marc Scott Zicree on The Twilight Zone, David J. Schow on The Outer Limits, Vince Waldron on The Dick Van Dyke Show – could be researched, written, and edited with the same professionalism and seriousness as a biography of Roosevelt or Kennedy.  That feels like a long time ago.

Of course, when I realized I could give it away for free on the internet, I was thinking in units of “books” and “articles” – because that’s what they had back then.  When I launched my website, this blog was an afterthought.  Now it’s the engine, not the caboose.  And blogging has given me freedoms other than the search engine’s guarantee of like-minded readership.  I can publish a short blurb like last week’s Honey West bit, or a thirty-seven hundred word monster, like the Sidney Lumet appreciation that preceded it.  I’m not bound in terms of subject matter, either.  I can skip around from one show or person to another; I can write in response to current events, or just about whatever pops into ahead.  And it’s instantaneous.  I don’t have to wait years for a book to come out, or months for a journal article.  Feeding content to this blog has delayed progress on my book-length projects, but so far it has been worth it.

But now it’s time to revive one of those half-completed books, or several. 

Here’s where I think writers like Martin Grams and Jim Rosin were ahead of the curve.  Finally, I’m starting to get excited about the possibilities of self-publishing.  Amazon’s print-on-demand application is beginning to leveling the playing field between traditional publishers and one-man bands.  The Kindle and iPad offer cheaper and, arguably, more convenient platforms for reaching readers.  Pricing structures have been upended.  The publishing industry is scared of these changes, and while that has made it more difficult for esoteric writers like myself to get book deals, it has opened new possibilities, too.  Now you can self-publish without blowing your life savings on a garage full of unsold books.

Most of the digital self-publishing success stories are fiction writers, but I’m curious about what will happen with non-fiction books.  I still like reading novels on paper, but I’d sure love to have my shelf of reference books transferred to searchable files on my laptop.  Aren’t works of popular history a natural fit for digital delivery?  I’d shell out to repurchase key works as PDFs, or in a similar format.  The index would be obsolete! 

Of course, there is a danger here.  I’ve taken other self-published writers to task when I thought that aspects of their work were not up to a professional standard.  If a writer goes DIY, he or she has to know how to conceptualize, write, edit, proofread, index, design, upload, and market the work.  I can do some of those things pretty well, but not all of them.  Still, I’m excited by the prospect of doing an end-run around miserly publishers, mediocre editors, and the idiocy of peer review.  I believe that a new and more efficient path may be taking shape, by which specialists like myself can connect with a core audience that would not have been findable a short while ago – and without giving it all away for free.

I always welcome reader comments, but in this case I am particularly interested in feedback about what I have written here.  Have I been too critical of writers like Rosin and Grams?  Does the future of popular culture scholarship reside on the internet, in eBooks, or someplace else?  How can self-publishing writers compensate for the absence of editors, designers, and publicists – or will none of that matter in the near future? 

And.  Most important of all.  Would you buy a book from this guy?

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11 Responses to “Peyton Place, Or: The State of Television History Upon the Demise of the Publishing Industry”

  1. Gerald Snyderman Says:

    I had the priviledge of interviewing Martin Grams for an hour and a half at the Friends of Old Time Radio last October. In defense of young Martin, he does give away a lot of information through his dilligent research in the form of magazine articles, blog posts and web-sites. The reason he has books published through OTR Publishing and Bear Manor Media is because he needs to reimburse the money it cost to do research. Three of his books cost more than $12,000 in research alone. He would never make that kind of money giving it away on the internet. Anyone who looks over his Twilight Zone book can tell he did not slap that together overnight and justified in charging a bargain price for an 800 page time that won more than one award and gives people like me an opportunity to watch my favorite episodes again and have a deeper understanding behind the production.

    Regarding publishing companies, the Hollywood mentality that subjects on retro television are not marketable to a mainstream subject is a growing trend. You’ll find more publishing companies are steering away from vintage TV books. And publishing houses, whether is be Simon & Schuster, McFarland or Bear Manor Media, offer both crappy and scholarly books. They are all promoted as reference books but the publishing companies accept whatever comes to them.

    One growing trend, my own observation, is that McFarland and Scarecrow are not publishing reference books as much as they used to. The majority of the books they published the past two years are scholarly criticisms. “A Critical Review to…” or “Essays Regarding….” I asked a rep for McFarland at Monster Bash why this is and he said too many people are stealing material out of reference books and posting it on the web — without permission or concern for the author’s hard work. If it wasn’t for the efforts of Jim Rosin and Martin Grams, whether published or given away, the historical preservation would be even less. And isn’t preserving our history, even through interviews with celebrities who were involved with the programs, as important as preserving the 35mm nitrate archival masters?

  2. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Gerald, thanks for the thoughtful response. I should clarify that I’m not suggesting writers like Martin or Jim should give away their work. Very much the opposite — as Harlan Ellison says, “PAY THE WRITER!” My point was that, if there were room for their books in the mainstream publishing realm (even at the university press level), that might improve aspects of their work that I see as somewhat amateurish. That factor, more than the money, is why I regret not being able to place my own work in those streams.

    Very interesting about McFarland and reference books. I think their rep is right, actually: for better or worse, the internet has made raw reference books less valuable. I never understood why McFarland published all those “checklist of 5000 spy films” type tomes anyway … yawn.

  3. Lynn Reed Says:

    I am a graduate student and have recently been studying aspects of television history and the evolution of television writing techniqes in an interdisciplinary American studies type program. I was happy to come across you post on Peyton Place here, and your archive of oral history interviews.

