There is this write-around David Letterman story as the cover of New York magazine this week, and it's worth reading so as to see a much-absent prose stylist at work: Peter W. Kaplan, once the scrappy television beat reporter for the New York Times. Let us turn the clock back to 1985!
It's worth reading in its entirety if you have access to the Times archives, but here are some excerpts from a front-page Arts & Leisure story in April of 1985, Why the Rich Rule the TV Roost. It's notable in that it's a trend story with no clonking peg, no ginned up, temporary bullshit, no over-stretch. There simply was something that was, and so let us look at it.
Esther Shapiro, an effusive, dark- haired, lively-eyed woman who produces "Dynasty" with her husband Richard Shapiro and therefore has a firm grip on the tiger tail of the television industry, recently had brunch at the Helmsley Palace Hotel's Trianon Room restaurant. All around her in the opulent space, leaning on the peppermint-pink tablecloths and looking up at the wall paintings of riders and horses, were diners dressed in the expensive sheen of the mid- 1980's: ladies in gloves and white broad- brimmed hats, men in ascots and double- breasted blue blazers. The room looked so much like a set from "Dynasty" that it was easy to imagine she was talking from within an episode of the series.
"I'm not sure money brings happiness," said Mrs. Shapiro of the "Dynasty" ethic, "but it does bring control."
As a television aphorism, that summing up of a program's philosophy is a long way from: "Well, heh-heh, that's my little Margie," but this is, as President Reagan said a couple of weeks ago, the age of the entrepreneur, and television is packed with programs about personal incentive and its rewards….
But in the years since, the number of programs about and for the rich have grown to such an extent that they have been obliged to submit to the cultural burden of analysis: "These programs, which are about new money behaving grossly, really represent a kind of vulgar Marxism," said Herbert J. Gans, a professor of sociology at Columbia University. "There is a ruling class at work here, and it's corrupt. That kind of popular program feeds what a lot of people do believe: the notion that this country is run for the benefit of a small number."
Large numbers of viewers, though, own a piece of these fantasies: "Dynasty" is merchandising clothes and sheets and perfume with the program's name on them, a dream of wealth accessible to whomever wants to buy it…..
"The world is full of old men who are board members," said Mrs. Shapiro, while deliberately picking up crumbs from the tablecloth. "You see their pictures in Forbes and Fortune. I have my plans. My dream is to be a great old lady." Her eyes glinted with a sudden vision. "Very thin and very tall, with white hair and lots of pearls, standing in front of a window, looking out, in charge of a Fortune 500 company."
She stopped. "I don't write victims," she said. "You become your fantasy. You know what I want to do next? Madame Mao – the actress who ruled a half-billion people. That's power. Always be splashy. Always be theatrical. Go to your fantasies. You know who plays Madame Mao?" Mrs. Shapiro smiled. "Faye Dunaway," she said. The tablecloth was clean.