Rich get better ratings, says creator of "Dallas''
By BOB WISEHART McClatchy News Service
Just what you've all been waiting for, the differences between "Dallas," "Dynasty," "Knots Landing" and "Falcon Crest". If the "Dallas" characters went to Paris they'd be bumpkins; If the folks on "Knots Landing" characters went to Paris, they'd be tourists; If the well-heeled denizens of "Dynasty" went to Paris ... well, actually, they probably go to Paris a lot and have apartments there. As for "Falcon Crest," its characters TRIED to go to Europe, but the jet crashed just in time for the season-ending cliffhanger.
If this seems like a ridiculous thing to think about, meet the source of those observations, David Jacobs, who thinks about little else. Jacobs is a study in contrasts. By appearance he is squat, pudgy and so benign he could pass as the owner of the corner drugstore in the town where Andy Hardy grew up. But if we could peer into his fevered mind, the sight would be horrible indeed. Jacobs, the author of 10 non-fiction books about the arts, many for young readers, is the man we can hold responsible for the prime-time soap opera, a phenomenon that clogs the airwaves the way gunk stops the plumbing. And there is no plunger in sight. Jacobs created "Dallas," the show that launched this trend, along with its spinoff, "Knots Landing." He also created "Secrets of Midland Heights" a few years back, a notable bomb hardly anyone remembers. His current project is "Berrenger's," a bubbly extravanganza now playing on NBC and based in an upscale big-city department store. Interviewed recently in Los Angeles, Jacobs is a jolly little fellow, quick to smile and fast with a quip. The large sums of money that have come his way no doubt make life vastly amusing. Jacobs admits that he's frankly sick of the whole genre. "I've been trying to get out of the serial business for two years' now," he says, but the networks keep making offers he can't refuse.
Besides "Berrenger's," and "Knots" Jacobs has little daily contact with "Dallas" he's working on a "Dallas" prequel, a movie about the early wildcatting days of Jock Ewing and Digger Barnes. He says no one in the series would appear in the movie.
To the untrained eye, the formula for a successful prime-time soap seems simple; just make everybody wealthy. The rich may be rotten and the poor may be pure, but the rich get better ratings. If that's true, why have such shows been impossible to launch successfully in recent years? This season brought two duds, "Paper Dolls," an upscale look at the modeling business; and "Glitter," built around a People-esque magazine. The last success was "Falcon Crest" four years ago.
The problem with "Paper Dolls" and "Glitter," says Jacobs, is that they spent more on lip gloss than on scripts. "Beautiful," he says, "but too much emphasis on what they looked like." Besides, it isn't true that rich characters in an opulent setting guarantee success. "Knots Landing" has its roots in the middle class, although Jacobs cracks "they're getting richer all the time." Jacobs is convinced that the real problem has to do with expectations by the networks and the audience, which have grown so heated it resembles an arms race. "Dallas" was a rush job, which meant there wasn't much time for detail and gloss. Jacobs finished the first draft of the first script Dec. 10, 1978. Shooting of the first episode began Feb. 1, 1979. As such things are measured, that's faster than the speed of light. "At first, 'Dallas' had seven characters and a couple of little stories," he says. "Now everybody wants everything in place right from the first."
"Dynasty" had a sparse beginning, too, and did not at all resemble today's show. Does anybody remember that Dale Robertson played as important a role as John Forsythe (plutocrat Blake Carrington)? By contrast, "Berrenger's" was stuffed with a dozen plots and subplots in its first 90-minute episode, which even Jacobs admits is "probably excessive." The poor viewer, who, after all, had only just met these people, needed a scorecard to keep everybody straight. "If I had my druthers I'd go with two people or four people, and develop from there," Jacobs says. "But I'm not sure the audience would buy it. You're expected to have a complicated mosaic right away." But television always is risky business at best. As he says, "You try for something different, but what everybody wants is what they're used to, which we have a lot of already. I mean, I'm sure there's not room for another 'Dynasty' or 'Dallas.' For all I know, there's not room for 'Berrenger's' either."