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The "Blockbuster Mentality" of Modern Media.

Former media critic Tom Rosenstiel, now the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, created to address the media's role in society and how journalists could do their jobs better. He'll discuss the coverage of the disappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr's plane. Rosenstiel is the former media critic for the Los Angeles Times and the chief Congressional correspondent for Newsweek magazine. Rosenstiel is also the author of "Strange Bedfellows: How Television and the Presidential Candidates Changed American politics, 1992" (Hyperion Press).

20:14

Other segments from the episode on July 19, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 19, 1999: Interview with Tom Rosenstiel; Interview with David Puttnam; Review of Randy Newman's album "Bad Love."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 19, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071901np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Media Coverage of JFK Jr.
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Many of us awoke on Saturday to the news that John Kennedy Jr.'s plane had disappeared on route to Martha's Vineyard. For those of us who wanted to find out what happened, there was no shortage of coverage. For about 12 hours several broadcast and cable networks preempted their regular programming for continuos coverage of the search, but they had little new information to report.

It could make you wonder, were the networks not just reporting on, but also exploiting this unfolding tragedy? Media critic Tom Rosenstiel says the Kennedy coverage fits into a larger phenomenon he describes as the "blockbuster mentality."

Rosenstiel is the director of Harvard University's Project for Excellence in Journalism and vice chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. He's former media critic for the "LA Times," and co-author of the new book "Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media."

We called him this morning and asked how he learned about the disappearance.

TOM ROSENSTIEL, DIRECTOR, PROJECT FOR EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM: Well, like a lot of people I was turning on the media for some other reason and bumped into this. In this case I was going to check out a golf tournament on ABC Television -- the British Open -- and saw that it was being preempted by a special report.

And there's this moment of searching, what is it? What happened? And very quickly came to realize that JFK Jr.'s plane was missing and had been missing for about 12 hours, and they didn't know much.

GROSS: Now, I want to ask you first what your reaction was to hearing about the plane crash, or what was presumed to have been a plane crash at the time.

ROSENSTIEL: Well, my first reaction was, oh, gee, it's another tragedy for the Kennedy family. And then my second reaction almost a moment later was, gee, this is an awful lot of coverage. They're preempting this and I flipped channels and saw the scope of the press attention and realized that everybody was preempting everything.

And assumed that this would go on for 10 or 15 minutes because it was pretty obvious that they didn't know very much. And was surprised momentarily and then there was a sort of familiar ring to it when I realized, oh, no, they're going to stay on this for a long time; this is going to be hours with this.

GROSS: Why do you think there was such extensive coverage of so little in the way of new facts?

ROSENSTIEL: Well, there are two reasons, really. The first is we've entered a phenomenon now in what I call the age of the mixed media culture, of the blockbuster story -- the big story phenomenon. It's not unlike Hollywood and the fascination with the summer blockbuster hit movies.

The problem is that today the mass media audience for news has fragmented, the best research suggests that no one segment of the news audience is bigger than about 20 percent. And these stories, these big, big sensationalized stories that involve celebrity tragedy, usually some aura of sex, sensationalism; the classic sort of tabloid elements are in a sense crossover stories that temporarily reassemble that mass audience for news.

They appeal to the audience that likes politics; they appeal to the audience that likes celebrity stories; they appeal to the audience that likes crime stories; they appeal to everyone. And they are like a breakout hit that makes it on the R & B chart and the pop chart and the hip-hop chart; they are a crossover story.

And so, they are a way, at a time when the networks are hemorrhaging audience, losing audience hand over fist, for them to regain at least momentarily, some ratings. And we have seen a phenomenon over the last five or six years where the networks and the press culture in general gravitates to these stories; whether it's Tonya Harding or O.J. or Lady Di or Lewinsky.

The internal culture of the press coincides with the commercial desperation to try and find a big story. And in the valleys between these stories the press actually tries to manufacture them. Jon Benet Ramsey was an example of a story that a few years ago would have had very little attention paid to it based on its intrinsic significance, that the press really played up because it had a lot of these elements.

As it turned Jon Benet was a story that really didn't rise to the level of one of these blockbusters. And so it sort of hung around in the supermarket tabloids, but it's a very artificial kind of demand of the news make -- demand of the news organizations trying to create a demand among the consumers.

GROSS: Do you have a sense of who makes the call at TV broadcast and cable networks about when it's time to preempt regular programming for special live coverage? Is it -- is it someone in an editorial position? Is it someone above them in a higher management position?

ROSENSTIEL: Well, it's usually some one -- the first call is made from somebody at the news desk who says we've got such and such situation. They usually contact the highest person in the news division, which may be the president of the news division or somebody just below him.

