Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What Barack Obama should learn from Lynn Latham

I hope that is not too provocative.

Yesterday in Chicago, Barack Obama announced more members of his economic advisory team. A large number of his team members served in the Clinton and even Carter administrations...prompting some critics to argue that this is not the "change" Obama promised.

To this, Mr. Obama replied, in part

The reality is is that sometimes policymaking in Washington can become a little bit too ingrown, a little bit too insular. The walls of the echo chamber can sometimes keep out fresh voices and new ways of thinking. You start engaging in groupthink. And those who serve in Washington don't always have a ground-level sense of which programs and policies are working for people and businesses, and which aren't.

This board will provide that fresh perspective to me and my administration with an infusion of ideas from across the country and from all sectors of our economy, input that will be informed by members' firsthand observations of how our efforts are impacting the daily lives of our families.

Later, he said

And I suspect that you would be troubled and the American people would be troubled if I selected a Treasury secretary or a chairman of the National Economic Council at one of the most critical economic times in our history who had no experience in government whatsoever.

What we are going to do is combine experience with fresh thinking. But understand where the -- the vision for change comes from first and foremost. It comes from me. That's my job, is to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure, then, that my team is implementing it. I think that when you ultimately look at what this advisory board looks like, you'll say this is a cross-section of opinion that in some ways reinforces conventional wisdom, in some ways breaks with orthodoxy in all sorts of ways.

And that's the kind of discussion that we're going to want. We want ideas from everybody. But what I don't want to do is to somehow suggest that because you served in the last Democratic administration that you're somehow barred from serving again, because we need people who are going to be able to hit the ground running.

I am mindful of how much this sounds like early language from Lynn Latham at Y&R. When Latham first joined the show, it was sort of "under cover of night", first appearing as consultant, then later as one of three headwriters, then official top-dog headwriter, then later, executive producer.

In one of her earlier interviews, there was a respect for tradition, combined with a freshness of perspective, that was really inspiring (at least to me). Moreover, I found the energy she brought to early Y&R quite positive. I really liked that -- while she was new (but herself experienced) -- she was working with whole legacy team! Of course, history has since shown that she was not sincere about this...rapidly cutting loose her ties to the show's heritage, and creating an increasingly inconsistent mess with bad management.

But that early interview with Latham was great. In the 6/27/06 issue of SOW she said, in part:

Respect for history

1. Her "number one rule" in making changes was to "respect the history of the characters and the series". (Sadly, that seemed to have stopped later on)

2. It looked like she was working with the people in charge. In response to the new sets, moving cameras, actors walking and talking, Latham said many had created the changes. She said changes were initiated by Bill Bell Jr., Steve Kent of Sony, and CBS Daytime head Barbara Bloom. They wanted to pick up the pace in storytelling and production. Apparently, everyone was agreed on these changes, and worked together. (What I didn't pick up, at the time, was that key leaders like Kay Alden, Jack Smith and Ed Scott were missing from her list of collaborators)

3. She pledged to work with existing sets and team leaders, just reinvigorate them: She said that Bill Hultstrom had actually redesigned Newman Towers so that characters could be followed moving through elevators and offices. She also noted that they added the break room because she, too, has her best conversations with colleagues by the office microwave. (She also notes the break room is more upscale than Formica, hanging wine glases). (Now, in retrospect, we know that the Formica was probably as much a politically correct desire to get artificial and anti-green and poverty-encouraging materials off the set as anything else. Latham later expunged plastic water bottles, diamonds, and indoor fires for all the same reasons.)


1. The biggest change, she said, would be replacing traditional Y&R stylistic devices ("slow arcs and pans at the beginning of scenes") with more "dynamic blocking and camera movement". She said they would be cutting away sooner, without multiple reaction shots. She called this "Y&R Plus", because characters would get more air time in this active style. "I love the actors here so much, I always want to see them more!". On this note, she said they dropped the"waiter shot", where the camera follows a waiter until it finally settles on the actors. So, too, closeups of gorgeous floral arrangements are also gone. (Interestingly, on 12/27/2007, when the Bells reclaimed the show, lingering scenery shots immediately reappeared. As time has moved on, these are no longer as common as they used to be)

2. From the writing perspective, she said they would be writing more movement into the scripts, eliminating greetings and exits, and they wanted each day to end with a "tag" (mini-cliffhanger) to encourage more days of viewership. (In the end, the pace got so fast that...if you missed a were likely to say "huh? when did that happen? It didn't encourage more viewership...just more confusion.)

