As a child in Benton, Ill., Lin Bolen was a baton-twirling champion and radio soap-opera addict. Today, at 33, she is vice-president for all daytime programming at NBC-TV. In her meteoric rise to become broadcasting’s top woman executive, Ms. Bolen has created more than 30 variety and dramatic projects and produced two Emmy Award-winning documentaries. Daytime TV, which appeals mostly to women and is directed toward them, was for years run by men—and still is at the other two networks. Now that a woman is finally in charge at NBC, the network has been grabbing off its best ratings. Sally Moore of PEOPLE asked Lin Bolen about her unique role.
Who watches daytime TV?
NBC’s total daytime audience is 42 million, about half the prime-time audience, and 90% of them are women. There are three different kinds of viewers—older housewives with school-age children, the over-49 group, some of whom are shut-ins and, most important, the very young mother. She has 2.5 children, preschoolers, and may well have as much as a year of college. She doesn’t have a career. She isn’t a part-time worker. Every afternoon she needs a diversion, and that diversion is the daytime television serial. It’s a way for her to escape into the lives of other people who are not that different than she is.
What about critics and educators who claim the standards of daytime television are too low?
They don’t really understand daytime. They are unknowing people. They tune in occasionally, take the lowest common denominator in the drama, and then criticize. I think daytime is very positive.
Do you feel any obligation to raise the standards of your viewers?
That’s not a primary goal, that’s a secondary one. I don’t think daytime should be an educational tool, that’s not my job or responsibility. Our viewers don’t want us to do that. If we try to elevate them too much, they won’t watch.
Have you tried?
Yes, and unsuccessfully. We’ve had different formats: talk shows, matinee theater. Messages turn people off. We program to the masses. Every other form has failed with the exception of game shows and serials. An informative show like Not for Women Only can’t find one specific national time period. It can’t be sustained.
Do different people identify with different daytime shows?
Yes. The women who watch us, for the most part, are the younger, more contemporary ladies, simply because our serials are younger than the other networks. Our research indicates that CBS’s serials attract the older audiences. What we are trying to do in our whole serial block is to show every woman out there, in a dramatic sense, the alternatives she has for her life.
What kind of research do you conduct on your own shows?
I spend a great deal of time in small groups that are brought together by outside research organizations. We show women an episode of their favorite serial, then we talk about the characters, plot outlines, story lines. They remember incredible things about the characters. It’s very eye-opening for the head writer on a show to stand in a room with viewers and listen to them rehash all that show’s plots for the last five years.
Hasn’t this been done before?
Not to the extent that I have done it, because I’ve literally sat and talked with hundreds of women. I constantly want to be in touch with the women who are watching me. It is not necessary for me to know what the women who are not watching me think, because those women are basically not television viewers.
What kind of things do your viewers want to see? What kind of characters?
The new program that I premiered recently called How to Survive a Marriage is a good example. It will take a while to watch it build and find out whether or not it makes sense. It’s a very difficult program to execute because it’s different. We tell the story very quickly, we don’t lay out the situation in the beginning of the week and talk about it for the next four days as most shows do. It’s a story about marriage. The women are interested in marriage because most of them are married and want desperately to make that institution work for them.
Why did you say this was a difficult program to do?
Women do not like the word divorce, and yet one out of every three marriages in this country ends in a divorce. I took a character that they could understand: a woman who had been married for twelve years, who had a daughter, and whose husband decided he didn’t want to be married to her anymore. She had been a very dependent, passive lady who had done everything she could to please him and had very little sense of self. We had her move out of the house, look for a job, start to deal with the man who rejected her, start to date and learn how to deal with her emotions. The women watching this program are very young.
Who watches game shows?
That audience is primarily older women and retired people. We try to have good hard questions and answers, shows which people can tune in and feel that they are learning something, as well as competing.
In addition to serials and game shows, does the FCC require public service broadcasting in daytime?
Not specifically. But we do it throughout the schedule. The entire network is required to set aside a certain amount of time. I consider the upcoming daytime Emmy Awards, a 90-minute special, to be a change. Often public service programming can be damaging; during the Watergate hearings daytime programming really suffered. The hearings had a devastating effect on a new game show I was trying out called Baffle, which was preempted for months. It never recovered.
Why is there so much sameness about daytime TV?
Because there’s a lot of sameness about life. Outstanding people can’t dominate our dramatic programming because they really don’t dominate life. Those who criticize don’t realize how difficult it is to program five days a week, for endless years, recreating every role in contemporary America.
What kinds of new shows do you have in development?
We are developing some other serials. I love the serial form; it has great potential in daytime television. And it’s a marvelous way to tell a story.
Is your feminist influence resented by other members of the staff?
Not at all. As a matter of fact, the prototype for one of the new characters which was added to Return to Peyton Place was me. She was D.B. Bentley, a female corporation executive, and the head writer took dialogue right out of my mouth about women and women’s achievements and put it into the mouth of the character. I was shocked when I heard a business associate say to Bentley, “I didn’t know you were going to be so attractive when we met—we should have met sooner,” and she replied, “If you ever say anything like that again during business hours, we won’t be doing business together ever again!”
Daytime TV generally has dealt with themes like abortion and adultery before prime time. Why?
Because only women are watching, and women like to hear about sex when they are alone, with nobody else around. Women often say to me, “It’s my day, it’s my program, and I can watch anything I want.” In the evening, with their husbands sitting next to them, women get embarrassed. They feel they should react adversely because their husbands are there.
Don’t women ever object to these daytime themes?
We had a nude love scene in the premiere 90-minute drama on How to Survive a Marriage. It was the first nude bedroom scene in the history of daytime television, and we got a great deal of criticism both from affiliate stations and from women who were uptight because their children saw it. My feeling was that it was necessary to tell the story of a marriage breaking apart both in the living room and in the bedroom. I’m glad we did it, and I’d do it again.