And that person then goes to someone at the network who's above the news division and says we want to preempt. The request usually comes from the news division. I don't know precisely what occurred in this case, but it is easier to make this decision on a Saturday morning when you are preempting programming that is not generally generating huge audiences.

I mean, a golf tournament or Saturday cartoons are productive -- you know, are lucrative, but they don't generate huge audiences; not the kind of audiences that you can get for a national news crisis. And you can always show those kids cartoons the week after, and in this case you can preempt the golf tournament and put it on your cable sports channel -- ESPN.

So, this is an easier call to make at -- on a Saturday morning, or in the case of Dianna, on a Saturday night, than it might be on say a Sunday night when you've got your highly rated movie of the week or something like that.

And these calls are also symbiotic. Whether or not something gets preempted is determined jointly, and it's always partly an economic call.

GROSS: There are certain similarities between John Kennedy's accident and Princess Dianna's accident. What were the media lessons from the TV coverage of the Princess Dianna car crash?

ROSENSTIEL: Well, one is that -- one is sort of internal to the culture of journalism. One of them was that those networks that didn't go whole hog and stay on the air suffered a kind of critical embarrassment.

CBS turned away -- it was very late on a Saturday night. And they went off the air while NBC and ABC stuck with it, and CNN obviously. And the next day there was a lot of TV criticism -- criticism of TV news that CBS was late with the story, it did not have its people in place. And heads rolled.

Inside CBS people were punished and some people lost their jobs because of their missing that story. There is also a sense that during a big story like this that viewers may switch allegiances. That they may say, "gee, I lived through that tragedy of JFK with Peter. I think I'm going to watch Peter now for a while -- Peter Jennings. I've been watching Dan for the last year, but, you know, I really -- we sort of shared that experience together, Peter and I. And now I'm going to go with him for a while."

So, it's a moment when viewers may switch loyalties, and so it's a moment of opportunity. That's a tradition that's longstanding in the culture of TV news. But there is also a simpler commercial imperative, and that is that, particularly for the cable networks which have in fact rather small audiences.

CNN, the biggest of them, has about a one rating point most of the time. During moments of these big stories, however brief they may be, they can see their ratings increase rather dramatically -- 30, 50 percent.

So, there's money to be made in these stories. And when that happens then the commercial networks -- the broadcast networks -- with bigger audiences say we have to protect ourselves. Particularly CBS and ABC, which don't have a cable outlet. So they say, we'll become a cable outlet ourselves during that time and make sure that we don't lose some of those viewers to the new cable universe.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Rosenstiel. And he's the -- he's a press critic who is the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and vice chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. He's co-author of the new book "Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media." Let's take a break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: My guest is Tom Rosenstiel. He's co-author of the new book, "Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media." He's a press critic and director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and vice chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

Tell me if you felt anything similar to this. I found myself feeling very uncomfortable with my own feelings on Saturday. On the one hand, I felt very sorry about what it seemed had happened to John Kennedy. I mean, we really didn't know for sure what had happened, but it seemed likely that the plane had crashed and likely that he and his wife and sister-in-law had not survived.

And that's terrible, I mean, that's tragic, very disturbing. At the same time, I felt myself getting very cynical watching the endless TV coverage. And, I mean, I didn't watch it straight through but every time I would turn on the TV it was still there. And there were -- I mean, the only new facts report was maybe there was a piece of luggage with a name tag.

ROSENSTIEL: Mmm-hmm.

GROSS: But I saw that same piece of luggage and that same name tag listed as breaking news for hours, you know.

ROSENSTIEL: Mmm-hmm.

GROSS: So, you know, on the one hand, I was feeling very cynical and on the other hand very sorry. And I didn't want my cynicism to interfere with my, you know, genuine feelings of regret for what had happened to the people on the plane.

ROSENSTIEL: Right.

GROSS: But I didn't want my feelings of regret for the people on the plane with my genuine skepticism of the media coverage.

ROSENSTIEL: I think there are two things going on here. One is that in this era of continuous news we have an ironic situation; we have more news but it's less complete. We're getting not news as an end product, but we're getting the raw elements -- the grist of news as it -- and we're expected to somehow, I think it's unintentional, edit it for ourselves.

It's ironic because it's actually less nourishing. It's sort of a waste of time. If you watched all of this you'd say, well, that was about two or three minutes worth of information that absorbed over the course of three hours. And ironically, there's less times where the journalists involved who are trying to produce this thing every second to sit back and say, wait a second. What do we know here that's true? What's significant, what's not?

