AMERICAN CABLE Q+A WITH AUTHOR JOSEPH BRUTSMAN
1. Your latest new book, AMERICAN CABLE sounds epic in both subject and theme. Is that indeed the case?
Joseph Brutsman: After a great deal of work, research and introspection, I believe it arrived at that place. I wanted to present an overall history of “Cable”, as I also serve up the true-life adventures of those who put “Reality” programming together. Utilizing my own personal timeline as one of the earliest and longest-running creatives in cable and reality, I go through the evolution of this media, as I also tell of my own journey. The lens of it all zooms back and forth, from satellite view, to microscopic, to everything else in between.
2. What made you want to write this particular book?
It seemed to be a natural bit of progression after my last book. With “Marlon & Greg”, I wrote of the Hollywood histories of Brando and Peck, and then I brought my life and work into their stories; many recollections that involved their final years - That’s when I got to know them both quite well. They both passed away around the same time that pay and basic cable were exploding. These years were not far from the time period of my daughter being born. Needing constant work in the freelancing world of “Real” film and TV, I moved into the more “steady” worlds of cable and reality. This brought me to many cities, into numerous companies and up against a barrage of new projects, all as I tried to stay creative, positive and (especially) sane, in an always-changing and ever-evolving new world of multi-network cable.
3. When putting a big book like this together, did you start with a firm process, or did one evolve and change things along the way?
As I say in the book, when your creative project is an “Ocean”, whether it be a big new TV show, an epic film or whatever might feel vast at conception, you first work, drop by drop, to both “tame” that “Ocean”, and eventually, drain the “Ocean” out of the equation entirely. Before writing, I knew this book had that sort of scope involved. Once I found the balance of professional industry information and personal stories of my life in reality TV, I began to see a good way forward. It took a lot, but I believe I finally got there. I’ve received a great reception for it all; I’m pleased with that.
4. Your last book was with BearManor Media. You must like working with them?
Ben and his team clearly respect writers, and, of course, to be part of their library is to be a member of a great and special club. After years at Juilliard, I was a TV actor in the 80’s and 90’s, still today interacting with fans from those decades, at conventions, expos, etc. I just returned from one yesterday. They love BearManor Media books for the same reasons that I have always loved them: almost every volume lets you know that even the most seemingly forgotten or now-unnoticed industry artist not only toiled as hard as any of the rich, famous or celebrated within the industry, but those often “Unsung” ALSO have a base of fans who understand all that as well. As watchers and consumers of a history of media, I believe we like knowing that we aren’t the only ones who appreciate the lasting work of unique, talented and sometimes hidden artists.
5. What do you hope to achieve with the release of this book?
Quite possibly and hopefully, a degree of awareness. I’m somewhat shocked by how little seems to be known about the evolution of something so many people watch on an hourly basis. Of course, reality TV wants to work in the shadows. Today, we all know of the staged aspects of so much TV, and those who create the stuff don’t always want to present their process. That’s understandable, but since cable and reality TV have morphed their way into almost every region of our lives - our politics, our buying habits, our social worlds - I think it’s time that many learned not just how stuff gets made, but also, just how much damage can be done to a nation that doesn’t always differentiate between truth from fiction, and in some cases, no longer WANTS to do so at all.
6. Your personal stories in the book are quite candid, sometimes painful. Were those challenging to put to paper?
At times, absolutely. But I wanted the reader to know what is involved with a life of creating such programing. Today, workers in non-union TV often have a very challenging life. It’s an existence mostly devoted to very long work hours, constant instability and more often than not, low pay. I’ve been in all of the major entertainment unions for decades; I fully support all they do - every strike, studio negotiation and bargaining session. But these days, a click is not just a click in streaming. Meaning what? It means that one union acting appearance featuring one line of spoken dialogue might work toward a SAG/AFTRA actor eventually getting a residual (as it should), just as the never-off-screen star of a long-running cable reality show will get zip from that or any other click. Somehow, the grand and glorious world of “Television” has become something less than student filmmaking, all as cable networks and sponsors continue to get quite rich off it all.
7. In the book, regarding your producing of so much basic cable TV, you often go back and forth between a love for creative work and a clear dislike of so much of the end product. Was that dichotomy intentional?
Oh, I often have a clear dislike of the process as well. But to answer your question, yes, no doubt, I wanted to tell of how work like this can be such a joy and a challenge at the same time. As a young person, I SO wanted to work in TV, at any level. In the age of only three networks, I knew those elite clubs had small populations. Cable allowed many more to come to the table, just as I was then working in the “Big Three Network” world. The birth of early basic cable was actually an exciting time; those of us from the big networks and the unions were shocked to now be dealing with such freedoms. And frankly, to be honest, we didn’t think that any of it would last for even a year. Well, that form of programming didn’t just survive, - it thrived. Thus my want to write this book.
8. Process-wise, did you have any twists or turns that surprised you during the writing of this book?
Constantly. I’d start with one idea and then bring in something from a whole other region of my brain. I always want to keep my writing accessible, passionate, humorous and conversational, but I also like to take detours and back-up a fact with a personal observation, a real life story or even a very strongly-voiced opinion. With “Reality TV” as a subject, I also couldn’t avoid telling of how one aspect of media would shape and influence another part of media; while writing about one thing, I’d realize that my current topic is the direct result or future influence of something else entirely. That type of overlap always reminded me of just how big this cable TV thing really was, and still is today.
9. How do you balance the book with the vast differences between pay cable and basic cable, say, “Game of Thrones” vs “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”?
I do that by making a couple things quite clear: once in motion and creating programs, “Pay” cable was the “Dreams-Come-True” for those who were creative in One-Time Three Network TV: it was essentially uncensored, unsponsored and fully accepting of creative expression. At the same time, “Basic” cable was mostly the “Dreams-Come-True” for the executives and the money guys: it was cheap, non-union TV. Having said that, lines have blurred, things have changed, and many good and creative things have evolved from basic cable, just as pay cable can often lack any real quality as well. Streaming now blurs all the lines. And by the way, I’m not suggesting that there is a real “winner” in this regarding overall industry clout, but what can one say about a business model where a grand old studio like Warners and an absolute innovator like HBO now both answer to a “boss” such as Discovery? Nothing short of Totally Mind Blowing.
10. Who do you see as the audience for this book?
Anyone who has ever watched television. Or streamed content on your pad or phone. Really. I believe anyone who has even the slightest interest in all that stuff you are always, constantly watching - I really do believe that this book is for you.