    As I have been researching various topics in the past few months, I’ve been frustrated with gaps in television history on many different fronts. The Archive of American Television is a great resource, but is far from complete. Academic works focus on a narrow group of series, and apparently are not given much weight within film focused media studies departments. And books written for fans often add little to more serious scholarship. Television history is an important part of recent American history, and I fear that large chunks of this history will be lost as creators who could comment on their efforts pass away. From that perspective, I am happy for any work of self-publishing or internet based publishing that captures information that the industry archives, academic and commercial markets leave untouched.

    On that subject, and on the topic of Peyton Place, I wanted to mention my particular obsession in TV history at the moment. Your oral history interview with Richard DeRoy helped me to fill in a piece of a hypothesis I’ve been putting together regarding the role of Michael Gleason in the development of what we call in the academic world the “serialized narrative”. The standard account of the rise of “quality” serialized drama (a hotly debated term) begins with Hill Street Blues and travels through The Sopranos to Mad Men and other similar series, while making some nod to their debt to soap opera.

    It is curious to me that of the three early ’80s series at MTM that were experimenting with serialized elements — ongoing character arcs, multi-threaded story arcs, etc — only Remington Steele had a head writer with experience writing for serials — Michael Gleason. Yet none of the standard histories make note of that, or even suggest that it might be an avenue for further investigation. The MTM writers all worked on the same campus in close proximity. It seems to me worth asking what the interactions were like between Gleason and the Hill Street and St. Elsewhere writers, and equally worth asking Gleason how his experience on Peyton Place helped him develop the character and relationship arcs on Remington Steele — a show that I feel has been unfairly overlooked in its own right.

    I had an e-mail conversation earlier this week with someone associated with both Gleason and the Archive of American Television who feels that it is unlikely that the Archive will do a formal interview with him. If that’s true, I’d like to find another way to put an interview together that could address those kinds of questions.

  4. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Lynn, I’m so glad you found some of my work useful.

    My strong recommendation is that you interview Gleason yourself. No one else will ask the exact questions you need, and I’m sure it’s not uncommon for grad students to make that kind of inquiry once in a while. I don’t have Gleason’s info or I would introduce you, but Jim Rosin interviewed him for his book, so perhaps Jim could be persuaded via his website.

    I’ve always been interested in the pre-history of the serialized drama myself — in fact, I did an undergraduate paper eons ago on the nascent serial elements in ROUTE 66 (the first American TV drama I can think of in which the story arc concludes in the final episode) and THE FUGITIVE.

  5. Lynn Reed Says:

    Stephen, Thank you for the reply and the encouragement. I will pursue requesting an interview with Gleason, and should that prove fruitful, I will share what I learn with you and your audience.

  6. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Lynn, you probably already know this, but Gleason recorded some audio commentaries for the REMINGTON STEELE DVDs which are, based on my brief sampling, a cut above the usual.

  7. michael Says:

    Lynn, go to imdb.com and look up Michael Gleason. You can sign up for the free trial membership to imdbPro. This will get you his agent or someone you can go through to contact him. It is unlikely he had much contact with the Hill Street Blues people who reportedly kept to themselves. Gleason was famous for mentoring young writers. Check out the names of REMINGTON STEELE’s producers and staff writers and you will find all have gone on to create their own series or become popular showrunners.

    Stephen, Bear Manor Media books are available on Kindle. Also, because of the rise in e-book originals there are freelance editors, cover designers, and whatever else you need help with. Smashwords and Amazon are both good at helping the writer convert the manuscript to the e-book format. And Konrath’s blog is a great source for where you can find help and advice on how to make your e-book a success.

    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com

  8. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Lee Goldberg (a veteran television writer & historian) also keeps a close eye on the eBook realm on his blog:

    http://leegoldberg.typepad.com/

  9. Lynn Reed Says:

    Stephen, I agree Gleason’s audio commentaries for Steele are a great resource. I have made great use of them my academic writing earlier this year. And thank you, Michael (I think you and I may have spoken of Gleason on your blog as well) for the mention of all the writers and showrunners Gleason trained. That is certainly another aspect of his role in TV history that is worth recording. It’s great to find a community of people here who care about TV history.

  10. michael Says:

    Yes, Lynn, that was me over at mystery*file’s blog. Steve Lewis is kind enough to let me post something every once in awhile.

    Glad to see you are still pursuing your interest in REMINGTON STEELE.

    The review Lynn was nice enough to mention can be found at:

    http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=6245

  11. Neil Says:

    The future of scholarly works on historical pop culture (the ‘pop’ being silly, as it’s culture no matter how you slice it) is likely to be in media which is cheap to publish. The internet is the new ‘vast wasteland’, at least for scholarly works. Any idiot can post whatever information he wishes, and that’s not scholarship.

    What bothers me is that television has been an essential part of our cultural history for a half-century. Even people who have never seen, for example, Milton Berle, know who he is because he was on television. Publishing has become much easier, and VHS and DVD have made it possible (like recorded music before it) for the new generations to see for themselves, in person, what has shaped our culture. And yet, so much of the effort is wasted.

    The link with recorded music is deliberate. I own Caruso’s recordings, and his last was 1927 or so. Think of how popular music changed in the last 60 years (from 1950). Now go back to go years before that. If as 1890, and the medium for distributing music was sheet music, and the predominant popular style was most likely ragtime. Yes, I can hear the music that I can read about the effects of today. I can’t do that with, say, the Civil War.

    In any case, I’d like to see the scholarship and the video itself tied closer together somehow.


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