And you see the difference if watched some during that first day on Saturday during the day and then if you tuned back in during the prime time specials, where a different crew of people -- take the case of ABC. They had Ted Koppel do a long piece about the Kennedy legacy and they had a group of historians and journalists who cover the Kennedy's talking.

That was a synthesized end product of journalism, which in the course of an hour really gave you a rather deep understanding, particularly for a television newscast of what you needed to know. And if you'd simply watch that one-hour, you probably would have gotten more than if you had watched the endless hours -- the 11 hours preceding.

GROSS: Your book, "Warp Speed," uses the Clinton/Lewinsky story as the case study for analyzing the state of reporting, particularly in television. And I'm wondering if there are things that we have not addressed that came up in your analysis of the Clinton/Lewinsky story that show the state of television news.

ROSENSTIEL: Well, one of things in addition to this blockbuster mentality and the kind of the curse of the continuing news cycle is that you also have the journalists themselves being in a weakened position vis-a-vis their sources. Because there are so many news outlets out there chasing a relatively static number of sources. That the sources have the luxury of what you might call a seller's market; a supply and demand phenomenon that helps those who would use the news media and weakens the leverage of the journalists saying, "no, no, no. I'm not going to go with that."

Increasingly, sources can dictate the terms of the interactions and the conditions of their own anonymity. That's why we saw more use of single anonymous sourcing and things like that in the Lewinsky story.

We also see, because, again, of so much time to fill and so little time for the journalists to report the rise of what we call the argument culture overwhelming the reporting culture. Particularly in the cable universe it's much cheaper to produce talk shows than to produce news shows, and so this also reinforces the notion of the kind of the blockbuster story.

Because if you're going to have eight talk shows fill up your day, you need a story that is familiar that does not require a lot of expertise and that a casual observer might tune into and watch for 30 minutes. As opposed to a news show which requires an expensive reporting infrastructure to cover the whole world and then expects people to watch for just a little while and then move on with their day.

GROSS: What impact do you think the changing TV news environment is having on the network evening news programs?

ROSENSTIEL: Well, increasingly they are becoming less important in the -- in the culture of the television news business. At -- NBC is the network that is the most successful financially. And the reason is because they have "Dateline," which is an infotainment program, that does not cover traditional news topics. It covers celebrity and health and consumer news and sort of soap opera stories and some exposes.

It's on every night and it's quite lucrative. Plus, NBC is able to advertise all of its programming by rebroadcasting it and by using its people on MSNBC, its cable outlet. And MSNBC actually rents any programming it gets from NBC News and pays NBC News a fee. So, the bottom line is supplemented by all the interlocking parts.

The "Today" show is another infotainment program that's extremely profitable for NBC. All of that means that the -- what was once the sort of the heart and marquee of the network news divisions, the nightly news, is less important from a purely mathematical standpoint.

But there's a subtle affect of that, and that means that increasingly the people who are -- who work at NBC never worked in that hard news environment. They were hired to go to "Dateline," to go to "Today." They never, in a sense, we're trained on the city desk in the classical way.

They were trained in a feature news environment and may have never covered foreign policy or politics or national security or economics or any of the things that we have traditionally for the last 200 years considered sort of the main grist of the news.

And that same phenomenon is happening at all three of the networks. This year ABC News reduced its correspondent staff by 10 percent, and the people it reduced were invariably hard news correspondents being replaced by feature correspondents. It also puts a far greater emphasis on the celebrity anchor -- people who are famous and have a Q rating and are popular with audiences who can become the key personality of the news -- television news culture.

So, you get rid of your -- Tim O'Brien, the Supreme Correspondent for ABC, but you renegotiate the contract of George Stephanopoulos and recast him more as a journalist who can report the news and do feature pieces for "20/20."

GROSS: Well, Tom Rosenstiel, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

ROSENSTIEL: My pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Tom Rosenstiel is the director of Harvard University's Project for Excellence in Journalism and co-author of the new book, "Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Tom Rosenstiel
High: Media critic Tom Rosenstiel, now the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, created to address the media's role in society and how journalists could do their jobs better. He'll discuss the coverage of the disappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr's plane. Rosentiel is the former media critic for the "Los Angeles Times" and the chief Congressional correspondent for "Newsweek" magazine. Rosentiel is also the author of "Strange Bedfellows: How Television and the Presidential Candidates Changed American Politics, 1992."
Spec: Media; Television and Radio; Lifestyle; Culture; John Kennedy, Jr.; Tom Rosenstiel

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Media Coverage of JFK Jr.

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 19, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071902NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: From Movies to the House of Lords
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

British film producer David Puttnam is best known for such films as "Chariots of Fire," "Midnight Express," "The Killing Fields" and Local Hero." For about 18 months in the mid-'80s he headed Columbia Pictures.

