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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH GARY JOHNSON

 

Hollywood writer/producer Gary Johnson and his brother Dave Alan Johnson have been allies of the PTC from the beginning of the organization. The duo created the Pax network’s family-friendly hit dramas Doc (starring country singer Billy Ray Cyrus) and Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye. With both programs now being rerun on the Gospel Music Channel, available on cable and satellite TV, the PTC caught up with Gary to find out more.

 

PTC: “How did you get into television?”

 

GJ: “Dave got here first. We’re from a small town in Iowa, and Dave came out here originally to be an actor. He did a lot of commercials and some parts on television shows, and then he segued into writing. He and his partner at that time created a show for NBC called Against the Grain in 1993. It was a very highly acclaimed family-values show about a small town in Texas, and how football…Actually, the show that’s on NBC now, Friday Night Lights? Well, Against the Grain was inspired by the book Friday Night Lights, and it was on back in 1993.”

 

PTC: “So you were there first.”

 

GJ: “We were there way first! And the star quarterback on Against the Grain was played by a fairly unknown actor back then, but you might’ve heard of him now. His name is Ben Affleck.”

 

PTC: “Really?”

 

GJ: “Yes. And when Dave and his partner Mike were casting the show, the network didn’t want Ben Affleck! Dave and Mike were casting that part as a kid who’s a star quarterback. Now, this kid was supposed to be the best high-school football player in the state of Texas. But the network wanted to cast this actor who was 5’9”, 145 pounds. Dave told them, ‘I’m sorry, at 5’9”, 145 pounds this guy is not going to be believable as the best football player in Texas!’ Eventually, NBC gave into their wishes and went with Ben Affleck; but one of the NBC executives said, ‘I just don’t see him on the cover of a magazine.’ So when Affleck appeared on the cover of GQ and he was the hottest thing around, Dave sent a copy of the magazine to that NBC executive and said, ‘Do you see him on the cover of a magazine now?’  (laughs)

 

Anyway, Dave had gotten his first writing job a couple of years before that, and at that time he had called me and said, ‘This writing is a pretty good gig and you’d be good at it. I suspect one of these days I’ll get my own show and I’ll hire my own writers, but I can’t hire you if you’ve never written anything. So you have to find a show you like and write scripts for it.’ And when Against the Grain got on TV and they hired me as a writer, I came out for that. That was in 1993, and we’ve been here ever since. Over the years, sometimes we would work together and sometimes we worked apart; but we came back together to create Doc and Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye for Pax. They were far and away the two highest-rated shows Pax ever had. Sadly, Pax doesn’t really exist anymore – it’s called Ion now and its entire basis is different, while Pax was strictly targeted at a family-friendly market – but while Pax was around, our shows were their biggest hits.”

 

PTC: “How did you get the idea for Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye?”

 

GJ: “Well, it started with Doc. We did Doc first for Pax, and it was so successful that Jeff Sagansky, who was president of Pax at the time, kept hounding us for another show. At the time we were getting Doc off the ground, and it was hard enough to do one show and get it going, so we held him off for a couple years. But after two years he said, ‘Okay, I want another show from you.’ He gave us a 22-episode commitment right away. We didn’t have to write a pilot and see if it was successful. And he gave us the time slot right after Doc on Sunday night, which was the best time slot they had.

 

At that time, Dave and I had written a script called Lip Service, about a deaf woman named Sue Thomas who had gone to work for the F.B.I. filing fingerprints. She was hired under a program for the handicapped – though deaf people don’t consider that to be a handicap, the FBI did. Then the F.B.I.  found out how well she was able to read lips, which was amazingly well. If she was sitting in a room with you and me and we were having a conversation, as long as she could see your lips, she’d be able to follow right along with the conversation and you wouldn’t even know she was deaf. So we had written the script, but it would probably never have been produced if we hadn’t had the opportunity with Pax at the right time.

 

Sue Thomas is a real person, and we wanted to make this show only in a situation where we were in total control. We didn’t want someone else from a network or production company coming in and taking that control away from us and doing something that might make the real Sue Thomas look bad. So although we had the concept and the script written, we had never produced the show. But we knew that would make a good TV series. We brought it to Pax and said, ‘We’ll do another series, and this is what we want to do.’ And they read that movie script and they said, ‘We love it! It’ll be great,’ and they ran with it.”

 

PTC: “How did you cast Deanne Bray in the lead role?”

 

GJ: “When we were casting for the lead role – which is, obviously, a deaf woman – we really wanted to try and get a deaf woman to play the part, but we realized that the odds were probably against that. One of the things about the Sue Thomas character is that she speaks well enough that you don’t know she’s deaf, which meant that we either had to find a deaf person who could do that, or we were going to have to hire a hearing person and have them play deaf, which we really didn’t want to do. And then Deanne Bray just walks in one day, and she was perfect! If we had said, ‘God, please send us a gorgeous woman who is deaf but who can speak well enough that people don’t know she is deaf, and pull this off – and, by the way, also let her be a good enough actress to carry a television show,’ we would’ve imagined God saying, ‘You’re not asking for much, are you?’ But she just dropped into our lap, and she was absolutely perfect!

