Book Review: "The Sweeps: Behind the Scenes in Network TV" (1984) by Mark Christensen & Cameron Stauth
"The Sweeps" is another in the genre of TV books that I like to call "industry snapshots." These are books that provide an inside (or as the subtitle here indicates, "behind the scenes") look at the state of the TV industry at the time of their writing, offering a variety of perspectives from executives, creative personnel, and contemporary press accounts. Other books in this journalistic "snapshot" genre include Sally Bedell's "Up the Tube" (1981), Martin Mayer's "About Television" (1972), and the more recent "Desperate Networks" (2006) by Bill Carter.
"The Sweeps," published in mid-1984, chronicles American television in the spring, summer, and fall of 1983, as programming decisions were being made and then implemented for the 1983-1984 television season. Christensen and Stauth follow a number of different TV-industry personalities during this period, charting their fortunes over the course of the year and gaining their insights about the TV industry going into the mid-1980s. At the time "The Sweeps" was published, these observations were current and reflected the state of the TV art; now (as in all books of this genre), they provide a valuable historical "snapshot" of the TV industry and its practices at the time.
The personalities featured in "The Sweeps" cut across a broad range of TV industry types. These include early-1980s TV superstars such as Ed Asner, who was going through a career crisis due to his controversial political views, and then-up-and-comers who would become TV stalwarts, such as Harry Anderson and Ted Danson. Particularly interesting are Anderson's irreverance as he books game show appearances and magician gigs as hedges against the failure of his new sitcom "Night Court," and Danson's insecurity as "Cheers" struggles to hang on and Danson wins a nomination but not the award itself for Best Comedy Actor in the 1983 Emmys.
Equally intriguing are fringe figures such as Larry Colton and Corky Hubbert. Colton, a washed up pro baseball pitcher with little TV industry experience, takes a gamble by becoming involved in the development of a scheme to franchise a soap opera format to local TV stations (which for him means becoming a producer on a show called "Pillars of Portland"). Hubbert, a little person known at the time for a memorable appearance in the movie "Under the Rainbow," had fallen on hard times and throughout 1983 was flamboyantly trying to land acting gigs that would catapult him back to relative stardom. The stories of these two provide a counterpoint to those of other, established but still struggling TV industry figures.
One of these such figures is writer-producer Allan Katz. Katz, who cut his TV industry teeth working on shows like "M*A*S*H," "Rhoda," and "Laugh-In," was in 1983 trying to juggle several different incipient projects: a sitcom pilot called "The National Snoop" that was considered but not picked up by NBC for fall 1983; a play, "Kaufman and Klein," for which he was trying to cast Ed Asner and/or Walter Matthau; and his baby, a feature film project called "The Hunchback of UCLA," which he also wanted to star in despite the fact that he'd never acted in his life.
Perhaps the central story of "The Sweeps" is that of aspiring TV writer Tony Colvin. At the beginning of 1983 (and in the opening chapter of the book), Colvin was giving up a successful career as a bank executive to break into TV writing by working as a gofer for the "Cheers" cast and crew. By the middle of the year (and the middle of the book), Colvin had landed a job as a story editor on the new sitcom "Just Our Luck." By the end of the year (and the end of the book's last chapter), he had lost that job (and his best chance at a TV career) due to the show's cancellation and, having given up his banking career, was in exile as a rental car salesman.
As it tells the story of all these personalities, "The Sweeps" also tells the story of several of the new and returning shows of 1983. It is fascinating to read about the anxieties of the cast and crew of the now-venerated "Cheers" (Danson chief among them) as its future in 1983 (its second year on the air) was anything but secure. "We Got It Made," starring the voluptuous Teri Copley and created by the deposed network programming chief Fred Silverman, is one of the new 1983-84 shows prominently chronicled in the book.
The entire slate of new NBC shows for fall 1983 is given special attention, including "Manimal," "Boone," "Bay City Blues," "Jennifer Slept Here," and "Mr. Smith." The network struggled unsuccessfully with these shows in 1983-84 in an attempt to raise itself out of a years-long ratings slump under new president Grant Tinker and new programming chief Brandon Tartikoff. (One of the great ironies of reading this particular "snapshot" book now is knowing that not long after "The Sweeps" was published the slump would end in a big way with the premiere of "The Cosby Show," which would soon become TV's number one program.)
In general, "The Sweeps" presents a detailed and fascinating snapshot of American TV circa 1983. Some persistent problems hamper the book's ability to do so, though. For one, some of the stories seem a little disjointed from the book's main thrust of chronicling the TV industry. Corky Hubbert's story, while compelling enough in and of itself, seems detached from a consideration of TV, due to the fact that most of Hubbert's previous experience and 1983 aspirations and acting gigs concern the film industry rather than television. Also, Christensen and Stauth's writing has an odd (and distracting) stylistic proclivity towards sentence fragments that at times makes it seem unprofessional (and just plain bad writing).
These quibbles do not, ultimately, overly detract from the value of "The Sweeps" as one of these "snapshot" tomes. As I've said before, these kinds of books are media scholarship's equivalent of prehistoric insects trapped in amber, and as such they offer crucially important and insightful looks at what the American media was like in a particular place at a particular time. "The Sweeps" fulfills this function for the American TV industry in 1983.