Now he's produced a new film which he says will be his last. It's called, "My Life So Far," and it's about a 10-year-old boy whose eccentric family lives on an estate in Scotland. His father is an inventor who some neighbors consider a crackpot. He's the founder of the only moss factory in Europe.

The wondrous atmosphere of the estate changes when the boy's uncle brings his beautiful girlfriend for a visit and the boy's father starts to fall in lover with her. Here's the boy and his father taking her on a tour.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM THE FILM "MY LIFE SO FAR")

UNINDENTIFIED ACTOR: Moss itself has properties which at one and the same time both antiseptic...

UNINDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Unintelligible) will absorb it cotton wool.

UNINDENTIFIED ACTOR: And these women we see here are the cutters and the balers.

UNINDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Afternoon, Mr. Petigrusso (ph).

UNINDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Unintelligible) it's right brawn, bonnie (ph) afternoon if it were (unintelligible) my lassie. It's an advantage to have a working knowledge of the local vernacular. The cutters and the balers...

UNINDENTIFIED ACTOR: ... the cutters have the job of cutting the moss.

UNINDENTIFIED ACTOR: And the balers have the job...

UNINDENTIFIED ACTOR: ... the balers have the job of doing the baling.

UNINDENTIFIED ACTOR: Considerable quantity of water ahs to be removed from the moss before it can be racked and dried.

UNINDENTIFIED ACTOR: For drying, and we make cigars from the dried moss, didn't we dad?

UNINDENTIFIED ACTOR: It was not one of our better ideas.

GROSS: I asked David Puttnam why he wanted to produce "My Life So Far."

DAVID PUTTNAM, FILM PRODUCER, "MY LIFE SO FAR": I read the book, which was about the childhood of a man I knew quite well. I read it on a plane, actually, on my way to Tokyo, and by the time I got off the plane in Tokyo I definitely wanted to make the movie.

When I was reading it I could see it as a film, I think partly because there were a number of pictures that I loved, "Cinema Paradiso," "My Life as a Dog;" it was the type of picture that I enjoyed and never made, do you know what I mean?

And I knew I was moving towards the end of my career, and it seemed like one of the nicer ones to go out on.

GROSS: Now, you asked Hugh Hudson, who also directed "Chariots of Fire," which you produced, to direct "My Life So Far." Why did you think of him?

PUTTNAM: Because he's got a beautiful sense of period, which was evident in "Chariots," and all of the qualities the man has come very naturally to this type of story. So, there was no sense of it being a stretch for him. He comes from that type of world, he understands that type of world, he's got a wonderful sense of landscape and that was always going to be important to the movie. So, it was just good casting.

GROSS: Now, I've read that this is likely to be your last film. Is that true, is this your last film?

PUTTNAM: It is true. Certainly my last film as a line producer in the way that I've always produced. I might well end up executive producing something in the future, but I doubt it very much.

GROSS: Why is this your last film?

PUTTNAM: Because it's incompatible with the life I have and have had for the last two years in politics. I now work for the government, and I tried for a while to kind of spin two lots of plates. But I found that they genuinely incompatible -- I was always dropping one of them.

GROSS: Have you become disillusioned with filmmaking.

PUTTNAM: No. No, no, no. Not at all. I've done 30 years, I'm 58 years old. The audience is still 24, they were 24 when I started 30 years ago.

LAUGHTER

And I just feel that it's a stretch now. Probably in an ideal world I would like to have got a couple more movies under my belt, but I think I could always say that. You know, if I was 60 and I'd say well, maybe there's a couple of scripts I'd still like to do.

I've seen too many victims of the motion picture industry who are still trying to make or get films made at 70. And what they try to do is peddle a script that probably was written 10, 12, 15 years earlier to someone behind a desk who's in their late 20s and its not that surprising that there's a kind of culture conflict between.

GROSS: Now, you say that your life of politics was not really compatible with your life as a film producer. You were made a Life Peer in 1997 and took the title of the Lord Puttnam of Queensgate. And this means that you're serving in the House of Lords.

PUTTNAM: Yeah.

GROSS: What does it mean to serve in the House of Lords?

PUTTNAM: It means you're appointed to the House of Lords for life. It means you are part of the legislature. It's not a million miles away from your Senate. And you specialize in certain areas; I tend to specialize in education and cultural industries and the media. And you have the right to scrutinize legislation, and indeed even to amend legislation.

And strangely enough, I'm speaking in the House tonight with a couple of amendments on the bill that's going through to create the London Mayor (ph). So, you're part of the legislative process. But more important than that, from my point of view, is I work for the Department of Education, and my responsibilities is everything to do with teachers -- teacher morale, teacher recruitment, the role of professional working conditions of teachers in the future.

