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Playing Doctor

Television, Storytelling, and Medical Power

Joseph Turow

Publication Year: 2010

Playing Doctor is an engaging and highly perceptive history of the medical TV series from its inception to the present day. Turow offers an inside look at the creation of iconic doctor shows as well as a detailed history of the programs, an analysis of changing public perceptions of doctors and medicine, and an insightful commentary on how medical dramas have both exploited and shaped these perceptions. Originally published in 1989 and drawing on extensive interviews with creators, directors, and producers, Playing Doctor immediately became a classic in the field of communications studies. This expanded edition includes a new introduction placing the book in the contemporary context of the health care crisis, as well as new chapters covering the intervening twenty years of television programming. Turow draws on recent research and interviews with principals in contemporary television doctor shows such as ER, Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scrubs to illuminate the extraordinary ongoing cultural influence of medical shows. Playing Doctor situates the television vision of medicine as a limitless high-tech resource against the realities underlying the health care debate, both yesterday and today. Joseph Turow is Robert Lewis Shayon Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. He was named a Distinguished Scholar by the by the National Communication Association and a Fellow of the International Communication Association in 2010. He has authored eight books, edited five, and written more than 100 articles on mass media industries. He has also produced a DVD titled Prime Time Doctors: Why Should You Care? which has been distributed to all first-year medical students with the support of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page

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pp. xi

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pp. 1-17

Doctor shows - series with physicians as central characters - continue to pepper television. During early 2009, the ABC television network devoted almost its entire Thursday prime-time (evening) lineup to series with physicians: the half-hour comedy Scrubs and the hour-long dramas Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice. ...

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1. "Internes Can't Take Money"

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pp. 18-43

The story about the 1936 film's conception is only partly true, exaggerated by the Paramount Pictures publicity department to titillate the public's romantic inclinations. The publicists were right about one thing, though: Here was a man in white who would go down in history. For Internes Can't Take Money was the ...

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2. "No Compromise with Truth"

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pp. 44-68

When James Moser, the creator of Medic, finally got the show on the air in 1954, it was clear to all who cared that the future of the medical drama on television was at a crossroads. Medic wasn't TV's first doctor show, but it was the first hit prime-time program about a physician. More important, the program was pivotal ...

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3. The Gentleman and the Bull

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pp. 69-94

These unfriendly words were among the first spoken on TV by Ben Casey, a nasty neurosurgeon who is Topic A in show business these days. The character has become such an entity in its own right that many viewers forget that Casey is a piece of fiction played by a relatively unknown actor named Vincent Edwards. ...

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4. "Oh . . . Doctor!"

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pp. 95-109

Press coverage of Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey reached avalanche proportions. Magazines and newspapers claimed to reflect the excitement that millions of Americans seemed to be feeling as both shows rocketed toward the top of the rating charts. But the press clearly did more than act as a mirror. It explained and channeled ...

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5. Witchcraft

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pp. 110-125

In the late 1950s, when producer Norman Felton told the higher-ups at Metro Goldwyn Mayer that he wanted to do a television series on psychiatry, he got nowhere. They knew that the psychiatric profession had been depicted in theatrical films from Spellbound to Lolita. But they were convinced that a weekly series on the subject ...

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6. Narrowed Options

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pp. 126-143

Wanting to build an entire series around nursing was considered a brash idea in the early 1960s. Previously, the only series to center on nurses had been Janet Dean, R.N., in 1954. Starring Ella Raines as a private-duty nurse in her thirties, the program had not been carried by a network. Rather, it had been syndicated to stations ...

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7. Doctor Knows Best

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pp. 144-174

Sid Sheinberg was gambling the whole wad, David Victor knew. It had come down to a little projection room at Universal Studios. The group was small but powerful: Sheinberg was head of Universal’s TV operation; Grant Tinker, previously with NBC, was a prominent Universal executive; Marty Starger was programming ...


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8. Long Hair, High Tech, and Mod

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pp. 175-204

Glicksman's eye was not peering at the increasing number of woman physicians who were beginning to swing through medical school doors. Instead, his interest was in the way that anti-establishment styles of the younger generation were making their way into the hospital scene. "One reason we did [an episode] with ...

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9. Sexism, Stiffs, and Speed

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pp. 205-231

It was one of Norman Felton's more painful joustings with network censors. He was working at Universal Studios on the pilot movie for his 1971 - 72 TV series, The Psychiatrist. The film was called God Bless the Children, and it dealt with widespread teenage drug addiction in a small town. Dr. James Whitman, the title character, ...

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10. A Different Spin

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pp. 232-247

The movie marked the start of Medical Story, an anthology series which in its Thursday 10 p.m. time slot on NBC would skewer many of the comfortable assumptions that had driven TV's images of medicine over the past decades. Medical Story's creators still used the hospital-based world of acute care, ...

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11. "Suicide Is Painless"

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pp. 248-271

Larry Gelbart was in London at the turn of the 1970s when Gene Reynolds asked if he would write the pilot for a TV version of M*A*S*H. From the standpoint of Reynolds's employer, Twentieth Century-Fox Television, there was some urgency to the matter. M*A*S*H had done terrifically well as a theatrical film, ...

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12. Chasing the Spirit of M*A*S*H

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pp. 272-290

Washington Post TV columnist William Henry noted in the late 1970s that executives of all three networks consistently ranked M*A*S*H with All in the Family as the most respected and craftsmanlike series on the air. They also considered it the most inexplicably successful one, Henry added. That is because ...

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13. "Our Walls Are Cleaner"

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pp. 291-330

Trapper John, M.D., which began on CBS in 1979, and St. Elsewhere, which made its debut on NBC in 1982, were the most successful doctor shows to come after the cauldron of medical comedies and dramas that aired on the home tube during the 1970s. The aims of the shows' creators were so different, ...

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14. Splinters of ER

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pp. 331-358

ER had a difficult time making it to air. "Every network had passed on it, twice," remembered John Wells, who was the series' executive producer when it finally did appear on NBC in 1994. The reason for the reluctance, he told New York Times writer Bill Carter in 2009, was that its creator, the writer and physician ...

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15. "We Just Treat 'Em"

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pp. 359-398

In 1995, around the time that the Clinton Health Care Initiative went down in flames, bioethicist George Annas wrote an essay about ER and Chicago Hope in the Hastings Center Report, a bioethics journal. Annas presented an analysis of the series that was sensitive to the complexity of realism as a concept ...

Time Line: Prime-Time Network Doctor Series

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pp. 399-402


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pp. 403-426


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pp. 427-440


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pp. 441-451

E-ISBN-13: 9780472027576
E-ISBN-10: 0472027573
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472034277
Print-ISBN-10: 0472034278

Page Count: 472
Illustrations: 16 images
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: New and expanded edition