Legendary Producer Steven Bochco Passes Away


Steven Bochco, the acclaimed showrunner, producer and writer known for hits such as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, passed away on Sunday at the age of 74 after a battle with leukemia.

Bochco’s first big hit came with Hill Street Blues, which ran on NBC from 1981 to 1987. He later created NBC’s long-running L.A. Law. His Steven Bochco Productions outfit went on to produce Doogie Howser, M.D., NYPD Blue and Murder One, among several other shows. His most recent drama was Murder in the First, which ran on TNT from 2014 to 2016. Over the course of his career, Bochco received some 30 Emmy nominations as a producer and writer and won 10.

Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue are credited by many as crime dramas that helped to evolve the genre. Speaking to World Screen in 2005, Bochco noted, “NYPD Blue created such a furor in 1993 and today, 12 years later, barely [raises an eyebrow]. I suppose you could argue to some degree that shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue have really opened up a door.”

On the genesis of NYPD Blue, Bochco said, “The only time we ever consciously wanted to innovate was with NYPD Blue and those were for very commercial reasons. When we started to think about that, in 1991, the hour-drama was pretty moribund. Ratings were down for all the hour-long shows, no one was buying them in syndication, and there was generally a sense that the genre had flattened. We were getting killed by the growth of cable as it began to penetrate more and more households. One would look to cable—HBO and Showtime—for grittier, more stimulating drama than we were providing on broadcast television. So NYPD Blue was a conscious attempt to create a show which would bring back some of that viewership by competing on somewhat of a more level playing ground with the cable channels.”

Bochco said that in the early years of NYPD Blue he received “thousands of letters, of all kinds. One of the letters that I would get [often] said, ‘Your show is so wonderful, the stories are so terrific, the characters are so great, why do you have to use that language? Why do we have to be exposed, no pun intended, to all those butts? Is that really necessary?’ I answered every one of those letters, and my answer to that essentially was, it’s not necessary, there’s no rationale for that language or those butts. It’s a creative choice, which in its entirety, contributes to the full impact of what this show chooses to be as a creative entity. Anytime that you can create something that becomes a signature for a show and in turn then becomes a signature for the subset of the genre, you’ve really made a contribution.”

On working with the networks back in 2005—prior to the advent of the FAANGs—Bochco said, “It’s always a complicated battle with these people. You have to understand that this is an economically driven medium, and no advertiser wants to be associated with controversy. Because controversy may be interesting and high profile but it doesn’t necessarily sell soap. That’s why NYPD Blue in its first year could attract no top-shelf advertiser—no one wanted to touch us with a fork. It was only when the controversy went by the wayside that they all came back on board. It’s first and foremost a commercially and economically driven medium and so you’re always going to have those issues to deal with. The networks are always looking over your shoulder. They do not want you to do anything that’s going to buy them any sort of controversy. Ironically, the easiest time I ever had with them was with NYPD Blue because we had so carefully negotiated the parameters of that show, both in terms of language and in terms of nudity. For over ten years, as long as I stayed within those parameters, there was never anything to argue about. But on every other show I ever did, including the current one, they’re blue noses, they’re terrible. They are so frightened. They are so conservative. I used to have horrible fights with them when I was younger, and now I just kind of disregard what they say because I don’t have the energy to shriek anymore.”

Bochco also commented on the differences then between broadcast and cable. “There are pros and cons on both sides of that line. Certainly, when you are working for cable or pay TV, you have tremendously more creative freedom. On the other hand, there are other constraints, some of which are financial—which are very real—in terms of budgets, and the number of shows you make, and whether ultimately, are we going to be able to make some money in the long term with the show. And the answer to that question is almost always, with a hit show, a resounding yes with broadcast television.”

He was also asked in that interview about his most memorable moment in the business. He answered it like this: “One of my dearest and most important mentors was a wonderful writer-producer by the name of William Sackheim. He just recently died. He taught me so much and was such a wonderful friend to me. When I left Universal and went to MTM, I made a show called Paris with James Earl Jones. And I was having a very difficult time with it for all kinds of reasons. I didn’t feel it was clicking properly. James Earl wasn’t happy with it. We were arguing about the show all the time. I was very frustrated. It was just hard. I called Billy and said, ‘I gotta talk.’ So we had lunch and he listened to me spill my guts, and said, ‘I know what your problem is.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘You’re not working hard enough.’ I said, ‘You son of a bitch, are you kidding? I couldn’t work harder, I’m up at the crack of dawn. I come home in the dark. My kids don’t know me, blah, blah, blah.’ He said, ‘Work harder, you have to work harder. You don’t have to do the job you’re doing, no one will take you to task if you don’t, but if that’s the job you want, then you have to work harder.’ And I didn’t know what he really meant and Paris failed. But the next show we did was Hill Street Blues, and I did know what he meant. Interestingly, working harder isn’t about working longer, because you can’t work longer. It’s about thinking harder, and that was one of the great lessons of my professional life. That was very meaningful to me.

“In terms of the actual work itself, I think of all the extraordinary, wonderful moments I’ve had and all the difficult moments I’ve had, or the thrill of those first Emmys we [got for] Hill Street. I think one of the most extraordinary experiences I ever had was when Michael Conrad died. It was like, ‘What? How can that be?’ It just wasn’t right. And it had, obviously, a profound impact on all of us personally and it had a profound impact on the show. It was the first time that I was ever given the mixed blessing of having to incorporate a life tragedy into the tapestry of a show. And I’d like to think we rose to that occasion. That was heartbreaking.”