And I found it -- find it incredibly challenging and an interesting job.

GROSS: Well, Prime Minister Tony Blair for who -- to whom you were an adviser wants to do away with the House of Lords. How do you feel about that?

PUTTNAM: No, he doesn't. He wants to do away with the hereditary component of the House of Lords. That is to say that you're in the House of Lords because your father was in the House of Lords. That goes this year.

From this year onwards, the House of Lords will be primarily made up of appointed Peers; people like me who are Life Peers whose peeridge ends the day that they pop their socks. Temporarily, there will be a period where 91 Peers will remain, but they too will go in a couple years time.

GROSS: It sounds kind of undemocratic, doesn't it?

PUTTNAM: What, having appointed Peers or Life Peers?

GROSS: Appointed Peers for life.

PUTTNAM: No, I don't think it's -- it won't be undemocratic because what modern democracies need is expertise. And it's a way of attracting people with serious expertise into the public sector and offering a public role.

For example, take a thing like GM crops or all the areas affected by technology, it's ridiculous to hope that we'll ever have elected members of Parliament, or in your case, congressmen, who really understand the issues. It's just not going to happen.

So, they will always be at the mercy of their paid officials or lobbyists. One of the things we're not nearly as damaged by, of course the process in the UK is not nearly as damaged by the current influence of lobbyists as yours is. One of the reasons for that is we have a lot of expertise existing in the House of Lords; quite difficult for lobbyists to deal with people who are real experts.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lord David Puttnam. He's a movie producer. Briefly, he was the head of Columbia Studios. The films he's produced include "Chariots of Fire," "The Killing Fields," "Midnight Express." He's also the author of a book -- a recent book -- called "Movies and Money."

Now, in your book, "Movies and Money," you describe a turning point in your career as a producer; after seeing the movie "Midnight Express" with an audience. Describe the scene and the audience's reaction to the scene that had such an impact on you.

PUTTNAM: Yeah, it was -- we had a tricky transition within the film that we had to deal with, which was to take the hero -- if you can call him a hero -- Billy Hayes from the prison down into what was for intents and purposes an insane asylum...

GROSS: ... this was a Turkish prison. He was arrested there for having drugs.

PUTTNAM: That's right, for having drugs -- for smuggling drugs. And we needed to make this a kind of seamless transition. What we didn't have was the screen time to explain why this all came about. So, we needed an incident.

And the incident we opted for was a fight with another prisoner who goaded him and created a lot of problems for all of them; during which Billy actually bites this guy's tongue out. Now, the idea that that was such an abhorrent, I mean, insane thing to do that is you wanted to be surprised when you saw him walking around in white pajamas.

And we had a lot of discussions, Alan Parker and I, about how to do it and how close -- you know, directors always want a big close up of a tongue being bitten our and producers are a much more prudent sort -- want it in long shot. And we ended up compromising.

But one thing we were certain of was that when it happened the audience would dive under their seats and when they came back up again the transition had been made and they understood exactly why he was now in a loony bin.

And I went to see the film when it was actually in Times Square at its opening, and this scene came up and instead of diving behind their seats they all actually got up and started cheering. At that point I realized I knew nothing about audiences and reactions.

And it really had an extraordinary affect on me. And I think that "Chariots of Fire," to a very great extent was a reaction to that moment. I set it out to make a film that couldn't possibly generate that type of reaction. And I became much more careful.

But interesting enough, I then went on a few years later to make "The Killing Fields" which has moments of violence in it. But no one ever depicted "The Killing Fields" as being a violent film, and I don't remember anyone remotely enjoying or glorifying any of the violence in "The Killing Fields." So, I did learn a lesson.

GROSS: Now, when you were given the job as the head of Columbia Pictures was this before or after you had your "Midnight Express" revelation?

PUTTNAM: Oh, much -- way after. I did "Midnight Express" in '77, it came out in '78, and I went to Columbia in '86.

GROSS: What were they thinking?

LAUGHTER

PUTTNAM: I never found out. I mean, I was headhunted. I was cajoled. I was persuaded. I made -- I put in all the health warnings you could imagine that probably I was the wrong person. And they'd absolutely convinced themselves I was the right person.

GROSS: And they decided after, I think, about 18 months that in fact you were the wrong person.

PUTTNAM: Well, yes, but the interesting thing is you know I've had to deal with this a lot over the years. I never, ever at any point was fired. What happened was that they sold -- Coca-Cola sold 51 percent of the company. My contract required that I could only work for a wholly unsubsidiary Coca-Cola, because I was very conscious going in that the only reason I wanted to do this job was because I liked the stability of Coca-Cola owning it.

