Rob Long, writer and producer of the long-running sitcom Cheers, spoke at Cornell last week at an event sponsored by Cornell’s Program on Freedom and Free Societies.
Long focused on what he described as “the end of Hollywood,” and why it is in many ways a good thing.
Hollywood used to be physical, with Hollywood town and “giant reels.” It was a physical product, an industrial business. And business was doing very well. Long explained that Paramount produced around 60-75 pictures per year, that movies were cheap. Even in the height of the depression, everyone went to the movies.
But by the time the 1960s came around, business suffered. A fraction of pictures were produced, and people were not attending them.
“People didn’t want to go down there,” Long said, referring to downtown. Movie screens moved closer to the viewer, and into homes. “What nobody expected is that the screen would end up in your pocket,” he said, holding up his cell phone.
Long spoke about his work with Cheers in the 80s and 90s, one of the highest rated shows of its time. Cheers claimed 35% of American television sets that were turned on, a percentage that is unheard of today.
“You can’t get that many Americans to do anything,” Long said.
He explained how there was very little competition in the field. Nobody wanted to pin another comedy against Cheers, so the only competition was the news. Long explained that the model of “Thursday at nine, sit down and shut up” worked well.
It worked well until the innovations of unlimited bandwidth and storage, the invention of the Internet, and the mass modernization of the industry.
Long also noted that today, Hollywood is incredibly unified ideologically. He described instances in which other people in the industry would say in disbelief, “I can’t believe you’re a Republican, you don’t seem evil.”
“People no longer sit and watch,” Long said, explaining that people will often pay, torrent, or find other avenues to watch television and movies. In many ways, this is a bad thing, Long says. But it also is exciting.
“It shows that people are doing what they did in the past,” Long said, noting that people are interacting in new ways, creating more content on an individual or small scale, and “turning tables on content.” People are telling stories.
“You are a content creator,” the speaker said, referring to the wide arrangement of social media platforms so many people use, such as Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook. Some of the time that people used to use watching movies is now being used creating content.
“Hollywood taught the benefit of telling stories,” Long said. He used the example of Donald Trump in the media today, noting that “he is the most interesting politician,” and that he understands how to keep you on the edge of your seat. “He’s telling you a story,” and he “has an audience to himself.”
Your cell phone, Long went on to explain, is a TV screen, a movie screen, and a way to get news, but is also a TV studio, a news studio, a way to create news. “Snapchat actually calls it ‘my story’,” Long said.
“What’s the story going to tell?” Long suggested that we have the tools and the opportunity to reach a lot of people. “It’s never been this free—figuratively and literally.”
Long believes that stories are “the most important thing ever,” ending his talk with the observation that “you may not be interested in the media, but its interested in you,” urging us to embrace the interesting and exciting new world we’ve created.