Writing Television History: Which Shows to Write About

I recently completed a virtual tour for my book Thirty Years of The Rockford Files, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Rockford Files (NBC, 1974-1980) – an important show in the history of television, as well as an important chapter in the life and career of Emmy-winning actor James Garner. An interviewer for a writer’s website, noting that I’d also written a history of Garner’s other landmark television series, Maverick (ABC, 1957-1962), asked me if there were any criteria I looked for in determining which television shows I wrote about, or whether I simply picked shows or actors I happened to like.  

It was an interesting question, and I thought I’d share my response with you.  

If you’re thinking of pitching a book on a particular television show, or a kind of television show, it helps to think in terms of (1) how it changed television when it was originally on, and (2) how it continues to shape television today. Rockford Files was the first show to introduce humor to police and private detective shows, which paved the way for shows like Magnum, p.i. and Simon and Simon in the ’80s, and Monk and The Closer today.

Rockford was also one of the first shows to comment on social issues and controversial news stories within the confines of episodic television – a device Dick Wolf has since perfected for the past 17 years with the various Law and Order shows. Plus,
Rockford was the show that put David Chase on the map as a writer and producer. In fact, a character Chase introduced in a
Rockford episode from 1977 later served as the inspiration for Tony Soprano, the central character of Chase’s hit series The Sopranos 

In the case of Maverick, Maverick was a show that changed Westerns, just as Rockford changed private eye shows. Maverick was also the show that made Roy Huggins a major player in the television industry. Roy Huggins created and produced Maverick; he also created The Fugitive, 77 Sunset Strip, and The ABC Movie of the Week, all of which changed the face of television. Besides co-creating Rockford Files and producing the pilot and the show’s first season, Roy produced many hours of television for Universal Studios throughout the ’60s and ’70s, including such popular shows as Run For Your Life and Alias Smith and Jones, as well as acclaimed miniseries like Captains and the Kings, based on the best-selling novel by Taylor Caldwell, and one of the first successful miniseries in TV history. Roy also mentored people like Stephen J. Cannell, who under Roy’s tutelage went on to become one of the most successful producers in television history. So that makes Maverick an important show beyond its place among TV Westerns, and Rockford Files an important show among private detective series.    

Then there’s the whole James Garner factor. Garner is a bona fide television icon. Maverick was the show that made Garner a household name. Jim is one of the few actors whose audience spans three different generations. Baby Boomers remember him as Bret Maverick. People who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s know him as Jim Rockford. Young people today know him as Grandpa Jim on 8 Simple Rules. To enjoy that kind of longevity, and to have that kind of broad appeal for so long a period of time, is a pretty remarkable thing.  

Those are the highfalutin reasons. But as we writers know, if you’re going to pitch a book, any book, you also have to think in terms of marketing.   If you’re going write a history of a classic television series, it’s wise to choose one that is either still widely shown in syndication, such as Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, Magnum or I Love Lucy, or at least widely available on tape or DVD. In the case of Rockford Files, I had both things going for me. Plus Rockford is also a show like Lucy or Andy Griffith in that it has never really left television. Reruns of
Rockford have played constantly all over the world for over 30 years. From a marketing standpoint, that tells a publisher there’s definitely an audience out there that is potentially interested in reading a book about the history of The Rockford Files. If you can come up with ways of reaching that audience above and beyond traditional bookstore sales, you stand a good chance of convincing a publisher to publish that book. 

Ed Robertson 



1 Comment

Filed under Articles, Authors on Tour, Books & Authors Carnival, Books Carnival, Entries by Ed Robertson, Essays, Nonficition, Publishing, The Writing Life, Writing

One response to “Writing Television History: Which Shows to Write About

  1. How about the greatest TV shows of all time? Like Bewitched, The Three Stooges, I dream of Jeannie, and western films like Bonanza, Gunsmoke

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