So, the day they sold it my contract was in breach, and I got a phone call from my lawyer in New York who said, "do you want to leave?" I said I'd love to leave. He said, "well, you can. They just breached your contract."

And they were very honorable. I must say that contractually they behaved well, and I was extremely pleased to come home.

GROSS: You had a reputation when you were running Columbia for being opposed to the star system in which stars got enormously high salaries and could make a lot of demands in their contract. What were some your problems with the star system as it existed when you were the head of Columbia Pictures?

PUTTNAM: Three problems. One is, making a movie is a very difficult operation. It requires an incredible amount of collegiality. And if you allow yourself to be flimflammed by a star into making that human being on the set among colleagues so special that everyone else feels second class you do not create collegiality and it shows in the movie.

And I have any number of experiences over the years where by you just can't work that way. You know, the star who sits in a dressing room until the very last minute and then emerges on the set; what she actually does without knowing it, is undermines everyone else on the movie.

Because everyone feels that they're not part of a collegiate attempt to make something wonderful. And the purpose of a producer is to get every single person involved in the making of the film to think they're special and that this movies is special and that everything they're doing is special. And that works by creating teamwork.

So, first of all, the star system per se, if you're allow a star to behave badly cuts -- absolutely cuts up against teamwork and hurts the movie.

Secondly, the more a star gets, it will be the less you have to spend on the screen. The film I'm proud of is the fact that in the case of "The Killing Fields," which grossed $14.4 million, I think from memory, 90 percent of those costs were actually on the screen. Only 10 percent was spent on things other than what you're looking at.

Now, that's vital, again, to create good cinema. The more the stars get, the higher the cost of the movie, the less instinct there is among studios to take any risks, so that your story gets safer. Your marketing gets safer, everything becomes safer.

Lastly, and most importantly, and this is not the star's fault, some lunatic and no one's ever put up their hand up and admitted who it was. Some lunatic in Hollywood in the early '80s instead of making deals like we used to make which was a star got a percentage of the movie, but they got their salary against that percentage. Someone in I guess a moment of panic gave a star a salary, let's say $5 million, plus a percentage of the gross.

The day that happened the whole thing went haywire. But it meant that the star could make a hell of a lot money and the movie could go straight down the toilet, Now, that's inequitable, because what we need is healthy, profitable studios who consistently are able to make films.

So, the idea that talent base takes money out and therefore depletes the amount of money available for investment is long term stupidity.

GROSS: My guest is film producer David Puttnam. His new movie is called "My Life So Far." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: My guest is David Puttnam. he's a film producer who now is a member of England's House of Lords.

I want to ask you about a couple of movies that you produced that were failures at the box office, and get your impression of what went wrong. "Housekeeping," which was more of an art film, really, made by the same director who did -- I'm blanking out on the title -- "Local Hero."

PUTTNAM: "Local Hero," yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. "Leonard Part VI," which was a big film with Bill Cosby as the star. It was also a failure. "The Old Gringo," which had Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda -- how can you forget Jane Fonda's name, right? -- and it was based on a novel by Carlos Fuentes.

PUTTNAM: That's right.

GROSS: OK. So, you have "Housekeeping," a small film; "Leonard Part VI," big commercial film -- Bill Cosby; and "The Old Gringo," you know, based on a literary novel -- all failures. All failed for different reasons. What went wrong? Were you happy with the films, or did you just think that audience missed out on an opportunity?

PUTTNAM: Oh, I loved -- let's go through them. I loved "Housekeeping." I thought then, and I think today it's a beautiful film. It was very slight. I think it was marketed very badly and I was around at the time so I'm going to take partial responsibility of that.

But it's a beautiful film, with a lot to say and a lot of value. And it's a jewel; anyone that is lucky enough to stumble across a copy and looks at it on video today will see a film that's one of those very slight, very rare film with beautiful performances. So, "Housekeeping" I've got no apology for at all other than the fact that I wished we'd done a better job selling it.

In the case of "Leonard Part Vi," it was a stupid film to have made. It was made -- it's a vanity film. It was a classic film made to work with and please a star. That star was someone with very, very close relationships with Coca-Cola. And in a sane and proper world it shouldn't have been made, but it got made.

And the case of the third one, "The Old Gringo..."

GROSS: ... just to translate, Bill Cosby, who starred in "Leonard Part VI," was in a lot of Coke ads at the time, is that right? Or Coke product ads?

PUTTNAM: No, no, no. Bill, at the time, and maybe he still does, owned a couple of bottling franchises.