 

And even then, Pax wasn’t in love with her. They said, ‘Her speech almost sounds like an accent or an inflection of some sort. We think that people are going to get tired of that, the way she’s speaking.’ And we told them, ‘If we hire a hearing actress, we’re going to have to teach her how to speak just like that anyway, because that’s how the real Sue Thomas speaks.’ Pax came around and said, ‘Well, if you guys believe in her…’ and we said ‘Yes, absolutely. She’s the one!’ So it worked out. We got the time slot right after Doc, and the show started really well right out of the box, just like Doc did. Eventually, Sue Thomas even slightly surpassed Doc as the highest-rated show on the Pax network.”

 

PTC: “Working in the industry as you do, have you seen kind of a trend towards more family-friendly entertainment, or away from it?”

 

GJ: “Both, I think. With the diversification of all the different niche networks you see today, there’s room for everything. On the major networks, of course, you still don’t see very much that you could in any way call family-oriented -- as you folks at the PTC know very well! But the other side of that coin is that the major networks are losing viewership by leaps and bounds. And I think that with the success of The Passion of the Christ, and after that the Narnia films and Fireproof and similar productions, the industry is beginning to acknowledge that there is a huge untapped audience for that kind of material. They may not necessarily be crazy about going after that audience, but with the economic times the way they are, if there’s an audience, they probably will begin to try. So that makes people like Dave and I, who have had success in that family arena, more viable – at least on some networks. If we went to the major broadcast networks right now, we’d have very little chance of getting something on the air. Nor would we really want to, to be honest. Because we wouldn’t want to fight that battle every day -- the network saying, “We’re going to make this series edgier. Can we sex this up a bit?’

 

Pax TV, God bless ‘em, never gave us any production notes. We conceived the shows, we wrote them, we produced them, and Pax put them on the air. We never had any interference. If only every network worked like that!”

 

PTC: “Sue Thomas is the kind of program that was on the major networks, and not all that long ago. It’s a pity that the networks are not interested in that kind of programming anymore.”

 

GJ:  “The way they are going today, the networks are either going to have to come around to doing family-friendly programming, or they’re going to disappear. Or, I suppose, they could become just another niche network, which a lot of them are already, to be honest. CBS is constantly trying to be hipper and younger and edgier, with shows like Swingtown. I watched part of that one night, and not only was the subject matter absolutely disgusting, it was produced horribly. What a piece of junk! (laughs) And CBS knew it. The executives at CBS all said, ‘We stand behind this show! It has a future!’ And then they quietly cancelled it when nobody was paying attention.”

 

PTC: “How did you get involved in working with the PTC?”

 

GJ: “Brent Bozell was a huge supporter of Against the Grain when it was on. He thought the show didn’t get a fair shake -- that NBC was throwing this token family show out there hoping it would fail, so that that would ‘prove’ that nobody wants family shows anymore. Brent came out here and met with us in Hollywood, and he asked us, ‘How do you change things?’

 

Dave and I had had some experience with how things worked by then. When NBC cancelled Against the Grain, they got something like 140,000 fan letters demanding to bring it back and keep it on the air, which at that time was unprecedented.  So Dave and I learned about the business end of things. Brent said, ‘Clearly, Hollywood is not interested in changing. In your opinion, how do you change things?’ And we said, ‘For television, you have to go to the advertisers. Half of them probably don’t know what they’re supporting.’ And I think, partially, out of that was laid the groundwork for the Parents Television Council. We’ve been on the Advisory Board since Day One, both Dave and I. And that’s the approach that PTC has taken, and has proven to be hugely successful. And it is the most effective method.  

 

Some organizations advocate boycotting advertisers. Well, that probably works in some instances. But most of the time it’s more effective to bring your concerns to the advertiser’s attention. If you boycott, you’re telling the advertiser, ‘I’m not buying your product.’ Well, if you’re not going to buy their product anyway, what incentive do they have to change? They’ve already lost you as a customer, so they might as well write you off. But if you contact them and tell them why you’re unhappy, there’s a much better chance they’ll change their behavior, because they want to keep you as a customer!  And in a lot of cases, the management has no idea what they’re sponsoring. They have some buyer in their marketing department purchasing advertising, and the executives probably don’t even know what kind of shows their company is sponsoring. These CEOs don’t sit home and watch TV, for the most part.”

 

Beginning September 28th, Doc and Sue Thomas will be shown on Gospel Music Channel as follows:

  • Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye: weekdays at 4 PM and 7 PM Eastern, (3 and 6 Central / 2 and 5 Mountain / 1 and 4 Pacific)

  • Doc: weekdays at 5 PM and 8 PM Eastern (4 and 7 Central / 3 and 6 Mountain / 2 and 5 Pacific)

 

  SPECIAL SPONSORS OF THE PTC:

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