Aaron Sorkin on TV’s Past, Present, and Future

Sorkin before the 83rd Academy Awards in Los Angeles in 2011 Photograph by Chris Pizzello/AP Photo

Prolific screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin, whose credits include three TV series about the making of TV shows (Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and The Newsroom) and one play about the origins of television (The Farnsworth Invention), talks with Felix Gillette about the history, nature, and power of the medium. The following transcript has been lightly edited.

What got you interested in television’s origin story?

There were a number of things that made me want to write about it. Initially there was this epic struggle that took place between Philo Farnsworth [who transmitted the first all-­electronic image], and David Sarnoff, the young president of RCA. Even though they fought, they both had utopic visions for what television could be. That it was going to end ignorance and fear and illiteracy and war. That simply by our being able to see that we are all pretty much alike, the world was going to be a much better place. That TV was going to bring us closer together. So that’s what I wanted to explore in my play, The Farnsworth Invention.

Parts of their vision has come true. You have to take the bitter with the better. TV is a national—sometimes global—hearth that we sit around. Generally it’s when something terrible has happened. But there’s a lot about it that makes us better, and there’s a lot about it that makes us worse.

What first inspired you to make a TV show?

Early on, I never thought about writing TV. I had watched as much TV growing up as anybody else. There was TV that the kids watched and TV that our whole family would watch together. We loved Barney Miller. We loved Monty Python. We would all watch those together. But I didn’t really know anything about it. I didn’t know how it worked. It was foreign to me.

Then, in 1994, I was holed up in a hotel writing The American President. I would write very late into the night. Going to sleep, just to keep me company, I would have on ESPN, which would have the loop of SportsCenter on. It would be very early morning, but it would be the previous night’s SportsCenter. Those guys just kind of became my friends. That’s how television works. And I started thinking that I wanted to write something behind the scenes at an ESPN sort of place. Mentioning that to my agent, he said, well, that sounds like a TV series. Before I knew it, I was sitting in an office with the president of ABC, who was telling me, please go write it.

The big challenge of series television, I discovered, is time. With a movie, the release date is that last thing that happens. You have to have the script that you want first, then you have to put the movie together. With TV, the release date is the first thing that happens. And you’re writing to that. Because you can’t just call and say, it’s going to be a little late—you have to write even when you’re not writing well. Then you have to point a camera at it and broadcast it to a lot of people. For me, that’s the hardest part about television.

At the same time, I love the immediacy. That’s the flip side of the terror of the schedule. If I’m writing a movie, and I write a joke today and everything goes perfectly, I’m not going to hear the laugh for a year and a half.

The best part of writing for television, though, is coming to work with the same people every week. Television is more like doing a play than a movie is. With a movie, there can be people in the cast who never meet each other because they didn’t happen to be in the same scene. That’s not going to happen in television. It’s a group of people. You’re in a trench together. Your success or failure is very much intertwined and interdependent. The stakes are very high. The days and nights are long. You want every show to be as good as your best show. So you get that close, communal, camp-like feeling.

Maybe that’s why I tend to write TV shows about live TV shows. Everybody is sort of working toward—if it’s Sports Night, or The Newsroom—8 p.m. If it’s Studio 60, it’s 11:30 p.m. Anything can go wrong. There’s something about live TV that I find very romantic.

Television commands a lot more respect now. Does that surprise you?

What’s fantastic is that television is no longer the ugly stepchild of feature films. There have been years where there’s been an HBO movie where, if it had been released theatrically, it would have won the Oscar for Best Picture. I’m sure what has ushered that in is the different model of premium cable. HBO doesn’t care how many people are watching Game of Thrones. They only care how much public acclaim it gets, because that’s what gets people to buy subscriptions to HBO. On network television, the idea is to alienate as few people as possible. So once you’re doing that, it’s going to be hard—not impossible, but hard—for real quality to come out of that.

Like most people now, I seldom watch shows when the network is feeding it to you. I have fun binge-watching shows. With The Newsroom, we get between 6 and 7 million viewers per episode. But just a little over 2 million are watching it Sunday night, when it’s first aired. And that’s fine. The one thing that you lose is the shared experience.

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