GROSS: I see.

PUTTNAM: With Coca-Cola. No, all I'm saying is, it oughtn't to have been made. And I guess either I should have had the senses to stop to it, although that would have caused enormous events, or Bill should have had the sense to look at it and say this is a pure pile of (EXPLETIVE DELETED) and I shouldn't be making this film. Or Coca-Cola should have said, much as it means upsetting one of most valued customers and friends, we shouldn't -- this film shouldn't -- there were just -- everyone got paralyzed.

And the film, kind of as it were, made itself and snuck through the middle. It's a dreadful film and it has no redeeming quality whatsoever, unlike "Housekeeping."

Now, "Old Gringo" is a much more interesting case. One of the best scripts I've ever read in my life. A magnificent script by a woman called Ada Bortnick (ph). A passionate producer in Jane Fonda, she could not have worked harder or been more professional or done a better job. I mean, she was a terrific colleague to work with.

I think a very nice piece of casting of Gregory Peck. And a director that had in the past previously made a couple of very good films, but who -- the film was just too big for. I've had this experience before, it's not the only time. And who just sadly lost the plot. The film just doesn't quite work.

But the script was beautiful. The performances were nice. There's a magnificent scene in particular, one brilliant scene of Gregory Peck talking about being old. Wonderful moments in the film, but a director who just couldn't handle, I think, that scale of film. A talented man, no question about that, but the film was just too big for him.

GROSS: Obviously you feel very strong that movies should have a basis in community morality. And I'm wondering now, you know, in the United States a big debate now about violence in the movies, what should be done.

If you were the movie czar in the United States what would you do?

PUTTNAM: Jack Valenti, who is a friend of mine, a very nice man indeed, and every other sane person making movies knows that movies have an enormous social impact. It is naive and silly to pretend that they don't. The idea that some or other, the gun lobby and the movie lobby have managed, as it were, escape public wrath by just blaming each other is a joke.

There is no question there is a relationship between guns and violence and there's equally no question that there's a relationship between uncaring, unthinking, irresponsible filmmaking and the tone of the society with which those films get distributed. To pretend otherwise is farcical.

GROSS: So, what would you do?

PUTTNAM: What I'd do? I'd bang all their heads together. I'd impose very, very strict gun laws tomorrow morning. I'd never -- you...

GROSS: ... gun laws in movies or in life?

PUTTNAM: No, gun laws -- both. The idea you've got to one or the other is nonsense. You impose very strict gun control and then you set about banging filmmaker's heads together and making sure that they are also become part of some kind of social consensus about the nature of the nation that you want to live in.

You do not want to live in a nation that kills each other. You do not want to live in a nation that's, as it were, successful only by climbing over the bodies of the people whose been able to be beat. America -- one of the most fascinating things about the United States, and I love the United States, is that what it represents to the rest of the world in terms of freedom and fairness and decency, which is the America I was brought up with, is no longer visible.

It's visible on the ground if I go and live in my cottage in Utah. People are wonderful; individuals in the States are absolutely wonderful. But unfortunately that is not reflected in the media, and certainly isn't reflected by this insane obsession with firearms.

GROSS: So, you'd bang heads of filmmakers, but would you write regulations that would limit the content of films? Would you want people carded before they go into movies? Change the ratings system? And are there concrete things that you would want to change?

PUTTNAM: I would love to hear every filmmaker explain what sort of society they wish to live in and what they've done in the past 12 months to contribute to that society. And once you begin there, when filmmakers are forced to actually explain themselves in terms of what are they doing; what do they think they're doing; what do they think the power of film is.

It's a process of evasion, Terry. What we've allowed to happen is this kind of ingenuous sense that really films are just entertainment, they're not really anything to do with society. Just like guns are really only about popping off at targets at target practice.

These are serious societal issues, and unless American society gets a grip of both issues not one or the other, both issues, American society's got some very difficult questions to ask themselves for the next 20 years.

GROSS: Did you sit down with the filmmakers you worked with when you were the head of Columbia and have these kinds of talks with them and ask them to explain their view of morality and their hopes for the future, for young people et cetera?

PUTTNAM: I try very hard not to use the word "morality" because I think it's a misused word. Ethics, yes. I try to create an ethical basis for everything we ever did there. And I think that (unintelligible) anyone that lives -- anyone in the communication world including yourself, that lives their life out without asking themselves those questions is potentially doing a massive disservice to society.

And I'm not a right-winger -- we should mention here I'm a socialist. I work to the left of center -- I work with left center party here in the House of Lords. And I'm a total pluralist, but I equally know what irresponsibility is when I see it.