3. As a result, wardrobe was having to contend with many more costume changes.

In another interview from this era, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (7/16/2006) reported:

Latham, who took over at "Y&R" in the past six months, said she didn't do a full-scale housecleaning as some new daytime executive producers do.

"I have leaned very heavily on the actors, too, to help me fill in on the story," she said.

Actor Don Diamont, who plays Brad Carlton, said that's rare.

"To Lynn's credit, by the way, that's not something you'll come across? with every head writer," Diamont said. "Lynn said, 'Can we have lunch? I want to meet each and every one of you and hear what you have to say about the character you've been playing for 20 years. Who is he?'And that's a rarity."

By the end of Latham's tenure, just about EVERY legacy writer on the show (excluding, I think, Natalie Minardi Slater, Eric Freiwald/Linda Schreiber, and Sandra Weintraub) was gone. The new writers few through in a revolving door that...sometimes...bewildered even them (with a lack of writing time and minimal opportunities to get to know the characters she was actually writing for). Tom Casiello wrote (originally here, but that post now requires "friend" adds at Myspace). The point is that--by NOT relying on the benefits of experience--you actually burden and burn out the fresh perspectives. They NEED experience to lean on!

I chose Young and the Restless.

What I found when I started was a show in deep transition. It happens. I survived two transitions at As the World Turns, and one at One Life to Live. They're tough, but they're part of the nature of this business. Lynn Latham had just taken over EP duties (along with being HW), a lot of longtime Bell writers were let go (and many were rumored to be on their way out, so I only had a few weeks to pick their brains and learn all I could from them), there was a mandate to move the show into the next generation, and while all of this seemed thrilling and exciting, there was part of me that said: "What have I signed up for?"

While the fan in me wondered why you'd want to fix something that's not broken, the writer in me could appreciate and respect the desire TPTB had to amp up the watchability factor. So I thought to myself: "Self? For better or worse, you have to give this your all. Read up on the history, learn about these characters, give them what they're looking for, dive in head first. You may stumble now and then, but you're a writer. You can do this."

And I did. But then production fell behind... the writers fell behind... sometimes we'd have LESS THAN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS to write an episode. Whatever was going on at the top trickled its way down to all of us, and we were under a gun, blindfolded and typing madly in the pitch black. Sometimes completely left to our own devices. I spent most of my week sitting around waiting to find out what I was supposed to do while I read up on fan history pages, and the last few remaining hours doing more research than I've ever done -- but NOT on Y&R! On deafness, on epilepsy, on Judaism. Everything BUT the characters and emotional content in my episodes. I'm not foolish or arrogant enough to be able to say I know what caused this behind the scenes, but whatever it was, it led to me ripping out handfuls of hair on many a Saturday night at three o'clock in the morning.

I could clearly see that whether it was my fault or not, I would not last through my first cycle. Working under those conditions AND trying to learn the rhythms and practices of a show both behind the scenes and in front of it, was just too difficult a task. But this was not a complete loss, by any means. I'm very grateful for my thirteen weeks there because I met some pretty amazing writers who were kind, welcoming, and ready to help me with character, with motivation, with history. Writers who would respond to an e-mail immediately, or even answer a frantic phone call at eleven o'clock at night. Kay Alden, and Janice Esser, and Natalie Slater and Sara Bibel.

It led to a profusion of excellent viewer comments like this:

Just wanted to say that I think they've destroyed the show with the plot driven writing, full of continuity errors and characterizations which change depending on who wrote what episode and what story is being told.

I am a big fan of Lynn Latham from Knots Landing and Homefront, but she's not fit for daytime. Major events like Jill and Ji Min's first love scene or Mackenzie's abortion now happen during the commercial break. What we get on screen is endless drivel about Clear Springs, MEEthane gas or reliquaries.

It was a mistake to completely uproot the show instead of fine tuning it. Now nobody knows the history of the show or what made it successful. Bill Bell must be rolling in his grave.
So, how do I tie this all back to Obama? Because I really do feel (obviously in very different spheres...I don't mean to trivialize Obama's huge mission) that early Obama sounds an awful lot like early Latham...which is a good thing. He's trying to respect experience and to select the things that have worked in the past. At the same time, he wants to innovate, bring in fresh perspectives...and he cites HIMSELF as the genesis of many of those fresh ideas. Bravo! Work with old, encourage the new.

Six months after that Latham interview above, essentially all of the "old guard" were gone. Left to her own devices, without the benefits of experience, the show imploded. Let's hope that Obama tries to mix innovation with experience for the next eight years!

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