GROSS: Are there any movies that you really love because they speak to your dark side that you don't think are the kind of like ethical that you would in theory support but you recognize that they're a real masterpiece of filmmaking and that they move you?

PUTTNAM: Two films immediately come to mind; both by Bertolucci. One is the film "1900,"which had some terrible moments in it, but I thought was the most extraordinary piece of work. And the other, which maybe says more about me than about the movie, probably, is "The Last Tango in Paris." I remember being absolutely fascinated by it.

I mean, I'm really picking up just on your question about what did it do to my dark side. What it did it taught, maybe allowed me to believe I had a dark side. Although this (unintelligible) when I was a kid watching "Tom Jones," I think I was about 18 when Tom Jones came out -- 19 -- I remember sitting -- do you remember the eating scene in "Tom Jones?"

GROSS: No, I don't actually.

PUTTNAM: There's very, very erotic eating scene where Tom Jones and this woman he's met are eating their meal and looking at each other and the food's falling off their plate. And I remember sitting there thinking that there's got to be something wrong with me -- "I think this is really horny."

But I'm looking around, why -- no one else in the audience seems to be thinking this. And I actually got quite troubled by the nature of my imagination. Only years later I discovered that every single person sitting in that cinema was having exactly the same crisis.

GROSS: OK. Well, David Puttnam, thank you very much for talking with us.

PUTTNAM: It's a pleasure.

GROSS: David Puttnam. He produced the new film, "My Life So Far" which he says is likely to be his final film.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: David Puttnam
High: Film producer David Puttnam. His films include "Chariots of Fire," "Local Hero," "The Killing Fields," and "Midnight Express." His latest film -- and probably his last -- is "My Life So Far," a period piece set in the Scottish Highlands in the late 1920s. Puttnam is retiring from film making to tend to his duties as a member of the British House of Lords and Chairman of the National AIDS Trust.
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; David Puttnam

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: From Movies to the House of Lords

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 19, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071903NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Review of Randy Newman's "Bad Love"
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Randy Newman has spent the past 10 years writing scores for such movies as "Babe: Pig in the City," "Pleasantville" and "A Bug's Life." He's just put out his first collection of new rock and pop songs in more than a decade. It's called "Bad Love."

Rock critic ken Tucker says it ranks with some of his best work ever.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SINGER-SONGWRITER RANDY NEWMAN PERFORMING)

KEN TUCKER, ROCK CRITIC: Randy Newman doesn't really want everyone to like him, otherwise he'd be the rock star he's spent a good part of his career either lampooning or using as a measuring stick of what he never wants to sound like. It is Newman's chosen fate to stand back and observe, to mimic the characteristics of Americans he sees around him.

At his best, this results in brilliantly tough music, brutal beauties like this new song called "Shame." It's sung in the voice of a rich dirty old man coming on to a young girl.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SINGER-SONGWRITER RANDY NEWMAN PERFORMING "SHAME")

TUCKER: I wish I had the time to play "Shame" all the way through. There's not a second of it that isn't extraordinary. It instantly submerges you into the creepy lonely life of this man, yet it's a striking example of musical irony. The way the narrator steps out of the song who are cooing "shame, shame, shame."

Newman has been doing this sort of thing for 30 years now. You can go back to his first albums with songs like "Lucinda" and "Davey the Fat Boy" for other character sketches. But on "Bad Love" he's using all the orchestral muscles he's developed to inject his music with a variety and dexterity that gives it more punch.

His ambition is also more grand but never grandiose. On another song, for example, he takes on the whole of Western Civilization.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SINGER-SONGWRITER RANDY NEWMAN PERFORMING)

TUCKER: Commencing that song with savage white conquerors and ending it with the plague of AIDS Newman earns every bit of his irony and anger. On other selections here he offers a cogent critique of Marxism that includes a moment of self-criticism about his own suburban second marriage.

He writes a sincere apology to his first wife, and he offers a pretty love song that is utterly devoid of hope that love can last.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SINGER-SONGWRITER RANDY NEWMAN PERFORMING)

TUCKER: At one point on this CD Newman writes a couplet "feelings might go unexpressed. I think that's probably for the best." But then he goes on to express those feelings anyway. Of a persistent but hopeless romanticism, of a despair that the world will ever shape up and treat people decently.

Newman is the most adroit cynic that rock music has ever produced, with his Fats Domino piano chords, his movie music moodiness and his froggy croak he's as pure an example of bullheaded originality as any that this country has ever produced.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for "Entertainment Weekly."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Ken Tucker
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Randy Newman's new release, "Bad Love."
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Randy Newman; Ken Tucker

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Review of Randy Newman's "Bad Love"
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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